Political Association: America’s Forgotten Tradition

 Michael Jensen (University of Canberra) & Henrik Bang (University of Canberra)
5 July 2016, 12:00h, Seminar B

This election cycle has seen a lot of attention to populism in American politics. Commentary by pundits (Baggini 2016; Eiermann 2016), scholars (Bonikowski and Gidron 2016a; Kazin 2016; Mair 2013; Norris 2016), and public intellectuals (Sandel 2016) have pointed to a rising tide of populism in the US and globally which has played a significant role in the campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Populism has a long history in American politics going back to the Anti-Federalists who opposed what was seen as the Federalists’ aristocratic agenda (Cornell 2012). In this election cycle, the level of disaffection and anger directed at the political system has reached a critical point. But populism is not the only alternative. Tocqueville observed a significantly stronger tendency in American politics towards the ubiquitous formation of political associations addressed to common concerns (Tocqueville 2010). This tradition is not limited to Tocqueville’s observations as it formed the essence of the political community for Aristotle (Bang 2016). And Tocqueville is not the only author to elaborate the importance of political associations in democratic life. However, this tradition has become lost over time within both popular discourse of American democracy and within the study of political science.
Despite some similarities in policy platforms, Trump and Sanders represent significantly different approaches to the decoupling between citizens and political authorities. These differences are indicated by their respective campaign slogans: “Make America great again” and “a future to believe in.” Whereas Trump’s campaign is predicated on rescuing the purity of the homogeneous body of “the people” from “illegal aliens” and “crooked elites” (Torre 2015, 1), Sanders views his campaign as a vehicle to imagine and construct a future achieved together. While Trump’s campaign is thoroughly populist, Sanders’s campaign draws upon that spirit of political association to reconnect citizens and authorities which Tocqueville took to define the American people. How the turn to political associations differs from populism and how political science has lost sight of this tradition we investigate in this paper through an exploration of the Trump and Sanders campaigns.