Large “sociological exercise”: nearly 1 in 6 global residents to vote in India’s elections

While Americans may think our country does things on a large scale, nothing quite matches the “sociological exercise” of democracy in India:

The world’s largest democracy is bracing itself for the most anticipated event every 5 years. To keep things in perspective, almost 1 in 6 on earth would be voting this April-May 2014. More than the election extravaganza, this is the world’s largest sociological exercise; an exercise that places everything else outside and puts the Indian at heart and mind while casting the ballot. As much as the focus on this has been the youth, there is a particular section of society which is slightly undermined yet equally important; the Indian women.

India has over 1.2 billion people while the US has over 310 million. While the American Revolution led to a new kind of country and government sometimes referred to as the American experiment (attributed to de Toqueville), this is quite different than developing a modern government and economy for so many people.

I sometimes think part of the current issues in the United States simply have to do with our relatively large population. Coming to a consensus among so many groups and interests is difficult. In comparison, other industrialized nations have smaller populations and are often more homogeneous. But, these issues are multiplied in India with even more interests.

View from foreign observers: American voting system heavily reliant on trust

Foreign observers watching the voting process in the United States suggested it is a system that involves a lot of trust:

“It’s an incredible system,” said Nuri K. Elabbar, who traveled to the United States along with election officials from more than 60 countries to observe today’s presidential elections as part of a program run by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES). Your humble Cable guy visited polling places with some of the international officials this morning. Most of them agreed that in their countries, such an open voting system simply would not work.

“It’s very difficult to transfer this system as it is to any other country. This system is built according to trust and this trust needs a lot of procedures and a lot of education for other countries to adopt it,” Elabbar said.

The most often noted difference between American elections among the visitors was that in most U.S. states, voters need no identification. Voters can also vote by mail, sometimes online, and there’s often no way to know if one person has voted several times under different names, unlike in some Arab countries, where voters ink their fingers when casting their ballots.

The international visitors also noted that there’s no police at U.S. polling stations. In foreign countries, police at polling places are viewed as signs of security; in the United States they are sometimes seen as intimidating.

It can be helpful to get outside perspectives on what takes place in the United States. Two thoughts based on these observations:

1. How long will this trust last? There was a lot of chatter online yesterday about voting irregularities. Do the two parties and Americans in general trust each other to handle voting? This reminds me of the oft-quoted de Toqueville who wrote in Democracy in America that Americans were more prone to join civic and political groups. The United States was born in the Enlightenment era where old ways of governing, church and tradition (meaning: monarchies), were overthrown and citizens turned to each other and a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” (Lincoln in the Gettsyburg Address). Of course, we can contrast this with Robert Putnam’s work in Bowling Alone which suggested Americans have retreated from the civic and social realm in recent decades. Plus, confidence in American institutions has declined in recent decades.

2. Trying to implement an American-style voting and government system in countries that don’t have the same history and culture is a difficult and lengthy task. In other words, this sort of system and trust doesn’t just develop overnight or in a few years. Voting systems are culturally informed. This should help shape our foreign policy.

Ninety percent of Americans still say “homeownership is part of the American dream”

Commentators may be touting the virtues of renting but according to a recent poll from the Woodrow Wilson Center, a clear majority of Americans still think homeownership is a worthwhile goal:

Voters personally put very high importance on homeownership. When asked to indicate on a scale of zero to ten where zero means homeownership is not at all important and ten means it is extremely important, voters rate the importance of homeownership as a mean score of 8.597.

-Fully 62% of all voters rated homeownership as a ten out of ten. Those most likely to indicate homeownership is extremely important are voters in states with lower unemployment rates as well as rural (71%) and urban (67%) areas.

-Importance placed on homeownership increases with age where just 53% of 18-44 years old indicate it is extremely important but 64% of those 45-64 and 72% of those over 65 years old would rate it as a ten out of ten…

When asked to consider the importance of homeownership compared to five years ago, one-third of voters feel homeownership is more important (33%) and 51% feel it is just as important. Only 12% of voters say homeownership is less important than it was five years ago…

A majority (54%) of voters believe that “increasing homeownership should be a national priority.” By comparison, voters universally (90%) believe that “homeownership is part of the American Dream.”

Considering some of what I have read in recent years, this is overwhelming support for homeownership. The economy may be bad, foreclosures may be more common, some 15 million homes have underwater mortgages, and homeownership rates are trending down, but it will take a long time before Americans give up the dream of homeownership. It is interesting to note in the figures above that younger American adults see homeownership as less important. It is also interesting to note that there are more mixed opinions about how much the government should be involved with the mortgage industry or promoting homeownership.

This is based on telephone interviews with 1,000 “registered ‘likely’ voters.”

A NPR story on these poll results suggests the dream of homeownership runs deep in American history:

The term “American dream” became popular in the 1930s, says Bob Shiller, a housing economist at Yale. “But I associate it with the suburban movement that developed after World War II,” he says…

The American tradition of actively encouraging home- or farm ownership dates back even further, he says.

“That was the real American dream — [owning] your own farm. So we had the Homestead Act in the 1860s that made it possible for anyone with modest means to buy a farm,” he says.

Still earlier, the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville noted the importance of homeownership in his book Democracy in America, published in the 1830s and based on his travels around the country.

“He noticed the independent streak of Americans and their desire to own their own farm and their own home,” Shiller says. “He thought that that represented a kind of anti-feudal feeling — that each person in this country is an independent agent. There is no landlord or lord with his thumb on you.”

History doesn’t change overnight though feelings about homeownership could change within a generation or two.

The beginnings of the word “individualism” in de Toqueville’s Democracy in America

Americans are often described as individualists. Where exactly did this term come from? It can be partly attributed to a famous work by French observer Alexis de Toqueville.

It is interesting to note that the word “individualist” wasn’t part of the vocabulary of the first colonists or even the revolutionaries. It is a 19th Century word, likely first used out of necessity by the translators of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America — an almost sociological work based on the author’s visit to America during the 1830s.

On the matter of American individualism de Tocqueville wrote: “There are more and more people who… have gained enough wealth and understanding to look after their own needs. Such folk owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody. They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine that their destiny is in their hands. … Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone and there is danger that he might be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.”

Importantly, de Tocqueville saw several social forces that worked against the isolation of individualism and the danger of being locked in solitary: the family, the church and a set of civic virtues fostered, he believed, by American mothers. Whether or not we agree with this particular formulation, we might agree on a more general point. In discussions of American individualism, it is important to treat it as part of a balanced pair — often, yoked in a tense arrangement with one side headed for individual isolation and the other toward full immersion in a community. As long as the forces are fairly equal, the arrangement stays centered…

Three hundred years later, Herbert Hoover coined the now famous phrase “rugged individualist.” But he, too, saw a natural constraining partner for his American creation — the right of others to exercise opportunities arising from their own individuality.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists a translation of de Toqueville’s work, Democracy in America, as the second use of the term “individualism.” I wonder if this is an accurate translation of de Toqueville – what exactly did he intend to say?

Just because the word came along in the 1830s doesn’t mean that Americans were not individualists prior to this use. At the same time, could we argue that Americans have increasingly adopted this label and tried to live up to it? As labeling theory might suggest, Americans have acted in accordance with expectations and perhaps this has even become easier because of the country’s burgeoning wealth and power after World War II.

But as this commentator suggests, the individualism is often limited by ever-present ties to the larger community. We complain about taxes but don’t want the services paid for by taxes to disappear. De Toqueville’s work is partly famous because he also talks about the propensity of Americans to volunteer for organizations, a zeal that surprises him. But then we have more recent works like Bowling Alone that suggest Americans have largely lost this zeal, withdrawing into more personal networks and generally retreating from public life. Are we at the individualistic end of the pendulum swing now and will we soon swing back to a middle ground?

A call to return to studying the American character

A historian argues that we need more current research and writing about the American character:

Does America have a distinctive national character? Up until the 1960s, this was a question of great interest to historians. But then, according to historian David Kennedy, it dropped off the map, to be taken up only sporadically by sociologists and political scientists. Writing in the Boston Review, Kennedy argues that historians need to take the question back.

Kennedy is a Professor of History, Emeritus at Stanford, and as he sees it historians are in a unique position to write on the subject of the American character. Over the last half century, they’ve put together an extraordinarily diverse set of very specific American histories, bringing once-marginalized groups into historical focus; in doing this, they stepped away from sweeping questions, becoming “a guild of splitters, not joiners.” Now, Kennedy argues, it’s time to start drawing on “the large but disarticulated library of social history that has emerged in the last few decades.”..

Kennedy singles out for particular praise Claude Fischer’s Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character. Fischer is a sociologist at Berkeley, but a sociologist who takes a historical approach, focusing, Kennedy writes, on “processes … trends and developments and differences over time – all matters lying squarely within the historian’s province.”

Fischer’s conclusion (according to Kennedy) is that it’s defined by voluntarism is at the core of the American character. Voluntarism has two aspects. On the one hand, it means thinking of yourself as an individual equipped with a (voluntary) will – as someone who’s entitled to pursue your own happiness. On the other hand, it means recognizing that, in Fischer’s words, “individuals succeed through fellowship – not in egoistic isolation but in sustaining, voluntary communities.” It’s because of these two aspects of voluntarism that we have an affinity for both the exclusive and the inclusive – for gated communities as well as religious diversity, for casual manners as well as social climbing. This can’t be the final answer, of course – Kennedy hopes that it’s only the first salvo in an epic exchange of fire among historians.

This is an interesting argument that might lead to some fruitful discussion. I feel that there is some discussion of this among academics: Americans of recent decades are often said to be marked by individualism, consumerism, materialism, and greed. And in order to understand something like voluntarism (or other traits), we would need to compare these behaviors and beliefs to those of other nations with similar or different historical trajectories.

Speaking of voluntarism, this has some basis in one of the key texts regarding the American character. Though it is now quite dated (over 160 years old), Democracy in America by Alexis de Toqueville is frequently cited in both popular and academic discourse. de Toqueville suggested one way Americans were distinct was their propensity to form voluntary associations. (I also wonder if this is one of those key academic works that many cite or reference but few have read all the way through.)

Kennedy also is suggesting that we need more overarching research on America and its social patterns. This is not necessarily easy: academics who engage in this sort of sweeping work could be open to criticism from many sides.

And it is also interesting to note that Kennedy singles out the work of a sociologist as the sort of work that he would like to see done regarding the American character.