Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Tocquevillian Farmer’s Market

Civil society can be rebuilt around food, and family, and friends.

Every Saturday morning at the crack of dawn, my mother-in-law wakes up and begins her preparations. She gathers garden-fresh vegetables, eggs, and peppers, packs them all into coolers and bins. Her husband and children pile everything into the car, and they set off, bright and early, for the farmer’s market.

It only takes an hour or so for them to set up their tent and homemade blackboard signs, only a few minutes for the smell of cooking sausage and frying apple doughnuts to permeate the air. Once those smells are wafting about, it takes mere seconds for a string of farmer’s market customers to start lining up for their breakfast.

It’s been a pile of sacrifices for Mark, Becky, and their crew—an early-rising, hardworking family, they formerly used their Saturdays to rest. Morning breakfasts were a relaxed, private, at-home affair. But now, the entire crew is up by 5 or 6 a.m. every Saturday, and spends the whole morning selling breakfasts to their small-town community—and then they spend most of the afternoon re-packing and cleaning everything.

But this Saturday morning venture is more than a business for Becky and the family: as I’ve talked to them about their market breakfasts, what they’re most enthusiastic about is the community they have cultivated. Over the course of the last several months, they have garnered an enthusiastic and loyal customer base. The other vendors at the farmer’s market have become their friends: they promote each others’ work, buy each others’ produce. They build camaraderie with customers, watch for them every week, slowly learn their life stories. The Saturday breakfasts have become more than a business: they are a weekend community ritual.

We often consider ourselves (perhaps appropriately) the most isolated generation in American history—a people whose individualism has been significantly perpetuated by technology and urban detachment. But this isn’t necessarily a modern problem—Alexis de Tocqueville, brilliant 19th-century thinker and author of Democracy in America, believed Americans’ isolated and individualistic demeanor was largely cultivated by democracy itself:

Amongst democratic nations new families are constantly springing up, others are constantly falling away, and all that remain change their condition; the woof of time is every instant broken, and the track of generations effaced. … Aristocracy had made a chain of all the members of the community, from the peasant to the king: democracy breaks that chain, and severs every link of it. As social conditions become more equal, the number of persons increases who, although they are neither rich enough nor powerful enough to exercise any great influence over their fellow-creatures, have nevertheless acquired or retained sufficient education and fortune to satisfy their own wants. They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands. Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants, and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone, and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.

What solution did Tocqueville propose to this isolation? “The Americans have combated by free institutions the tendency of equality to keep men asunder, and they have subdued it,” he wrote. It was the free institutions—the “little platoons”—that encouraged people to congregate, serve, and steward. They kept community alive. “…To earn the love and respect of the population which surrounds you, a long succession of little services rendered and of obscure good deeds—a constant habit of kindness, and an established reputation for disinterestedness—will be required,” Tocqueville said. “Local freedom, then, which leads a great number of citizens to value the affection of their neighbors and of their kindred, perpetually brings men together, and forces them to help one another, in spite of the propensities which sever them.”

Today’s traditional private associations are not as strong as they once were. The church, for instance, has seen attendance steadily decline over the past couple decades, especially amongst young people. People may attend town meetings and political rallies sporadically, but most often display a partisanship that thwarts holistic community flourishing. A few may volunteer at a local shelter or help with a civic cause—but sadly, even these organizations have grown increasingly partisan and schismatic with time.

So where do we congregate? How can we gather across party lines, in a way that helps us flourish as a community? How can we rebuild the “severed chain”? There probably isn’t one perfect answer—there are a variety of associations that, hopefully with time, will begin to cultivate a wider array of community attention and support. One hopes that churches will discover new ways to build rapport amongst their communities. Maybe tools like Facebook can actually draw citizens back to town meetings and civic involvement, by connecting them in a way they understand and identify with.

But when I attend the Saturday market—eat my breakfast alongside newfound friends, buy heirloom tomatoes and homemade granola at Becky’s recommendation from other vendors, pet friendly dogs and admire newborn babies—I get a taste of a community that I once thought was fading, something that seemed antiquated and rare in modern society. I wonder whether the private associations of the future may look different from the ones of our past. But that doesn’t mean they’re going extinct—we just have to look for them, nurture them, and even sacrifice our own comforts to keep the rituals alive.