Tocqueville believed that to thrive within democracy, polities require citizens who are highly participatory, who are engaged civically, and who have formed close bonds with one another. From this correlation, he theorizes that civic engagement teaches people to be cooperative, which, in turn, affects the body politic, fostering democracy. Thus, in Tocqueville's view, political/civic participation is not simply the manifestation of the fulfillment of citizenship obligations but is the basis for individual and social improvement.
Tocqueville makes much of the spill-over effects of political participation and social reciprocity. He recognizes that political participation has the capacity to create an active citizenry capable of organizing most spheres of social (and, thus, economic) life. The corollary of this view is that the participatory citizens of this kind of social/commercial system will, of necessity, participate in political life. In his view, there is, at the very least, the potential for a sort of sociopolitical symbiosis.
Tocqueville states that the fundamental condition underlying American democracy is equality; it is the essential fact from which all others seem to be derived. This social equality did not exist in aristocratic Europe. The aristocracy, although declining, still had considerable power. In the aristocracy social and political power was based on name and birth. Nobility, political influence, and wealth could be passed on from one generation to the next. Social classes were fixed, and it was rare for a person to move up in social class. This lack of social equality prevented democracy from taking hold in Europe. In the United States, there was no aristocracy or rigid social classes, instead there was equality (except, of course, if you happened to be a woman or a slave). According to Tocqueville, this equality of conditions served as a guiding principle of American democracy.
Much of the writing in Tocqueville's work documents how the many trends of social and political life-such as the propensity to form associations-stems from the equality of condition as he describes it. He sees participation (specifically, the formation of private associations) as the principal means by which a people might develop personally, intellectually, and, by extension, socially. Tocqueville views the myriad associations formed by Americans as an apt illustration of the idea of individual benefit being consistent with social benefit. Tocqueville observes that, among their participants, associations foster understanding, cooperation, solidarity, and a willingness to take part in political affairs:
Among democratic peoples associations must take the place of the powerful private persons whom equality of conditions has eliminated.
As soon as several Americans have conceived a sentiment or an idea that they want to produce before the world, they seek each other out, and when found, they unite. Thenceforth they are no longer isolated individuals, but a power conspicuous from the distance whose action serve as an example; when it speaks, men listen. (Tocqueville 517)