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Alexis de Tocqueville’s Relevance Today

Most of you won’t believe this, but I’ve actually gotten several requests to say more about Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, rightly called the best book ever written on America and on democracy. This two-volume study, written by a French aristocrat on the basis of his journey to our country, has the strange feature of being much more true today than when it was written.  So here’s more on Tocqueville and INDIVIDUALISM–a big downside of being democratic.  I’ll save the many upsides for another post.

Tocqueville called the effect of democracy on the heart individualism—by which he meant apathetic withdrawal from larger communities into a narrow circle of friends and family.  Democracy–or devotion to the equal significance of everyone–undermines the particular attachments that hold together family members, members of a particular class, citizens, and even creatures.

We democrats believe that love sucks, because it turns us into suckers. Our intention, to enhance our safety and secure our rights, is to have all our connections with other persons be governed by calculation and consent. Otherwise, we’ll surrender to their rule of others, be subject to their control. The American democrat brags, with his moral doctrine of self-interest rightly understood, that he is so emotionally free that he never allows his heart to trump his mind or clear calculation about his interests. Have you noticed that Americans think and talk like such libertarians more than ever these days?

We democrats resist losing ourselves or thinking of ourselves of parts of personal wholes—of families, friendships, countries, personal religions, and so forth. And we certainly, in the name of freedom and equality, refuse to submit to personal authority—to politicians, priests, poets, philosophers, professors, and so forth. For us, there’s no difference between authority and authoritarianism.

The danger, Tocqueville thought, was that our personal isolation would make us too anxious and lonely. Our assertion of freedom is based on the good news that no one is better than ME. But the corresponding bad news is that I’m no better than anyone else. So I have no point of view that trumps the pressures from the huge impersonal forces that surround me.

In my flight from personal authority I end up submitting to impersonal forces—to public opinion (which comes from no one in particular), to popular science (promulgated by people who begin sentences not with “I think” but “studies show”), to technology, and to History. There’s no denying, as Tocqueville says, that impersonal forces explain more and more—and personal choice less and less—about what happens in democratic times.  Have you noticed that–despite all that talk about being creative–people are more conformist and fashion-conscious than ever these days?  And I can’t count the number of experts who’ve noticed that, increasingly, technology owns us, and not the other way around.  Pop scientific experts, of course, have become our self-help gurus (many of them showing up, of course, on BIG THINK)–replacing, for example, the wisdom of our elders and men of the cloth. 

Apathetic withdrawal leads to self-surrender. The culmination of self-surrender, Tocqueville feared, would be schoolmarmish, soft administrative despotism, to a providential authority that would take the burden of our personal futures—of being beings totally on our own in a hostile environment—off our hands. So insofar as we can say that being human is all about being personally responsible for one’s own destiny, the culmination of individualism is a kind of lapse into apathetic subhumanity.  Surely you have to admit that the various features of the “nanny state” are most attractive to the most isolated or lonely Americans–single parents, old folks cut off from their families, the competely dispossessed poor, and so forth. 

For me, good news is that Tocqueville underestimated how radically individualistic apathetic withdrawal would be. And so he didn’t understand that individualism would make soft despotism unsustainable over the long term. The future of human liberty is not as threatened by democratic excesses as he sometimes feared.

Tocqueville thought that the self-centered individual would lose all concern with past and future. But he didn’t think he would actually stop thinking of himself as a being to be replaced. The American man he described is very unerotic and not much of a family guy, but he still manages to have a wife and kids. Their constant presence in his little house manages to arouse some real love in him. Tocqueville assumed that we’d remain social enough to be parents and children. His worry was the disappearance of active citizens, not the disappearance of children.

But maybe the biggest issue concerning the sustainability of liberal democracies today has to with people becoming so emotionally withdrawn or so self-centered that they quite consciously refuse to think of themselves as beings to be replaced. As Tocqueville would have appreciated, demographic sustainability is not THAT big an issue in our country yet because of the social, Darwinian behavior of our observant (and often Darwin-denying) religious believers. But in most places in the West (and Japan etc.) we can see that people, on average, are living longer and longer and having fewer and fewer children.  There’s a birth dearth;  people aren’t being replaced in adequate numbers, and society is aging in a rather depressing way (if you think about it). 

From an individual point of view, what we have here is good news. It’s good to live a long time: At the turn of the 20th century, the average American lived until about 49, now that number is about 80. We have a new birth of freedom in a post-reproductive and for women pos-tmenopausal generation that evolutionary theorists have a hard time explaining. And of course for individuals it’s good that various contraceptive inventions have made us so pro-choice when it comes to being tied down by children. But what’s good for the individual might be bad for the species or bad for the country or too not according to nature. Let’s face it, safe sex–or bourgeois sex–just can’t be all that erotic, and we envy the other, more natural species who don’t know about it.

Our democracy, as Tocqueville predicted, is suffering from “heart disease,” and its future is in doubt.  But the future of human liberty not so much.  We can see that the road to serfdom can’t make it serfdom without fewer expensive and unproductive old people and many more very productive young people than we’re likely to have.  Individuals, in many ways, are more on their own than ever, and they know there’s no government cure for either their moral or economic anxiety.


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