by Jordan Poyner
If you read today’s bestselling books in cultural and social research, you will inevitably come to the conclusion that the modern world is collapsing in on itself. From the deterioration of social capital and civic engagement noted by social scientists such as Robert Putnam and Charles Murray, to the psychological and moral diminishment claimed by Allan Bloom, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Christopher Lasch, there is a pervasive sense of lessening at work in the modern world. These proclamations of emergent dissolution, however, are nothing new. In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville–a French nobleman who traveled extensively in the United States–took note of some apparent paradoxes at the heart of American democracy. We desire at once to be led and to remain free, and though we might love liberty, we will sacrifice it to our passion for an absolute equality. There is ample evidence today of the accuracy of Tocqueville’s vision of a society tending towards mediocrity and selfish individualism. Yet Tocqueville saw democratic society’s predisposition to such negative phenomena as inextricable from its inherent strengths. Contemporary social commentators and pessimistic onlookers would do well to review Tocqueville’s diagnosis–even if the proffered cure is decidedly ambiguous.
According to Tocqueville, democracy was inevitable. Tocqueville saw the ever-increasing equality of conditions as universal and, as noted by Eduardo Nolla, “the direct result of a law of the evolution of intelligence.” The printing press, the Protestant Reformation, and the invention of firearms–these and many other developments spur the world impetuously forwards on the path towards equality. And the political inequality of the preceding ages has similarly impelled modernity towards democracy, which–although not synonymous with equality–emerges as its complementary social state. Yet Tocqueville was careful to note that there are other social states which are compatible with equality: absolute despotism, for one. We can be equal and unfree–universally and equally deprived of certain rights under the tyranny of a singular authority. Liberty and equality may be–to a certain extent–concomitant, but, forced to choose between the two, it is the latter which inspires in men an “undying love” and which they will ultimately select.
By indulging our passion for an absolute equality, we loosen the social ties which bind us to one another. In the tumult of the American Revolution, Tocqueville saw an entire society shaken, the people spurred to action, democratic instincts awakened: “By breaking the yoke of the home country, the people acquired a taste for all kinds of independence. Little by little, individual influences ceased to make themselves felt; habits as well as laws began to march in unison toward the same end.” But the necessity of such habits has become increasingly obtuse. We no longer see ourselves as vital members of an essential, collective task. Voter turnout since 1896 has seen marked decline, support for political parties has dwindled, and the sense of dissatisfaction with our government continues to grow. Young people grow increasingly less interested in politics and, in general, we know less about how our government functions and who is involved in running it. In place of collective passions, there is a general disenfranchisement. It is not enough to say that our government has failed us; the individual has retreated from social engagement.
It is not only the governing body that Americans have lost faith in. Beliefs, mores, and traditions are challenged, undermined, and refuted–all yielding to an increasing social alienation. And while industry and employment may have provided a temporary tether for individuals and families, such bindings have become unmoored. A shifting, globalized world largely operating according to the logics of free markets and technological advances demands that workers move with the available jobs. Furthermore, the pool of possible occupations and careers is shrinking. After individuals are alienated from their government, land, and occupation, patriotism disappears.
As the socially imposed relationships among citizens lose their essential force, the threat to liberty is manifest in a growing tendency towards individualism. Tocqueville described this phenomenon as consisting of “a considered and peaceful sentiment that disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and to withdraw to the side with his family and his friends; so that, after thus creating a small society for his own use, he willingly abandons the large society to itself.” The links in the chain of human society become separate and equal. Tocqueville claimed to see a future populated by:
[…]an innumerable crowd of similar and equal men who spin around restlessly, in order to gain small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each one of them, withdrawn apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others; his children and his particular friends form for him the entire human species; as for the remainder of his fellow citizens he is next to them, but he does not see them; he touches them without feeling them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and if he has a family, you can say at least he no longer has a country.
In this condition the danger of the institution of a novel form of soft despotism looms large. An immense, paternalistic power, fully centralized and seemingly automatic, would “take charge of assuring [each citizen’s] enjoyment and of looking after their fate.” Having enclosed and mitigated the action of the will within a smaller social space, it “little by little steals from each citizen even the use of himself.”
As we contemplate the current state of our democracy, its instability and disaffecting polarities of opinion, it is essential that we resist an inclination to isolate or compartmentalize ourselves. If democracy is still an idea and way of life worth preserving, it is necessarily one which requires a collective, consolidating energy to maintain. Such energy is unsustainable without commitments. And, perhaps paradoxically, a vigorous recognition of our obligations towards others is the best safeguard against tyranny. Without a sense of mutual responsibilities, the terms of our social arrangement will be defined by the state. Though Tocqueville noted that an absolute equality and exaggerated individualism would result in social apathy and alienation, he also claimed that democracy “spreads throughout the social body a restless activity, a superabundant force, an energy that never exists without it and that, if only circumstances are favorable, can bring forth wonders.” If it is still possible for us to be reminded of–and to take seriously–our duties as citizens, neighbors, and friends, then perhaps it is possible to upset the pervasive narrative of American declension.
Jordan Poyner is a recent graduate of Indiana University, where he studied English literature, film theory, art, and anthropology.
- Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America: Volume 1, ed. Eduardo Nolla, trans. James T. Schleifer (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, Inc., 2010), p. 10.
- Ibid., 11-12.
- Ibid., p. 89.
- Ibid., p. 78.
- While there have been many proposed explanations for low voter turnout in the U.S., it is undeniable that, regardless of the reasons for abstention, neither the root causes nor the symptoms have been energetically engaged by the populace en masse. There may be perfectly good reasons beyond apathy for not voting, but even the relative indifference towards those reasons is manifest. History, Art & Archives, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,” last modified April 3, 2009, http://history.house.gov/Institution/Election-Statistics/Election-Statistics/.
- Gallup Poll, “Image of Democratic Party Remains More Positive Than GOP,” November 9-13, 2016, http://www.gallup.com (November 18, 2016), http://www.gallup.com/poll/197825/image-democratic-party-positive-gop.aspx.
- Gallup Poll, “In U.S., 65% Dissatisfied With How Gov’t System Works,” January 5-8, 2014, http://www.gallup.com (January 22, 2014): http://www.gallup.com/poll/166985/dissatisfied-gov-system-works.aspx.
- Pew Research Center Poll, “Millennials & Political News: Social Media — the Local TV for the Next Generation?,” March 9-April 29, 2014, http://www.pewresearch.org (June 2015): http://www.journalism.org/2015/06/01/millennials-political-news/.
- The Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania Poll, “Most Americans do not know which parties control House and Senate,” July 8-14, 2014, http://www.annenbergpublicpolicycenter.org (September 17, 2014): http://www.annenbergpublicpolicycenter.org/americans-know-surprisingly-little-about-their-government-survey-finds/.
- In a letter to Charles Stoffels, Tocqueville foresaw the incipient apathy, doubt, and alienation of the individual: “each man closes up within himself; it is the reign of egoism, convictions are shaken at the same time, for it must be clearly admitted, my dear friend, that not one single intellectual truth is established and the centuries of enlightenment are centuries of doubts and of discussion. […] Enthusiasm there is an attack of high fever […]; the whole world ends up being an insoluble problem for the man who clings to the most tangible objects […].” Tocqueville, Democracy in America: Volume 2, 1370.
- Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. Survey, “More Job Seekers Move for Work: Companies Compelled to Seek Out-of-Towners,” 2014-2016, http://www.challengergray.com (August 2, 2016): https://www.challengergray.com/press/press-releases/more-job-seekers-move-work-companies-compelled-seek-out-towners.
- Kevin D. Williamson, “Help the Poor Move,” National Review, February 13, 2017, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/444841/help-poor-relocate-find-better-jobs-opportunity.
- Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation?,” Technological Forecasting and Social Change 114 (January 2017): 254-280, doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.techfore.2016.08.019.
- “Coming to an office near you: The effect of today’s technology on tomorrow’s jobs will be immense–and no country is ready for it,” The Economist, January 18, 2014, http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21594298-effect-todays-technology-tomorrows-jobs-will-be-immenseand-no-country-ready.
- “The onrushing wave: Previous technological innovation has always delivered more long-run employment, not less. But things can change,” The Economist, January 18, 2014, http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21594264-previous-technological-innovation-has-always-delivered-more-long-run-employment-not-less.
- Gallup Poll, “New Low of 52% ‘Extremely Proud’ to Be Americans,” June 14-23, 2016, http://www.gallup.com (July 1, 2016), http://www.gallup.com/poll/193379/new-low-extremely-proud-americans.aspx.
- Tocqueville, Democracy in America: Volume 2, p. 882.
- Ibid., p. 1249-1250.
- Ibid., p. 1250.
- Ibid., p. 1251.
- Tocqueville, Democracy in America: Volume 1, p. 399.