At Law & Liberty today, I have an essay on that recent Wall Street Journal poll on American values. The poll suggests that Americans are checking out in large numbers. Compared to 25 years ago, many fewer of us today claim that “patriotism,” “community involvement,” even “tolerance” are very important to us.
There are some methodological questions about the poll–including a very low response rate. But the poll tacks with oft-observed trends in American life, especially the decline of civic associations. In my essay, I argue that all this shows that Tocqueville was right in predicting what would happen if America ever lost its mediating institutions:
The shift in values that the Journal survey reflects will not surprise anyone who has read Tocqueville. In Democracy in America, he described the propensity democratic societies have to “individualism,” which he defined as the tendency to detach oneself from the affairs of the wider society. Unlike aristocracies, he argued, which have status hierarchies that naturally encourage deference, democracies accustom each person to think of himself as the equal of everyone else—not only in terms of political citizenship, but moral judgment as well. Because everyone is equal, there is no reason to defer to received wisdom or traditional communal values. In deciding how to live, each person believes he must rely on his own judgment and look out for his own interests. Over time, Tocqueville wrote, this “sentiment disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of those like him and to withdraw to one side with his family and his friends, so that after having thus created a little society for his own use, he willingly abandons society at large to itself.”
Tocqueville believed that the tendency to individualism created the potential for two sorts of tyranny. The first was state oppression. The despotic state desires nothing more than for individual citizens to feel isolated from and indifferent to the concerns of others, so that the state can easily divide and dominate them all. The second was the tyranny of public opinion. Socially isolated individuals are no match for the pressure of majority viewpoints, which, like state oppression, can squelch free thought. Indeed, he observed that egalitarian and individualistic America was, paradoxically, rather conformist: “I do not know of any country, where, in general, less independence of mind and genuine freedom of discussion reign than in America.”
Tocqueville famously argued that the United States overcame the dangers of destructive individualism through voluntary associations, including churches, which encouraged Americans to look beyond themselves and cooperate in common enterprises. They taught habits of fellowship and reciprocity. Importantly, they worked to check the tyranny of the majority by giving people a sense of shared identity beyond citizenship. Collections of like-minded people stand a much better chance than isolated individuals of resisting both state oppression and the pressure of public opinion.
Last week’s poll suggests what happens when mediating institutions weaken and disappear. As Tocqueville predicted, people lose interest in the wider community and focus more and more on their own projects. They “withdraw to one side” and “willingly abandon society at large to itself.” This can help explain why Americans decreasingly value tolerance and increasingly value money. Working in a joint enterprise teaches people to overlook personal differences to achieve a common goal; it trains us to forbear and forgive. Tolerance is unnecessary in a society in which everyone bowls alone. And money allows one to fulfill one’s desires without relying on the cooperation and approval of others.
You can read the whole essay here.