I was happy to chat again last week with Al Kresta of Ave Maria Radio about the recent Wall Street Journal poll showing a decline in interest in community, country, and tolerance–and how the poll shows that Tocqueville was basically correct. A link to the interview is here.
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.
The nineteenth-century French aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville, is perhaps the most perceptive traveler ever to visit the United States. His observations on American culture, law, and politics–including the relationship between church and state–remain instructive today. (One marvels at his keen insights into the relationship between democracy and religion, and his prediction that a society devoted to equality would ultimately fix upon pantheism, which blurs the distinction between God and Creation itself). It turns out that Tocqueville traveled quite a bit outside the US as well. An interesting new book by political philosopher Jeremy Jennings (King’s College London), Travels with Tocqueville Beyond America, recounts these journeys. Here’s the description from the publisher (Harvard University Press):
A revelatory intellectual biography of Tocqueville, told through his wide-ranging travels—most of them, aside from his journey to America, barely known.
It might be the most famous journey in the history of political thought: in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville sailed from France to the United States, spent nine months touring and observing the political culture of the fledgling republic, and produced the classic Democracy in America.
But the United States was just one of the many places documented by the inveterate traveler. Jeremy Jennings follows Tocqueville’s voyages—by sailing ship, stagecoach, horseback, train, and foot—across Europe, North Africa, and of course North America. Along the way, Jennings reveals underappreciated aspects of Tocqueville’s character and sheds new light on the depth and range of his political and cultural commentary.
Despite recurrent ill health and ever-growing political responsibilities, Tocqueville never stopped moving or learning. He wanted to understand what made political communities tick, what elite and popular mores they rested on, and how they were adjusting to rapid social and economic change—the rise of democracy and the Industrial Revolution, to be sure, but also the expansion of empire and the emergence of socialism. He lauded the orderly, Catholic-dominated society of Quebec; presciently diagnosed the boisterous but dangerously chauvinistic politics of Germany; considered England the freest and most unequal place on Earth; deplored the poverty he saw in Ireland; and championed French colonial settlement in Algeria.
Drawing on correspondence, published writings, speeches, and the recollections of contemporaries, Travels with Tocqueville Beyond America is a panoramic combination of biography, history, and political theory that fully reflects the complex, restless mind at its center.
It was a ceremony that made [Tocqueville and Beaumont] want to smile. The trade associations and the militia marched past with an entirely spontaneous gravity and order, then the procession surged into a church where everyone sang verses to the tune of the Marseillaise accompanied by a single flute. The speech made by a lawyer foundered in rhetorical commonplaces. But the reading of the Declaration of Independence gave rise to a unanimous feeling that Tocqueville describes in the following way: “It was as though an electric current moved through the hearts of everyone there. It was in no way a theatrical performance. In this reading of the promises of independence that have been kept so well, in this turning of an entire nation toward the memories of its birth, in this union of the present generation with one that is no longer and with which, for a moment, it shared all those generous feelings, there was something profoundly felt and truly great.”From Andre Jardin, Tocqueville: A Biography (Lydia Davis trans. 1988)
“Heaven in the other world and well-being and freedom in this one”: that’s how Tocqueville described the sum of human desires in Democracy in America. It fascinated him that Americans seemed to combine effortlessly a restless quest for wealth and rock-solid Christian conviction, that they could be at once a commercial and a pious people. Christianity, he thought, operated as a salutary restraint on Americans’ economic drive, if only fitfully.
Princeton University Press has just released a new book that explores Tocqueville’s economic thought, Tocqueville’s Political Economy, by Cornell University sociologist Richard Swedberg. The publisher’s description follows:
Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59) has long been recognized as a major political and social thinker as well as historian, but his writings also contain a wealth of little-known insights into economic life and its connection to the rest of society. In Tocqueville’s Political Economy, Richard Swedberg shows that Tocqueville had a highly original and suggestive approach to economics–one that still has much to teach us today.
Through careful readings of Tocqueville’s two major books and many of his other writings, Swedberg lays bare Tocqueville’s ingenious way of thinking about major economic phenomena. At the center of Democracy in America, Tocqueville produced a magnificent analysis of the emerging entrepreneurial economy that he found during his 1831-32 visit to the United States. More than two decades later, in The Old Regime and the Revolution, Tocqueville made the complementary argument that it was France’s blocked economy and society that led to the Revolution of 1789. In between the publication of these great works, Tocqueville also produced many lesser-known writings on such topics as property, consumption, and moral factors in economic life. When examined together, Swedberg argues, these books and other writings constitute an interesting alternative model of economic thinking, as well as a major contribution to political economy that deserves a place in contemporary discussions about the social effects of economics.
At the First Things site today, I have an essay on the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, in which the Supreme Court granted cert at the end of its term a couple of weeks ago. In the case, a cake shop owner argues that the First Amendment grants him the right to decline to design and bake a cake for a same-sex marriage. I use Masterpiece Cakeshop, and a hypothetical question I posed to my class in law and religion, to explore Tocqueville’s observation that the concept of equality inevitably expands in democratic societies, and to explain how a case in which same-sex marriage is so central may, in fact, have little to do with sexuality:
Conservatives often assume that controversies like Masterpiece Cakeshop reflect changing sexual norms and an intolerance of resistance. That’s correct, in part; one definitely senses a “you-lost-get-over-it” sentiment on the other side. And yet, the students’ reaction to my hypothetical case suggests that something else is going on as well, that the dispute is not about sexuality as such. Rather, it’s about not allowing people to draw moral distinctions that exclude others and hurt their feelings, no matter what the justification. That’s what the florist was doing in my hypothetical case—and that, I think, was what bothered the students.
Tocqueville saw this coming long ago. Democracies, he wrote, prize equality above all other values. Their “passion for equality,” he observed, is “ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible.” It is not simply a matter of assuring every person equal rights under law. Tocqueville believed, in Patrick Deneen’s words, that democracies inevitably seek to do away with “any apparent differences” among people—“material, social, or personal.” No distinctions are to be tolerated. In fact, Tocqueville wrote that democratic societies have an inevitable tendency toward pantheism, since, in the end, even a distinction between Creator and created becomes intolerable.
If I’m right that, in the long run, social intuitions drive the law, and if I’m also right that my students’ reaction reflects something about social intuitions in America today, then litigants like the shop owner in Masterpiece Cakeshop will have an increasingly hard time prevailing in American courts. As the concept of equality inevitably extends further and further, distinctions like the one he is trying to maintain will appear more and more rebarbative. People will fail to empathize at a basic level.
You can read the whole essay here.
In the fall of 2013, Professor Robert Delahunty wrote a wonderful blog series for us about Tocqueville’s view of religion in America (here is the first post). One of the conclusions Robert reached in that series was that Tocqueville believed the Protestantism of early America would eventually change into, first, a type of “natural religion” and, next, what he (Tocqueville) called “pantheism”–a kind of “cosmic egalitarianism” that becomes especially attractive in democratic societies:
Man is obsessed with the idea of unity. He seeks it in every direction; when he believes he has found it, he willingly rests in its arms. Not content with discovering that there is but one creation and one Creator in the world, he is still irritated by this primary division of things and he seeks to expand and simplify his thought by enclosing God and the universe in a single entity. If there is a philosophic system according to which things material and immaterial, visible and invisible within the world are to be considered only as the separate parts of an immense being who alone remains eternal in the continuous shift and constant change of everything which is within it, I shall have no difficulty reaching the conclusion that a similar system, although it destroys human individuality, or rather because it destroys it, will have secret attractions for men who live in a democracy.
Democracy in America, 521.
The eminent political theorist, Michael P. Zuckert, has a wonderful looking new book on Tocqueville’s understanding of religion–specifically focusing, it seems from the description, on church-state matters: The Spirit of Religion and the Spirit of Liberty: The Tocqueville Thesis Revisited. The publisher is University of Chicago Press, and the description is below.
Tocqueville’s thesis on the relation between religion and liberty could hardly be timelier. From events in the Middle East and the spread of Islamist violence in the name of religion to the mandated coverage under the Affordable Care Act, the interaction between religion and politics has once again become central to political life. Tocqueville, facing the coming of a new social and political order within the traditional society that was France, faced this relation between politics and religion with freshness and relevance. He was particularly interested in reporting to his French compatriots on how the Americans had successfully resolved what, to many Frenchmen, looked to be an insuperable conflict. His surprising thesis was that the right kind of arrangement—a certain kind of separation of church and state that was not also a complete separation of religion and politics—could be seen in nineteenth century America to be beneficial to both liberty and religion. This volume investigates whether Tocqueville’s depiction was valid for the America he investigated in the 1830s and whether it remains valid today.
In August, Oxford University Press will release “Tocqueville, Democracy, and Religion: Checks and Balances for Democratic Souls” by Alan S. Kahan (University of Versailles/St. Quentin-en-Yvelines). The publisher’s description follows:
The relationship between democracy and religion is as important today as it was in Alexis de Tocqueville’s time. Tocqueville, Democracy, and Religion is a ground-breaking study of the views of the greatest theorist of democracy writing about one of today’s most crucial problems. Alan S. Kahan, one of today’s foremost Tocqueville scholars, shows how Tocqueville’s analysis of religion is simultaneously deeply rooted in his thoughts on nineteenth-century France and America and pertinent to us today.
Tocqueville thought that the role of religion was to provide checks and balances for democracy in the spiritual realm, just as secular forces should provide them in the political realm. He believed that in the long run secular checks and balances were dependent on the success of spiritual ones. Kahan examines how Tocqueville thought religion had succeeded in checking and balancing democracy in America, and failed in France, as well as observing Tocqueville’s less well-known analyses of religion in Ireland and England, and his perspective on Islam and Hinduism. He shows how Tocqueville’s ‘post-secular’ account of religion can help us come to terms with religion today.
More than a study of Tocqueville on religion in democratic society, this volume offers us a re-interpretation of Tocqueville as a moralist and a student of human nature in democratic society; a thinker whose new political science was in the service of a new moral science aimed at encouraging democratic people to attain greatness as human beings. Tocqueville, Democracy, and Religion gives us a new Tocqueville for the twenty-first century.
A growing number of legal scholars question whether a justification exists for protecting religion as its own category. Yes, the text of the First Amendment refers specifically to religion, they concede, but that’s an anachronism. As a matter of principle, religion as such doesn’t merit legal protection. Instead, the law should protect individual conscience, or private associations generally. In fact, it’s not just scholars. In the ministerial exception case a couple of years ago, the Obama Administration argued that the Religion Clauses did not even apply and that the Court should decide the case under more general associational freedom principles.
The Justices unanimously dismissed the Obama Administration’s argument in Hosanna-Tabor, and there seems little chance the Roberts Court will read the Religion Clauses out of the Constitution. But history shows that constitutional text is not an insurmountable barrier, and those of us who think religion as such does merit special protection will need to find arguments beyond the bare language of the First Amendment. In fact, in an increasingly non-religious society, we’ll have to find arguments that appeal to people without traditional religious commitments.
Here’s one such argument. Religion, especially communal religion, provides important benefits for everyone in the liberal state–even the non-religious. Religion encourages people to associate with and feel responsible for others, to engage with them in common endeavors. Religion promotes altruism and neighborliness and mitigates social isolation. Religion counteracts the tendencies to apathy and self-centeredness that liberalism seems inevitably to create.
Tocqueville saw this in the 19th century. Egalitarian democracy, he wrote, encourages a kind of “individualism.” It trains each citizen to look out for himself according to his own best judgment and discount the needs of the wider society. Self-reliance is a good thing; at least Americans have long though so. But the attitude poses two great dangers for liberal society. First, it makes it difficult to motivate people to contribute to the common projects on which society depends: public safety, schools, hospitals, and the like. Second, it makes it easier for despotism to arise. 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.
Tocqueville saw that voluntary associations could lessen these dangers. Religious associations are particularly useful in this regard. They are uniquely good at promoting social engagement–secular as well as religious. According to sociologist Robert Putnam, for example, regular churchgoers are more likely to vote, serve on juries, participate in community activities, talk to neighbors, and give to charities, including non-religious charities. And when it comes to defying state oppression, no groups are more effective than religious associations, which can inspire members to truly heroic acts of resistance, as dictators down the centuries have learned.
To be sure, religions don’t always encourage civic fellowship; to the extent a religion promotes sedition or violence against other citizens, society does not benefit. And perhaps, as Gerald Russello suggests, the non-religious have come so to distrust religion that they will view its contributions as tainted and objectionable from the start. But in encouraging greater social involvement, religion offers benefits to everyone, believers and non-believers, too. It’s worth reminding skeptics of this when they argue that religion, as such, doesn’t merit legal protection.
Mark has a very interesting new paper on the growing importance of the “Nones”–those who claim no religious affiliation at all but by and large are neither atheists nor agnostics. Rather, the Nones reject institutional religious belief. As Mark puts it, “A better term for them might be religious ‘Independents,’ or the familiar ‘spiritual but not religious.'” The paper considers some of the legal ramifications of “none-ism,” including the relationship between group status and legal protection. Here’s the abstract.
The most important recent development in American religion is the dramatic increase in the number of people who claim no religious affiliation — the rise of the Nones. In this Working Paper, I discuss the social factors that explain the rise of the Nones–demography, politics, family, technology, a distrust of institutions generally–and explain what this development might mean for the definition of religion in American law. I focus on a recent federal appeals court case involving a self-styled spiritual adviser, “Psychic Sophie,” who claimed that following her “inner flow” constituted a religion meriting constitutional and statutory protection. I argue that the case is a close one. Protecting Nones as a religion would promote the important goals of state religious neutrality and personal autonomy. On the other hand, religion has always been understood in terms of community. Indeed, as Tocqueville saw, it is precisely religion’s communal aspect that makes it so important to liberal democracy. Granting Nones the status of a religion would fail to capture this important social benefit.