I am convinced that the most advantageous situation and the best possible laws cannot maintain a constitution in spite of the manners of a country; whilst the latter may turn to some advantage the most unfavorable positions and the worst laws. The importance of manners is a common truth to which study and experience incessantly direct our attention. It may be regarded as a central point in the range of observation, and the common termination of all my inquiries. So seriously do I insist upon this head, that, if I have hitherto failed in making the reader feel the important influence of the practical experience, the habits, the opinions, in short, of the manners of the Americans, upon the maintenance of their institutions, I have failed in the principal object of my work.
So wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in volume I, chapter 17 of his classic work on American political and social institutions, Democracy in America. Tocqueville, a French lawyer and member of the aristocracy, came to the United States in the spring of 1831. He traveled around Jacksonian America for nine months, and returned to France in the winter of 1832. In 1835, he published the first volume of Democracy, which was received with enormous enthusiasm in both France and England. He published the second volume in 1840. The book continues to be one of the most far-reaching analyses of American culture ever written.
Tocqueville was convinced that the underlying reason for the success of democracy in America was the “manners” of the people. By manners, Tocqueville meant the value-assumptions of the Americans, their overall “character of mind.” He went on to say that manners referred to “the whole moral and intellectual condition of a people.”
In his statement above, Tocqueville said that American manners form the foundation for the success of the American experiment in democracy. This is striking for a couple of reasons. First, when Tocqueville used the term “democracy,” he had in mind much more than simply government by the people. He had a much more expansive definition of democracy—he equated democracy with equality of condition, the fact of the absence of feudal hierarchical social structures which had broad social and political ramifications.
Second, Tocqueville did not think that democracy was an unmitigated good. Rather, he assumed that democracy tended toward the tyranny of the majority. Equality of condition in a society would gravitate toward excessive individualism among the populace. This individualism would thus result in the people turning inward, away from civic duty and toward their private interests. As a result, the people would become civically lazy. They would lose interest in engagement with local affairs, become satisfied with nationalization of politics and the centralization of rule. They thus would learn to love only themselves, and cease to love each other. What kept democratic despotism in check was the uniquely American habit of voluntarily associating together in local bodies such as reform organizations, civic societies, and most of all, churches. This cultural and political habit—or manner—of localism thus was fundamental to the protection of liberty.
What influenced the manners of the Americans? In a word, religion. Tocqueville observed that Christian morals pervaded American society, and the Christian religion shaped and formed American manners. He said, “In the United States, religion exercises but little influence upon the laws, and upon the details of public opinion; but it directs the manners of the community, and, by regulating domestic life, it regulates the state.” Furthermore, Tocqueville observed that the Americans themselves believed religion to be indispensable to their republic.
So, more than geography, more than laws, more than anything else, manners—informed by religion—were the basis for American greatness and the only means of preserving freedom, according to Tocqueville.
Lest we rely on an idyllic picture of antebellum America, we should remember that Charles Dickens made his famous visit to America just 10 years after Tocqueville. He was not impressed. He famously wrote to his friend William Macready in 1842 that “this is not the Republic of my imagination” and “I would not condemn you to a year’s residence on this side of the Atlantic, for any money.” He was also disgusted by how Americans sought to profit off of his visit to America, and described being nauseated by their tobacco spitting. He called Washington “the headquarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva.” Tocqueville was also realistic about Americans, noting that they were more obsessed with money-making than any society he had encountered. The quotable Tocqueville—that is, the usable Tocqueville—is celebratory of America, but a careful reading of Tocqueville alongside other contemporary accounts yields a more complex picture.
Trump as Case Study
Still, if Tocqueville was right about manners and their significance to American democratic institutions—and full disclosure, I believe that he is—then we are surely living in interesting times. The phenomenon of GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump becomes an interesting case study in Tocqueville’s writings about manners. It is hard to be neutral about Trump. Ezra Klein recently expressed what many worried Republicans are thinking—namely, Trump is fun, but are we really prepared to have him represent the United States to the world? And what attracts voters to Trump? Seventy-eight percent of Republican primary voters in South Carolina liked him because he “tells it like it is.”
And how does he do that? He insults. He uses profanity. He bombasts. If you’re really interested, check out this catalogue of Trump insults on the 2016 presidential campaign trail. (Spare yourself. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.) This kind of behavior reveals what he thinks about human dignity. Forget about his pro-choice stances, if you can. Forget about his racism, sexism, and anti-immigrant policy positions, if you must. Just note what comes out of his mouth.
Trump’s statements shock many. I hear a lot of my evangelical Christian friends express their befuddlement, asking things like “Who is supporting him?” and “I don’t know anyone who backs him.” Clearly, a lot of people are. And instead of being shocked by Trump and his buffoonery, we should be shocked at ourselves.
After all, Trump is not an anomaly. He is a reflection of American culture. He is the image of the coarseness and incivility in American culture that has grown more and more pronounced until today, when it is acceptable for a major presidential candidate to refer to one of his opponents as a p***y. He ought to have his mouth washed out with soap. (That was my grandmother’s form of waterboarding.)
When we see Trump, we see ourselves. Trump is a credible candidate today, and he would not have been credible in the past. Trump has always been a boor, but American manners have not always been boorish enough for Trump to find a place in public discourse. Now they are. We have no one to blame but ourselves, we who have become narcissistic, uncivil, civically lazy, obdurate, gullible, uncouth, easily offended, and in the prophet Jeremiah’s words, we are so implacable, we do “not know how to blush.”
One of the insidious realities surrounding Trump’s rise is how many evangelical Christians have latched onto him. To be fair, evangelicals are split in their support of Trump. But many evangelicals continue to flock to him. In South Carolina, 34 percent of Trump’s voters were born-again evangelicals, and 31 percent said that it was important that the candidate share their religious values. Jerry Falwell, Jr. of Liberty University and Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church of Dallas have publicly endorsed him. Franklin Graham has come short of a full-throated endorsement, but has spoken favorably of him. Graham has been especially supportive of Trump’s idea of banning Muslim immigration to the United States, ironically as a part of his “campaign for God.”
What does the rise of Trump say about the state of American evangelical Christianity? This subculture is sometimes hardly distinguishable from the coarse American society in general. Over the past few generations, text-based authority has been replaced, in large measure, by subjective authority. Individual constructs of pragmatics, feelings, preferences, and sensibilities have taken the central place of authority that the Bible had in other periods of history (prior to the introduction of existentialism and Protestant liberalism in the early 20th century). When textual and orthodox tradition is neglected and replaced by self-actualization as religious authority, then religious culture coarsens. And if Tocqueville was right about the influence of religion on manners, then the coarsening occurring in religious culture has had, and continues to have, a direct effect on the coarsening of culture in general.
Today’s cultural decay is a complicated problem, to be sure. But if Tocqueville is any guide, there is wisdom in two more observations he made in Democracy in America.
First, Tocqueville noted that Americans were not especially virtuous, but they did have an abiding self-interest, and they recognized that their interests were promoted by the public interest. In other words, the best way to achieve private goods was to guard the interests of the whole. Tocqueville famously called this reality “interest rightly understood,” and posited that it prevents society from descending into moral chaos. It may not make all people in society virtuous, but it does raise those up who are particularly lacking in virtue: “I regard it as their chief remaining security against themselves.” Yet the principle of interest rightly understood does not come naturally to people. It must be taught, and again, religion has a role to play in the instilling of this principle.
Second, and most importantly, if society is to preserve liberty, it must be vigilant and determined to be proactive in doing so. For example, to exercise the principle of interest rightly understood, “daily small acts of self denial” are required. Because egotism is the basic vice of the human heart, the selfie culture is the natural tendency in an equal society. And despots encourage egotism. Tocqueville said of the despot, that he “easily forgives his subjects for not loving him, provided they do not love each other.” And when they do not love each other, they will not seek to govern themselves but they will be satisfied to leave the responsibilities of government with the despot. This statement fits Trump, perhaps like no other statement from Tocqueville does.
Supporters of Trump are looking for the easy way out of what ails the country—an ailing military and economy, the failure of U.S. leadership in the world, illegal immigration, and the rising tide of secularism and the growth of the influence of those who profess no religious faith. They are looking for someone who can “make America great again” by “bombing the s*** out of” ISIS, by getting rid of all illegal immigrants, by making sure that everybody says “Merry Christmas” around December-time. And of course, Trump assures us that if he is elected president, “we’ll win so much, you’ll get bored of winning.” If we are to believe Trump, all we have to do is elect him, and all our problems will go away.
Tocqueville wrote that despotism promises all the answers, but it can only deliver despotism: “despotism often promises to make amends for a thousand previous ills.” Under a despot, the “nation is lulled by the temporary prosperity which it produces, until it is roused to a sense of its misery.” But liberty, Tocqueville stressed, is the fruit of long-term commitment, determination, and labor. And contrary to despotism, of which fruits can be measured in the short term (i.e. “he keeps the trains running on time”), liberty can only be appreciated once its effects have taken time to develop. “Liberty … is generally established with difficulty in the midst of storms; it is perfected by civil discord; and its benefits cannot be appreciated until it is already old.”
Cultural decline is never an inevitability. And there is no such thing as a point of no return. The statement, “we live in a coarse society” may be a truism, something most of us know intuitively. But human beings have free will, and they have it within their power to reject indignity, incivility, and boorishness. To put it bluntly, it is not necessary to use vulgar words to describe our political foes. But it is necessary to refine our manners, at least if we aim to preserve our liberty.
Trumpus delendus est.
John D. Wilsey is assistant professor of history and Christian apologetics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea. He is also editing an abridgment of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America for Lexham Press.