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How de Tocqueville Saw Us in Crisis: Praiseworthy and Dangerous

We need solidarity and a common good now, not just liberal individualism. We're indebted to each other.
Coronavirus charity

Our streets have grown quiet. There’s a sense of loneliness in our cities and towns, despite their having been built on the principles of gathering and going. Now they’re empty as so many of us huddle away, striving to still the spread of COVID-19.

Inside our homes and hearts, however, there is tumult, chaos, and frustration, as we all encounter new and shared experiences: the lack of school for our children, the lack of job and health security for the rest of us. Americans are experiencing fear and doubt, questioning and indignation. Many have begun to ask, as the waiting grows hard and costly: is this massive social isolation the right course? Are our efforts to slow and (hopefully) stop the spread of COVID-19 worth the loss of community, career, and economic strength?

Many are not sure—our president, supposedly, among them. It is hard to justify this massive retreat, this silencing of all the bustle and hubbub that generally let us know we are alive and well. Without the activity, the productivity, we must be still and wait. Watch and pray. And modern humans just aren’t good at these things. We generally detest them.

Crises reveal our roots, what we believe about our world and ourselves. And this particular crisis seems to be revealing all over again two sides of American life that philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville observed and wrote about in the 19th century. One is praiseworthy, the other dangerous.

First, let’s consider the praiseworthy. While we have seen a widespread weakening of local institutions and associations, chronicled in books like Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone and Tim Carney’s Alienated America, there is still often a sense of togetherness and neighborly affection that manifests itself during seasons of need or tragedy. Tocqueville believed this was one of America’s greatest virtues, and he wrote that free institutions would encourage Americans to serve each other and thus prevent them from becoming isolated:

To earn the love and respect of the population which surrounds you, a long succession of little services rendered and of obscure good deeds—a constant habit of kindness, and an established reputation for disinterestedness—will be required. Local freedom, then, which leads a great number of citizens to value the affection of their neighbors and of their kindred, perpetually brings men together, and forces them to help one another, in spite of the propensities which sever them.

When one considers recent and more encouraging stories in the news—the parade for a four-year-old whose birthday party was canceled, local hotels offering shelter to the homeless and health care workers, distilleries making hand sanitizer for hospitals—we see this local energy, this “constant habit of kindness,” at work once more. America at its best is animated by local associational support, a “long succession of little services” that create habits of indebtedness and love. As economist John Ikerd has noted, a gift economy creates bonds of community and closeness that are integral to local health and have been vital to America’s rural communities throughout our history. “These communities,” he writes, “created out of necessity, were communities that not only helped rural people make a living but also gave them a common sense of purpose.”

Modern American life has in many ways weakened these historical bonds and customs of indebtedness. Our indebtedness to credit card companies and big box stores, as well as our habits of restlessness and mobility, have made it far more difficult to root ourselves in place. We are “freed” by machines and modernity from our roots, as well as from any sort of obligation to those roots.

In a time of crisis, however, we are thrown back on what is embodied and motionless. When we are no longer permitted to commute to work, we must turn again to the presences that exist alongside us: our housemates—be they family members or roommates—and our neighbors. We are forced to address those needs that are immediate: those of our bodies (all too often ignored in times of ease), our children, spouses, parents, siblings, and nearest neighbors. We have the opportunity to see what is happening tangibly within our own towns, cities, and counties, to hear sirens and pray, to ask how we can provide shelter, clothing, medicine, and nourishment to those in need.

There is an opportunity, in the midst of this crisis, to embrace that indebtedness once more—to strengthen the bonds that are fraying or broken, to name each other and know each other, even if it’s from a distance. These are the beginnings of true health. (Ironically, it could be a health crisis that reveals to us the ill health that has long been hiding underneath our façade of national wellness.)

Tocqueville saw the roots of our condition in the 19th century, and warned against them. He wrote that Americans “acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands.” Democracy severed the chain that otherwise binds citizens to the past, future, and to each other. It not only causes each man to “forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants from him and separates him from his contemporaries; it constantly leads him back toward himself alone and threatens finally to confine him wholly in the solitude of his own heart.” As Christine Emba wrote in a review of Patrick Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed:

As liberalism has progressed, it has done so by ever more efficiently liberating each individual from “particular places, relationships, memberships, and even identities — unless they have been chosen, are worn lightly, and can be revised or abandoned at will.” In the process, it has scoured anything that could hold stable meaning and connection from our modern landscape — culture has been disintegrated, family bonds devalued, connections to the past cut off, an understanding of the common good all but disappeared.

That latter loss—of a common understanding of the good—seems particularly applicable to our current moment. As COVID-19 spreads like wildfire, we are fighting over our loves: the self-interested love of “material wellbeing” reflected in a healthy economy, on the one hand, and the selfless love of neighbor, on the other. But these loves also point to a war between our two American identities: the good neighbor and the free individual. The indebted and the debtless.

Perhaps if we still believed that we owed something to the past and to the future—that we were part of a chain that binds us to our places and neighbors, the elderly and the unborn—this would not be such a difficult decision. The good would be clear and straightforward—as would our responsibilities. After all, there are people in this moment who are suddenly without jobs, struggling to put food on their tables, without shelter amid a pandemic. Fears over the economy, rooted in their suffering, are justified and important—and must be addressed. Tocqueville’s vision of America’s “constant habit of kindness,” as well as Ikerd’s gift economy and Wendell Berry’s understanding of health in membership, could all point us toward the good in such a time.

But liberalism and individualism point to a different good: that of self-interest, of material wellbeing and a vibrant national economy (no matter the cost). Both left and right have, in the past, espoused liberal conceptions that tear at association and community. As Emba notes, both left- and right-oriented forms of liberalism foster “a headlong and depersonalized pursuit of individual freedom and security that demands no concern for the wants and needs of others, or for society as a whole.” It is this spirit that now spurs us to embrace our own wellbeing and wealth, no matter the cost to others.

This moment is showing us what we believe, and who we are. It’s revealing the virtues and the vices that exist within us, and the different goods they are calling us to follow. Perhaps, then, it is beneficial to consider what, in Tocqueville’s estimation, animated and perpetuated America’s virtuous character. Rather ironically, he encapsulates this through a description of a time when the streets also lay empty—not because of pandemic, but rather out of choice:

In the United States, when the seventh day of the week arrives, the commercial and industrial life of the nation seems suspended; all noise ceases. A deep repose, or rather a sort of solemn meditation, follows; the soul finally comes back into possession of itself and contemplates itself.

During this day, places devoted to commerce are deserted; each citizen, surrounded by his children, goes to church; there strange discourses are held for him that seem hardly made for his ears. He is informed of the innumerable evils caused by pride and covetousness. He is told of the necessity of regulating his desires, of the delicate enjoyments attached to virtue alone, and of the true happiness that accompanies it.

Once back in his dwelling, one does not see him run to his business accounts. He opens the book of the Holy Scriptures; in it he finds sublime or moving depictions of the greatness and goodness of the Creator, of the infinite magnificence of the works of God, of the lofty destiny reserved for men, of their duties, and of their rights to immortality.

Thus at times the American in a way steals away from himself, and as he is torn away for a moment from the small passions that agitate his life and the passing interests that fill it, he at once enters into an ideal world in which all is great, pure, eternal.

Our ancestors, it seems, were better than us at watching, praying, and being still. We have not chosen our moment. We have been forcibly torn away from our passions. But we are here, in both quiet and turmoil, and we have a choice. We have the opportunity to consider our souls and what we believe about them. Perhaps this moment will pass before we know it, and we will return quickly to our own business accounts and all the distractions and delights of everyday life. But perhaps we will first have time to press in and ask ourselves whether we believe in a lofty destiny and duties that we owe. Perhaps we can still choose to “love our neighbor as ourselves.”