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Tocqueville on the Individualist Roots of Progressivism

Alexis de Tocqueville   Théodore Chassériau (1819–1856)

A friend once described conservatives as people who agreed about one important thing—that at some point in the past, something went terribly wrong. After that, conservatives splinter into untold numbers of camps, since they disagree ferociously about the date of the catastrophe.

Most conservatives today agree that America has taken a terrible turn—that something went wrong at some point in the past. Most believe that America was well-founded by the Framers of the Constitution, but that something bad happened that corrupted the sound basis of the Founding. A few—generally unpopular—believe that Lincoln is to blame, that he introduced the beginnings of centralized State and the imperial Presidency. Many point to the catastrophe of the 1960s as the main source of current woes (a striking number of these constitute the neoconservative faction). But, at least in the circles in which I travel, an increasing number have settled on the Progressive era at the turn of the 20th-century as the source of today’s troubles, and see President Obama as the direct inheritor of this philosophical and political movement that was born in the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

The dominant narrative about the rise of Progressivism, both in the halls of academe and its distillation in the popular media expressed by figures such as Glenn Beck, is that Progressivism was a virus that was incubated in a foreign (particularly German) laboratory and was transported to America by intellectual elites, often educated at German universities and influenced by thinkers such as Kant and Hegel (such intellectuals include the likes of Herbert Croly, Woodrow Wilson, and John Dewey). These Progressives despised the classical liberal philosophy of the Founding, and sought either an explicit rejection of the Constitution or an effective change by re-defining it as a “living” document.

This is a plausible case – and, the fact is that major progressive figures turned often to German and other foreign sources in developing their intellectual critique of the classical liberal philosophy of the Founding. Thus, by attributing the rise of Progressivism to a foreign contagion, it can be comfortably maintained that the Founding was good and true and was corrupted by a fifth column.

However, what this argument overlooks is that the greatest analysis of American democracy—Democracy in America, published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840, a full half-century before the flowering of Progressivism—already perceived the seeds of Progressivism’s major tenets already embedded in the basic features and attributes of liberal democracy as established at the Founding. Of particular note, while the major figures of Progressivism would directly attack classical liberalism, Tocqueville discerned that Progressivism arose not in spite of the classical liberal tradition, but because of its main emphasis upon, and cultivation of, individualism.

Individualism is a distinctive phenomenon arising in liberal democracy, notes Tocqueville. The idea of the individual is at least as old as Christianity, but individualism is a new experience of self that arises with the passing of the experience of embeddedness in a familial, social, religious, generational, and cultural setting that is largely fixed and unchanging—the basic features of an aristocratic society. The rise of liberal democracy, by contrast, is premised upon a view of the individual deriving from the social contract tradition, which conceives of human beings in their natural state as defined, above all, by the total absence of such constitutive bonds, inherited roles and given identities (a philosophy that Bertrand de Jouvenel said was developed by “childless men who forgot their childhood”). Instead, as Tocqueville describes, in a democracy, “the chain” that once bound a peasant all the way to a king is “shattered,” throwing each individual in their freedom and equality finally “into the solitude of their own own hearts.”

What Tocqueville recognized is the resulting paradox of this new experience of the self: that the unfettered individual culminates in the rise of the collective. For the first time, humans are not defined by their constitutive roles and memberships in groups, in places, in relationships. And, as a result, as individuals, for the first time they recognize their membership in something larger—humanity. As Tocqueville writes in an important passage about the rise of religious “pantheism,” the experience of individuality gives rise to an obsession with “unity,” even at the cost of the individuality itself: “individuals are forgotten, and the species alone counts.” Liberated from all constitutive memberships, as individuals they experience their “species-being.” As Tocqueville recognizes, Locke’s individual is the midwife of Rousseau and Marx.

In the chapter that follows his discussion of “pantheism,” Tocqueville logically and sequentially moves to the subject of “perfectibility.” Once democratic man recognizes his membership in “humanity” at large, he becomes devoted to the improvement of everyone—and no-one in particular. In a democratic age, shorn of all positions and status, a new and nearly universal passion for perfectibility comes to predominate—the improvement of society constantly in the name and belief in the ever-increasing democratic equality of all humanity. Only when the aristocratic order has been displaced, and the individual has been liberated from the old order, can “the human mind imagine the possibility of an ideal but always fugitive perfection.”

The liberation of humanity from all partial and mediating groups and memberships finally culminates in what Tocqueville famously calls “the tutelary State”—the rise of a new form of tyranny, “democratic despotism,” particularly chilling because it comes about not through the imposition of force and violence, but at the invitation of an individuated and weak democratic citizenry. No longer able to turn to the old orders and organizations to which he might once have belonged, “he naturally turns his eyes toward the huge entity which alone stands above the universal level of abasement”—the State—amid his individuated weakness.

As Robert Nisbet recognized in his 1953 classic, The Quest for Community—deeply influenced by Tocqueville’s thought—the prevailing belief that the relevant debate is between individualism and collectivism represents a false dichotomy, that, in fact, the two are mutually reinforcing. “Individual versus State is as false an antithesis today as it ever was. The State grows on what it gives to the individual as it does on what it takes from competing social relationships—family, labor unions, profession, local community, and church. And the individual cannot but find a kind of vicarious strength in what is granted in the State.” (This was the entire point of the Obama campaign’s portrayal of “The Life of Julia,” whose life story has mysteriously disappeared from the internet. She is a person portrayed as utterly alone, and the only source of support is from the State. Thus, while she is proudly free, she is also weak and alone; her actual “autonomy” was achieved as a gift of the State; and, as democratic citizens, we are obligated to provide her autonomy while assisting her in her isolation as a requirement of the fulfillment of democratic individuality and equality).

Tocqueville wrote of these dynamics in the early part of the 19th-century, half a century before the development of Progressive philosophy and politics. It is surely the case that Progressivism found inspiration in “foreign” sources, and this has led many conservatives to conclude that Progressivism arose from a foreign “contagion” that infected the healthy organism of the Constitutional republic erected by the Founders. However, Tocqueville’s analysis presents a discomfiting fact—that the basic inclinations toward progressivism were there at the creation. As Nisbet recognized, “the real conflict in modern political history has not been, as is so often stated, between the State and individual, but between the State and social group.” Conservatives should eschew the “false antipathy” in their assertion that salvation is to be found in individualism; rather, what is needed is a renewed defense of the institutions and memberships aside from, and distinctly placed, to that of the State—family, community, local markets, Church. Not because these constitute “lifestyle choices,” but because they are the true sources of human liberty—liberty through reforging the chains that democracy shatters in the pursuit of liberation in the name of individual autonomy, culminating with the rise of the modern, Progressive State to which we finally sacrifice our individuality.

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