"Cars is one of my favorite movies of all time on a Tocquevillian basis. Route 66 is the Tocquevillian ideal." –unnamed Georgetown University professor
"I see an innumerable multitude of men, alike and equal, constantly circling around in pursuit of the petty and banal pleasures with which they glut their souls. Each one of them, withdrawn into himself, is almost unaware of the fate of the rest. . . . Over this kind of men stands an immense, protective power which is alone responsible for securing their enjoyment and watching over their fate. That power is absolute, thoughtful of detail, orderly, provident, and gentle. It would resemble a parental authority if, father-like, it tried to prepare its charges for a man’s life, but on the contrary, it only tries to keep them in perpetual childhood." – Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. 2, Part 4, Chapter 6, Page 692 (Lawrence).
"Page 692 of Democracy in America equals Wall-E. Go check it out." –aforementioned professor
At a recent meeting with D.C. right-leaning young professionals, columnist George Will counseled that America is primarily about liberty, not democracy. Indeed, Will noted, democracy can be and often is a threat to liberty and constitutionalism.
Following on this Tocquevillian theme, Will was asked what people like those in his audience can do to strengthen and invigorate civil society. His answer: “Join things.”
It is a deceptively simple solution, but perhaps one that Will’s audience that day—and too many of us—barely consider. Tocqueville is clear that the democratic age poses many threats to our humanity. One of our few hopes for making democracy in America work is to learn and practice the art of face-to-face, civil association.
Tocqueville: “If men are to remain civilized or to become civilized, the art of association must develop and improve among them.”
The habits—virtues, even—needed for cultivating this art of association do not come easily or automatically, and modernity does not lend itself to the cultivation of such habits. A sense of place and locality, that is, being in a particular place and having some connection to it, remains a sine qua non for the art of civil association. One must then have a conception of the good and, at the same time, the ability to be at peace with the fact that we live in a fallen and imperfect world. Evil remains and will always remain a part of our daily lives, both in ourselves and in those around us.
Holding those two things in tension frees one, it seems, to associate with his fellow man in the multitude of ways that Tocqueville envisions. If we cannot put up with the faults and celebrate the joys of others then, it seems, there is little hope for authentic human community and association. Ultimately, these habits are possible because they are rooted in the knowledge that there is hope beyond the evils of this world, a hope that is sustained by the knowledge that the joys of this world foreshadow the joys of the next.
It is for us to consider, then, whether in our own day and in our own lives we are cultivating the habits that enable the art of authentic association. In our present culture of instant gratification, the art of association becomes even more burdened because it requires, at a certain level, a gift of oneself to the other, and the willingness to receive the other in all of the gritty reality that such a reception may entail. In many ways, it is far easier and more comfortable to occupy ourselves with ourselves and our own pleasures and interests than to take any real interest in others.
And this is, in fact, what seems to be happening. Americans are now increasingly lonely. We have been fed the myth that social media and other forms of disembodied communication will make us more connected or at least make us feel more connected. That promise has been found to be hollow, but Dostoevsky could have told us that. Tocqueville probably could have told us that as well. While we waste our lives away tweeting, more than individual happiness is at stake. The civic fabric of America—built on the art of face-to-face association—that which keeps her far enough from the edge a new and despotic democratic tyranny, is threatened when we satiate our natural desire for community by indulging in its unreal and ephemeral digital substitutes.
The political implications couldn’t be clearer. The art of associating with our neighbors—and the messy web of groups, clubs, organizations, friendships, and causes that develops out of that art—remains the surest way to impede the advance of democratic tyranny in our day. Tocqueville said that Americans are always forming associations.
His observation will only remain true if we join things.