During the run-up to the 2016 election, leaders in the Democratic and Republican Parties who had agreed about nothing for a generation concluded that “populism” was the emergent threat. But partisans seldom have clear vision. To understand our troubled world, we must do better. “I have tried to see not differently but further than any party,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his introduction to Democracy in America. “While they are busy with tomorrow, I have wished to consider the whole future.” We should follow his lead, in the hope of seeing further than today’s parties.
Democracy in America, written shortly after Tocqueville’s visit to Jacksonian America—that brief historical period of which the supposed “populism” of today is an echo—makes no mention of populism. What did Tocqueville see? During the 1950s, scholars thought that he saw American exceptionalism and invoked his insights to argue that Marx’s ideas could never take hold in the United States. In the 1990s, they thought that Tocqueville saw the need for civic association, and relied on his views to argue that formerly Communist countries required such connections for the spirit of democracy to take hold. These are valid but partial glimpses of the larger meaning of Tocqueville’s work. In a haunting letter, written in 1856, a few years before he died, Tocqueville lamented, “This profound saying could be applied especially to me: it is not good for man to be alone.” This observation brings us closer to the truth. Tocqueville’s writing about Jacksonian America was informed by the central problem that he saw everywhere he looked: existential homelessness. Democracy in America is an extended rumination on the homeless man of the democratic age.
Today, the problem of existential homelessness has become acute. Growing rates of anxiety, loneliness, and suicide offer statistical confirmation. Facebook and Amazon are among the largest and most powerful corporations on the planet, yet the realization is dawning that social media “friends” are poor substitutes for the real thing and that man cannot live by online shopping alone. (See “When Supplements Become Substitutes,” Autumn 2018.) The mobile phone connects us to the world but imprisons us inside ourselves. Human life must be lived at human scale, in the face-to-face relations of everyday life. These flesh-and-blood connections extend from our local neighborhoods to the nation—the largest durable community known to man.
Since 1989 and the end of the Cold War, though, we have increasingly tried to build a world without attention to these communities—building it instead around the configuration of what I call “management society and selfie man.” If only populism were the crisis we face. Populism is a political problem. It is something that we can fix—say, by pursuing more beneficial policies for the struggling middle class, or by adjusting trade policy. Homelessness of the existential sort that Tocqueville described is a deeper problem. Tocqueville marveled that American federalism helped address the problem of homelessness by giving citizens “a share in their government.” Yet how can federalism work today if we are so frightened by real-time, everyday dealings with our fellow citizens that we text-message one another to see if it’s okay to talk over the phone?
The populist versus globalist formulation gives us an easy out, letting us think in oppositional terms. Either we defend the “globalist” project of complete economic, political, and cultural integration, and create a universal human society; or we fall back into the parochial, inherited nations and communities from which we have come and to which we are, in some measure, still bound. The either/or of “globalism” or “populism” promises moral satisfaction: for the globalists, the moral enemy is the unenlightened masses; for the populists, it is the putatively enlightened elites. Set up in this way, the conflict between the two self-assured parties only grows, and the unaddressed crisis deepens.
I propose that Tocqueville’s Democracy in America can be an instructive guide to what troubles the human soul in the democratic age. Through its insights, we can see that existential homelessness, not populism, is the true crisis we face.
Since 1989, “globalism” has been our watchword. Our understanding of globalism today is largely economic and cultural. We speak of global markets and of the overwhelming power of Western culture, which dissolves local, regional, and national cultures everywhere. We take economic and cultural globalization, in fact, to be proof of an irreversible process, opposition to which is futile. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville had already foreseen it: “Variety is disappearing from the human race; the same ways of behaving, thinking and feeling are found in every corner of the world.” Ever the subtle sociologist and psychologist, he thought that the underlying cause of what we call today “globalization” was the inevitable breaking of links that occurred as we moved from the aristocratic to the democratic age. He worried about the thoughts that would come “naturally into our imagination” once those links were fully broken:
Aristocracy links everyone, from peasant to king, in one long chain. Democracy breaks the chain and frees each link. Thus, not only does democracy make men forget their ancestors; it also clouds their understanding of their descendants and isolates them from their contemporaries. Each man is forever thrown back on himself, making it easier for him to get shut up in the solitude of his own heart. To escape from imposed systems, the yoke of habit, family maxims, class prejudices, and to some extent, national prejudices; to treat tradition as valuable for information only, and accept existing facts as no more than a useful sketch to show how things could be done differently and better—such are the principal characteristics of the democratic philosophical method.
From this philosophical point of departure in the democratic age would arise the view that all things can be changed, improved, rationalized, and made to conform to a comprehensive system.
What a contrast from the aristocratic age, in which the impossibility of turning the world into any kind of system meant that life’s burdens could be ameliorated but not changed. A single, coordinated world was conceivable in the aristocratic age only if God Himself brought it about. Democratic man, on the other hand, dares to think that such a project of unification is within his grasp—that he, not God, can save the planet, as environmentalists have declared; or that, through his efforts, a globally coordinated world can be created and managed.
“Tocqueville’s Democracy in America can be a useful guide to what troubles the human soul in the democratic age.”
In the democratic age, Tocqueville foresaw, “unity will become an obsession.” Liberal pluralism, evolutionary biology, and free markets all presume an unfolding, emergent, unknowable future, but Tocqueville saw already in 1835 that such a presumption would frighten democratic man, that he would become fixated instead on unity, as a way to insulate himself against his terror. Real differences—between men and women, peoples, or states—would become psychologically unbearable. Hence, in the post-1989 world, the need for men and women to be seen as interchangeable; the need to believe that the cultural and national inheritances that distinguish us are burdens to be jettisoned rather than inheritances to be honored; and the need to institute democracy worldwide. Where is the citizen, Tocqueville wondered, who is prepared to live in a non-parsimonious world, a world that does not cohere as a system to be managed—a world so wondrous and unknowable that we would cherish and protect the liberty through which we participate in its mysterious development at all levels, from the local to the national?
While Tocqueville wrote reverentially about the gift of liberty in the democratic age, he understood that democratic man would find the plural world of parochial local and national attachments in which that liberty was embedded to be an encumbrance. He would wish to take flight. Having already broken free of some of the linkages that bound him to his past, to other people, or to nature, democratic man would wish to break free from linkages altogether. That is why, today, so many of us are “spiritual” rather than “religious,” “co-parents” rather than “fathers” or “mothers,” “global citizens” rather than citizens of a country, “Anywheres” rather than “Somewheres.” Always cognizant of our finitude, we long for universals through which we imagine that we will find release.
Tocqueville judged that this democratic impulse went too far. Human beings are, finally, creatures that must have a home, a family, a locale, a nation, a religion. The psychological dilemma of the democratic age is that democratic man can see beyond the immediacy of his parochial horizon, by virtue of the de-linkage that Tocqueville thought defined the democratic age. Democratic man therefore sees the cosmopolitan promise, but because he is an embodied creature, the promise can never be fully realized—hence the agony of those who see in every choice a limit to the unbounded freedom that they believe is truly their own.
Tocqueville anticipated the globalist disposition, but he also suggested the need to temper it. At the same time that everything local and national is being repudiated in the name of global universalism, something else has emerged—the phenomenon of selfie man, which insulates citizens one from another while giving them the opportunity for previously undreamed-of self-elevation. Why is it, we wonder, that precisely at the moment when we deny that families, neighbors, towns, regions, and states can address the difficulties we face, hundreds of millions of people around the world—perhaps even billions—are taking selfies? At the very moment when you and I seem increasingly powerless in a globalized world, we take pictures of ourselves, everywhere, as if the world around us becomes important only by virtue of our presence in it. Globalism in tandem with selfie man is a configuration in which we are at once powerless to act with our neighbors to solve problems and empowered so that we no longer need our neighbors.
Tocqueville makes a remark at the end of Democracy in America that sheds some light on this curious co-relationship. In the future, he warned, democratic citizens will feel themselves to be “either greater than kings or less than men.” Does this not sum up the current psychic condition in much of the West? In our selfie lives, we are “greater than kings”—for we remove from our kingdoms, without recourse, all who do not accede to our self-presentation. On our Facebook pages, are we not greater than kings? On the other hand, with respect to the communal actions necessary to build a world, we are “less than men,” happily handing over the keys to the global managers.
Democratic politics, Tocqueville knew, is not possible in this condition. Insofar as selfie man is political at all, it is through episodic activism, not through the labor of an engaged citizen. For selfie man, the task of government changes: politics is no longer the hard work of face-to-face, local-to-national, democratic deliberation, ordered and upheld by the Constitution. Rather, politics is activism—the goal of which, these days, is too often virtue-signaling on behalf of others, and the result of which is episodic eruptions of righteousness that produce nothing but moral self-satisfaction. Selfie man declares much but does little.
Much of Tocqueville’s effort in Democracy in America is directed toward pulling democratic (now selfie) man out of himself, so that he may build a home with others. That’s not possible, though, without the give-and-take of everyday life, in real time. To declare, as those entranced by selfie man do, that “I must be recognized, and you must respect me,” is to cut short the labor of working together with our neighbors, through which we come to discover who we are. We gain a foothold of self-knowledge only through our dealings with others. Tocqueville understood this and worried that as democratic man closed in upon himself, his life would become both small and inappropriately self-assured. That is why he wrote extensively about “self-interest, rightly understood,” by which he meant that type of self-interest formed in and through relations with others. Without it, we end up with selfie man.
Tocqueville, then, not only anticipated the emergence of globalism and the advent of selfie man but understood that the two would be correlate developments in the democratic age. To give our current post-1989 crisis a pithy formulation, indebted entirely to Tocqueville, we have built a world around the formula: management society and selfie man, in which we oscillate between being greater than kings and less than men. Because of this formula, our judgments, too, veer wildly. At one moment, all things seem possible; in the next, nothing. We cannot build a stable, durable, or healthy world around this formula. However unformed the opposition may be, it understands that the concept of management society and selfie man is unsustainable. Either those who hold the reins of political power will find a way to overcome the sense of homelessness that this has created, or successors will step in, with answers of their own.
What is to be done? We should start by noting that the crisis has occurred because we have dreamed that the limits of ordinary life can be circumvented without cost. In an 1836 letter to Eugène Stoffels, Tocqueville called himself “a liberal of a new kind.” No simple formula accounts for the full meaning of this phrase. Many argue today that the liberal world order is being dismantled by those who envision alternatives to it, but Tocqueville would say that a homogenous world order is not a liberal world order at all. A liberal world order is a plural world order, with multiple nations making multiple wagers about possible alternative futures. A liberal world order, in short, is an emergent world order, which cannot be organized and ordered from above, as so-called liberals have been trying to do since at least 1989. By liberal, Tocqueville meant that the labors of building a world together begin in our immediate society—in family, in civic and religious associations, and so on. The state can supplement the work of society but cannot substitute for it. So, too, with the work of the state; global or transnational efforts may supplement it, but those supplements must not be turned into substitutes.
Thinking about the problem in this liberal, emergent, bottom-up way allows us to avoid taking an ideologically narrow position for or against globalism. In one of the most important passages of Democracy in America, Tocqueville wrote that “feelings and ideas are renewed, the heart enlarged, and the understanding expanded, only by the reciprocal actions of men, one upon another.” It is in face-to-face relations that we begin to build our world. Higher levels of organization supplement those face-to-face relations, but they cannot substitute for them without cost. Today, we are suffering the consequences of trying to do just that. We are promised release and liberation from our parochial bonds through globalism and the management society that will make it possible; we are promised “safe-space” security through the social media tools that make selfie man possible. This platform, fit only for homeless souls, is on the verge of collapsing. We should be both hopeful and worried about what we can build in its place.
Rather than understand our crisis in terms of the opposition between globalism and populism—or, as many would have it, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness—we should think as Tocqueville did. In the democratic age, we will “feel ourselves to be greater than kings and less than men” unless we work tirelessly to build a world at the level of our local communities and at the level of our nations. Globalism and selfie man go hand in hand. The alternative to both is the embodied life of citizens.
It is a sad fact that Tocqueville understood the temptation to reject the embodied life of citizens because of the parochial limits that such life entails. Again, both globalism and selfie man offer an easy out: neither requires that we build a world together with our neighbors. There is, however, an additional reason that it is so difficult for us to defend or return to our home: identity politics declares that our homes are stained, impure, and not worthy of defense.
In the worldview of identity politics, our embodied communities bear witness to seemingly irredeemable fault and transgression—the legacy of slavery in America and the legacy of colonialism and two world wars in Europe. These sins impugn all the thoughts and actions of the guilty parties, from the distant past to the distant future—in short, for all time. While the confession of “privilege” may save the offending sinner from damnation, it does not bring him into the light of day. For that, he must now occupy the liminal space of purgatory, leaving his fate undecided. Identity politics does not produce an existential homelessness for which embodied life is the antidote, but instead discloses sin that originates in the very embodied communities that Tocqueville recommends and invites those at fault to a peculiar form of redemption—namely, self-repudiation. The alternative is to bear the burden of sin without hope of redemption.
Like the Christianity of old, identity politics metes out both judgment and redemption, though without the apparatus of God, in whom secularized Christians no longer believe. In this way, identity politics superimposes on the self-satisfaction of selfie man a moral self-satisfaction available for all who are the innocent victims of fault and transgression.
Identity politics announces the sins of persons and social groups who have blotted their nations with ineradicable stain. Globalism not only allows citizens to evade the never-ending challenges of building a world together with our neighbors; it also invites the irredeemable identity groups—some admixture of “white,” “male,” “heterosexual,” or “Christian”—to cover their transgressions with the fig leaf of innocence, if only they renounce their blemished nations. The mixed legacy of shame and glory borne by those whose fault and transgression make them irredeemable cannot be forgiven by God, for He doesn’t exist in identity politics; they can only be forgiven by renouncing the nation. We begin anew not by healing brokenness but by erasing it. In a strange and sublime historical twist that few have noticed, what the Law was to the Gospel in Reformation thought, identity politics is to globalism in post-Christian thought for us today: the one condemns; the other redeems.
Nothing has so surprised me as I have moved back and forth from Georgetown’s campus in Washington, D.C., to its campus in Doha, Qatar, in the past dozen years, as the perplexity that my Middle Eastern students express when they ask why Americans and Europeans seem to have an almost religious need to repudiate their nations and their history. Perhaps Islam, being a religion of law, grants some immunity against the deep interior agitations that the remembrance of fault and transgression elicits in America and Europe today, especially in formerly Protestant lands. Love of country in the Middle East, unlike in America and in large swaths of Europe, is actually thinkable.
“Like the Christianity of old, identity politics metes out both judgment and redemption, though without God.”
For nearly 2,000 years, fault and transgression in the West have been understood in Christian terms. Now Christianity has receded but not the category of fault and transgression. I wonder if we have not reached a dangerous—even explosive—stage. Fault and transgression seem today to have only a political remedy: the repudiation of nations. Globalism releases us from the unpayable debt that our nations owe; it promises to “make all things new” (Rev. 21:5). Who would not want such a new beginning? Yet it seems that Tocqueville long ago saw that new beginnings were never really possible. We can remove all the Confederate statues in America, but our history will remain. In Europe, the same is true.
Our problem, then, is not populism. Our crisis runs deeper than the inconvenient eruption of passion and irrationalism that invariably accompanies an unheard cry, an unnameable prayer. Our crisis is that we no longer know where our home lies. Tocqueville tells us that our limits can never be overcome, that we must make peace with our villages, towns, cities, provinces, and states, notwithstanding their limits. We are haunted, though, by more than our limits. We are haunted by fault and transgression. Religious categories have become narrowly political. Because religion should never be underestimated, I suspect that a century from now, this forced compression of something bigger than politics into politics will have played out in one of three ways.
First: we can carry on believing that fault and transgression can be atoned for only by actively renouncing our nations, to the detriment of the largest durable community that man may ever have. This path will offer us a veneer of cosmopolitanism that barely covers the virulent tribalism that even successful nations never completely overcome—and will be the powerful animus for the dream of a politics of blood and soil on the right, especially in Europe. Our nations will become weaker, while national elites who proclaim the gospel of cosmopolitanism will tighten their grip on power. Second: we can place fault and transgression back in their Christian theological context, recognize that God understood that our faults and transgressions could be atoned for only through divine mercy and mortal repentance, and live within our nations, attentive to the peril of hubris to which the largest durable community that man may ever have is prone. Third: we can follow Nietzsche’s recommendation that guilt’s burden be lifted through forgetfulness. Here, I think, is the paganism of the alt-right and, I suspect, the impulse to build unapologetically on a foundation of blood and soil. Here, too, is a repudiation of hope.