I’ve always been fascinated by America, the American experiment, the American experience. In college, I found my place in the sociology, anthropology, political science and literature of the American people, their values and ideals. My novels are born of the culture of merging, conflicting cultures we, as Americans, were born into and from my conviction that dealing with that experience is the challenge of being American. Only once before, in 1968, have I had the horrifying sense that the country was coming apart under the strain, a sense of the great experiment disintegrating.
What has happened to us? Where did this disintegration into hate and violence, this contempt for our institutions begin and where is it taking us? From all of my early studies, the work that keeps coming to mind, as I look for answers is Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. De Tocqueville was a French aristocrat who hated tyranny and feared that democracy would disintegrate into tyranny of the majority. He understood, however that democracy was the future, so in 1831 he came to America in order to see it in action. To my mind, no student should graduate from high school in the United States without reading his observations and reflections on the American people, for we desperately need to renew our sense of not only the hope but the challenges of being an American and a commitment to support its survival as a democracy.
De Tocqueville feared individualism and the abolition of the class system that, he believed, gave order and stability to the European nations. He believed that without that order, people would be forever anxious about where they belonged and would end up habitually comparing themselves to each other. Forever insecure, their individualism would devolve into selfishness and each would end up alone. We should take a good look at ourselves in light of this fear. Has our insecurity, our need to know where we belong, splintered us into rival groups where each gains stature by debunking the other?
However, De Tocqueville also found in the Americans, an equality unknown in Europe and with a deep sense of community and civil order. He found a people committed to building a new world, to resolving together the problems that confronted them. He believed that the multitude of civic organizations would counter the dangers of individualism. The men, he thought, would forever strive to power and acquisition of wealth, but the mores, the “habits of the heart” carried by the women, would provide the civilizing force.
He has a great deal to say about the role of religion in the New World and many other subjects, but this gives a taste of a perspective different enough to shake up the all-to-stale ideologies that have broken us into enemy camps. We have indeed joined civil action groups, but we have, since Trump’s election, discovered the importance of unwritten mores that undergird our common culture. We are appalled at the violation of norms we have long since taken for granted, but rediscovering them gives us the opportunity to regain our sense of belonging to a whole.
His views on the role of women should spark lively conversations on individualism versus commitment for both genders as well as on the effect of the rampant greed of the eighties and nineties. De Tocqueville believed that even more than our laws and institutions, it is the “habits of the heart” that give the Americans strength. We need to recommit to those together.
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