Does Democracy Make Us Individualistic?

In eight years of church planting, we’ve found that the biggest challenge in forming healthy community is helping people see their implicit individualism. I have long sensed that individualism is somewhat like a windshield for Americans – we are so used to seeing through it that we don’t even notice it. This week I happened upon a quote from French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville that helps to explain why this is so. His insights on the connection between individualism and democracy are quite insightful – and though few of us are interested in returning to an aristocratic society, it’s interesting to ponder de Tocqueville’s observations about how such societies may in fact be more community-centered.

Individualism is a novel expression, to which a novel idea has given birth.   Our fathers were only acquainted with egoisme (selfishness).   Selfishness is a passionate and exaggerated love of self, which leads a man to connect everything with himself and to prefer himself to everything in the world.   Individualism is a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellows and to draw apart with his family and his friends, so that after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself.   Selfishness originates in blind instinct;  individualism proceeds from erroneous judgment more than from depraved feelings;  it originates as much in deficiencies of mind as in perversity of heart. 

Selfishness blights the germ of all virtue;  individualism, at first, only saps the virtues of public life;  but in the long run it attacks and destroys all others and is at length absorbed in downright selfishness.   Selfishness is a vice as old as the world, which does not belong to one form of society more than to another;  individualism is of democratic origin, and it threatens to spread in the same ratio as the equality of condition. 

Among aristocratic nations, as families remain for centuries in the same condition, often in the same spot, all generations become, as it were, contemporaneous.   A man almost always knows his forefathers and respects them;  he thinks he already sees his remote descendants and he loves them.   He willingly imposes duties on himself towards the former and the latter, and he will frequently sacrifice his personal gratifications to those who went before and to those who will come after him.   Aristocratic institutions, moreover, have the effect of closely binding every man to several of his fellow citizens.   As the classes of an aristocratic people are strongly marked and permanent, each of them is regarded by its own members as a sort of lesser country, more cherished and more tangible than the country at large.   As in aristocratic communities all the citizens occupy fixed positions, one above another, the result is that each of them always sees a man above himself whose patronage is necessary to him, and below himself another man whose co-operation he may claim.   Men living in aristocratic ages are therefore almost always closely attached to something placed out of their own sphere, and they are often disposed to forget themselves.   It is true that in these ages the notion of human fellowship is faint and that men seldom think of sacrificing themselves for mankind;  but they often sacrifice themselves for other men.   In democratic times, on the contrary, when the duties of each individual to the race become much more clear, devoted service to any one man becomes more rare;  the bond of human affection is extended, but it is relaxed. 

Among democratic nations new families are constantly springing up, others are constantly falling away, and all that remain change their condition;  the woof of time is every instant broken and the track of generations effaced.   Those who went before are soon forgotten;  of those who will come after, no one has any idea:   the interest of man is confined to those in close propinquity to himself.   As each class gradually approaches others and mingles with them, its members become undifferentiated and lose their class identity for each other.   Aristocracy had made a chain of all the members of the community, from the peasant to the king;  democracy breaks that chain and severs every link of it. 

As social conditions become more equal, the number of persons increases who, although they are neither rich nor powerful enough to exercise any great influence over their fellows, have nevertheless acquired or retained sufficient education and fortune to satisfy their own wants.   They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man;  they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their hands. 

Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him;  it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart. 

 – from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, volume 2 (1840)

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  1. You might be interested in Barry Hankins’ book on the 1920s culture wars, titled “Jesus and Gin.” One of his main points is that a divide emerged in the 1920s between a new, ACLU-supported conception of freedom in which the private nature of religion and the autonomy of the individual were primary, and the older, more communitarian understanding of freedom, in which individual freedom was not an end in and of itself, but instead the chief aim was a good society…and a good society depended on a set of deeply held community values. Here’s how Hankins’ explains it through the lens of the Prohibition debate:

    “Prohibitionists believed they had the right to outlaw the saloon if it threatened the family and any other institution on which a free society had been built. Many on the other side favored a new version of freedom. They believed that individual rights came before the community or even family. The family was merely the unit in which the individual found self-expression. Individuals, therefore, had the right to go to the saloon if they wanted to, so long as their actions did not pick someone’s pocket or break someone’s leg…”

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