by Jeff Polet, director of the Ford Leadership Forum, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation
The tyrant’s dream is to separate people and then isolate them, making them easier to control. In the 20th century we witnessed this strategy playing out on a large and horrific scale, leading to situations where a small coterie of leaders and their apparatchiks could subjugate large populations. Certainly terror and fear were useful weapons, but they could only realize their full effect in an atomized environment where people were largely incapable of any kind of collective action.
While Tocqueville didn’t witness the rise of 20th century totalitarianism, he did anticipate the emergence of a new kind of despotism that would always claim it was operating as an agent of “the people.” Certainly he allowed for the possibility of a dictator, but he was more concerned about the potential despotism of a centralized administrative system, one neither accountable nor transparent to the people over whom it governed, but would cover society with a network of complicated and largely unintelligible rules.
This despotism, he argued, could only arise after people had been separated and isolated. One of the factors that helped to maintain democracy in America by restraining the rise of the administrative state, he believed, was America’s rich associative life. During his visit to America Tocqueville was struck by the way Americans freely organized themselves into groups that would address all the complexity involved in a shared life. Tocqueville saw association as one of the few positive developments of the raw energy that democracy would unleash upon the world.
This impulse toward creating associations, he believed, had many salutary consequences, and among these were the ability to address problems in a fine-grained manner with the fewest possible consequences for mistakes; for creating transparency, accountability, and opportunities for civic participation; and for the necessary need to get people out of their privates lives and private selves. Without participation in all the institutions and engagements of civil society, people would isolate themselves, and thus become the authors of their own submission to a distant power.
But not only that. Tocqueville worried that a growing central administrative power would systematically and slowly work to dismantle the very civil society that American citizens had freely created, and one way it would do this was by gradually absorbing their functions into itself. By robbing civil institutions of their function it would also rob them of their authority. An example of this is the state gradually taking from parents the task of educating children. In the process it eroded the authority, and thus the integrity, of family life. Once the function of the family had been eroded, government itself would become perfectly content to maintain families so long as their benefits were purely private. The government could then afford to be indifferent with regards to marriage’s particular form so long as the form further individuated the citizens. The more private the benefit — and no benefit could be more private than the psychic relief marriage provided, as Kennedy argued in Obergefell — the more likely it would receive government’s imprimatur.
This twin and symbiotic development of centralized administration and private withdrawal operated as a pincer that gradually squeezed authority and meaning out of civil society. The state, Tocqueville realized, would have an interest in taking over the functions of civil society precisely for the reason that it wanted to separate and isolate citizens from one another, thus making them easier to control. Independent of all the relevant public health issues, six feet apart and masked is the tyrant’s dream
Tocqueville thus worried that “democracy” had an inner dynamism toward estrangement and thus toward despotism. But that tendency toward despotism could be staved off if Americans would get out of their houses (and we would say, out from behind their screens) and engage in face-to-face neighborliness with each other. Civil association makes them feel as if they belong to something (and are not simply subjects of a distant government), and such belonging provides them with a sense of meaning and purpose for which politics can never be a substitute.
And so it ought to concern us that Americans are becoming more and more isolated from one another. Robert Putnam famously got at this problem in his well-known book Bowling Alone, wherein he argued that although Americans were bowling the same number of frames on a per capita basis in the 1990s as they were in the 1950s, membership in bowling leagues had plummeted. Thus — we are still bowling, but bowling alone, and this for him was a metaphor for our increasing isolation.
Americans are becoming lonelier. In the last 30 years the percentage of Americans claiming to have no close friends has quadrupled. According to the Surgeon General, one out of every two Americans is suffering from symptoms associated with loneliness. These symptoms include high levels of depression and anxiety, but also increased risks of heart disease, stroke, and dementia. The Surgeon General further insisted that loneliness correlates to mortality risk more than smoking and obesity do. Americans have fewer people they can rely on; the quest for invulnerability has made us, paradoxically, far more vulnerable.
A recent report highlighted the decreasing sense of “belonging” experienced by Americans. From the report:
In social psychology’s “theory of belongingness,” belonging is an innate motivational drive— underpinned by our ancestral origins—to form and maintain positive emotional bonds with others. Our need for belonging is so great that it permeates our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and is integrally connected to how we perceive and pursue our life goals.
We talk a great deal about inclusion, but inclusion both is and is not a part of belonging, which is by far the more important psychological and social need that we have. People who feel they belong have
improved cognition, creativity, and performance, as well as bolstered immune systems, which protect them from stress and disease. Within wider society, belonging is associated with increased civic engagement and trust.
Part of the reason why inclusion is not really part of belonging is because our sense of belonging to something both expresses a set of preferences we have that may be quite different from the preferences of others, and because we become less anonymous in exclusionary environments. Tocqueville believed that the anonymity of life in a mass democracy was a central cause of the withdrawal from public life. Why participate if we feel so inconsequential? If we feel our powerlessness in the face of the large administrative state? (While I typically am OK with putting competing ideas on a scale, I find the report’s placing of “belonging” on the opposite end of “excluding” to be a rather large conceptual error. I won’t tax the reader with an Aristotelian explanation of why that’s the case, but I think the report understates the psychological benefits of certain kinds of exclusion.) Whatever else friendship is, it is an exclusionary enterprise.
Still, the report is useful in that it demonstrates that one of the central problems with “our democracy” is the absence of belonging. We’ve talked in this space about civic friendship, but that is in some ways a bastardized mode of friendship. Aristotle once wrote that friends have no need of justice, but justice is the central virtue for civic friendship. Civic friendship is largely transactional, but friendship isn’t. Only people who are fully formed by the abrasions and friction of friendship are capable of the kind of rough-and-tumble that characterizes democratic citizenship, so the decline of friendship is one of the most concerning developments of our day. If we can’t perform our duties with regard to those we love, we certainly can’t be expected to perform them with regard to those we hate or those we don’t know. Friendships are the pathway to civic engagement.
Furthermore, the report stresses the importance of local engagement. A polity can never be stronger than its parts, so a strong country requires strong neighborhoods. These are not just the laboratories and schools of democracy, they are essential to making good citizens by making good neighbors. In one of its most important passages, this from the report:
Unfortunately, social engagement and belonging at the local level has been declining since the late 1960s, with more than 50% of Americans today reporting a lack of connection to their neighborhood. Meanwhile, people today tend to live in environments where they are surrounded by people similar to themselves, a structural reality which leads to echo chambers, amplifying existing views and ideologies, suppressing social contact across socioeconomic, racial, or geographic lines, and discouraging understanding and dialogue across lines of difference. The last decade has also seen a downward trend in trust—in other residents, local government, and institutions. This is concerning, since distrust in institutions can disrupt adherence to social norms and previously shared values, potentially making society less predictable (which would reinforce a cycle of distrust).
Our view is that if one is genuinely concerned about “threats to our democracy,” we should narrow our sights rather than broaden them. Democracy, like charity, begins at home. Without friends we will forever be deficient citizens.
- How do presidential politics and elections distract us from democratic practices?
- How well do you know your neighbors? What prevents you from knowing them better?
- Is “all politics local”?
- Why is friendship declining?