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Individualism, Conformity and Community in U.S. Politics: A Meditation on Tocqueville’s Democracy in America Dr. Ron Schmidt California State University.

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Presentation on theme: "Individualism, Conformity and Community in U.S. Politics: A Meditation on Tocqueville’s Democracy in America Dr. Ron Schmidt California State University."— Presentation transcript:

1 Individualism, Conformity and Community in U.S. Politics: A Meditation on Tocqueville’s Democracy in America Dr. Ron Schmidt California State University Long Beach Fulbright-Enders Visiting Research Chair, Center for International Studies (CERIUM) University of Montreal


3 Introduction Background: How I came to give this talk. Background: Tocqueville in the U.S. – Why?, When?, Where? My aim: using Tocqueville’s insights to understand the interplay of individualism and conformism in American political life.

4 “Individualism” vs. “Egoism” Individualism, in contrast, is a calm and considered feeling which persuades each citizen to cut himself off from his fellows and to withdraw into the circle of his family and friends in such a way that he thus creates a small group of his own and willingly abandons society at large to its own devices... Egoism blights the seeds of every virtue, individualism at first dries up only the source of public virtue. In the longer term it attacks and destroys all the others and will finally merge with egoism...(Vol 2, Pt 2, Ch 2

5 Middle-class Individualism Such people owe nothing to anyone and, as it were, expect nothing from anyone. They are used to considering themselves in isolation and quite willingly imagine their destiny as entirely in their own hands. Thus, not only does democracy make men forget their ancestors but also hides their descendants and keeps them apart from their fellows. It constantly brings them back to themselves and threatens in the end to imprison them in the isolation of their own hearts. (Vol 2, Pt 2, Ch 2)

6 Commentary Do such “individuals” really exist? The “culture” of individualism as paradox The social construction of “self-made” and “self-sufficient” individuals A. MacIntyre as more realistic to life as lived.

7 Anxious Restlessness of Americans It is a strange thing to see the feverish enthusiasm which accompanies the Americans’ pursuit of prosperity and the way they are ceaselessly tormented by the vague fear that they have failed to choose the shortest route to achieve it....

8 Restlessness (cont.) In the United States, a man will carefully construct a home in which to spend his old age and sell it before the roof is on; he will plant a garden and will rent it out just as he was about to enjoy its fruit; he will clear a field and leave others to reap the harvest. He will take up a profession and then give it up. He will settle in one place only to go off elsewhere shortly afterwards with a new set of desires....

9 Restlessness (cont.) Death steps in at last and brings him to a halt before he has tired of this futile pursuit of that complete happiness which continues to elude him. (V2, Pt2, Ch13)

10 Source of Restless Anxiety? The taste for physical pleasures must be acknowledged as the prime source of this secret anxiety in the behavior of Americans and of this unreliability which they exemplify every day. (V2, Pt 2, Ch 13)

11 The Road to Social Conformity Since in times of equality no one is obliged to lend his assistance to his fellow men and no one has the right to expect any great support from them, each man is both independent and weak.

12 Road to Conformity (cont.) These two conditions which one must not view either separately or connected together give the citizens of democracies very contradictory urges. Independence fills him with confidence and pride amongst his equals while his vulnerability occasionally makes him feel the need for outside support, which he cannot expect from one of his own people since they are all powerless and unsympathetic.... (V2, Pt4, Ch3)

13 Aristocratic vs. Democratic In contrast to aristocratic society: In ages of equality, each individual is naturally isolated with no hereditary friends whose help he can demand, no class whose sympathetic support he can rely on; he is thrust easily aside and trampled underfoot without redress (V2, Pt4, Ch7)

14 Conformity as Consequence If, at the heart of such a [democratic] nation, the influence of each individual is weak and almost non-existent, the power of the mass over each individual mind is very extensive.

15 Conformity (cont.) In aristocracies, men often possess a greatness and strength of their own. Whenever they find themselves at variance with the majority of their fellows, they withdraw into themselves to find support and consolation.

16 Conformity (cont.) Such is not the case with democratic nations; there, public approval seems as vital as the air they breathe and being at odds with the population as a whole is, so to speak, no life at all. The masses have no need to use the law to bend those who think differently from them. Disapproval is enough. The feeling of isolation and powerlessness immediately overwhelms them and drives them to despair.

17 Conformity (cont.) Whenever social conditions are equal, the opinion of all bears down with a great weight upon the mind of each individual, enfolding, controlling, and oppressing him. This is due much more to the constitution of society than to its political laws. As all men grow more alike, each individual feels increasingly weak in relation to the rest...

18 Conformity (cont.) Since he can find nothing to elevate himself above their level or to distinguish himself from them, he loses confidence in himself the moment they attack him; not only does he mistrust his own strength but he even comes to doubt that he should have rights and is close to accepting that he is in the wrong, since the greater number of his fellows assert this fact.The majority has no need to compel him; he is convinced by them. (V2, Pt3, Ch21)

19 Political Consequences – Centralized Power & Uniform Legislation Since each man sees little difference between himself and his neighbor, he has difficulty in understanding why a rule applying to one person should not equally apply to all the others. Privileges of the smallest kind are, therefore, repellent to him. The slightest differences in the political institutions of the same nation pain him and legislative uniformity seems the foremost condition of a good government. (V2, Pt4, Ch2)

20 And again... Democratic governments, then, “wear themselves out imposing the same customs and laws on populations which have as yet nothing in common” (V2, Pt4, Ch2) “It has never entered their [the Americans’] heads that the same law cannot be applied uniformly to all parts of one state and all the men living in it” (V2, Pt4, Ch2)

21 Summing up: The unity, the universality, the omnipotence of society’s power, and the uniformity of its rules represent the outstanding feature of all the political systems invented in our day. (V2, Pt4, Ch2)

22 Contemporary Applications Ethno-racial Diversity and Public Policy - Language Policy – Defending English in an English-Dominant World; - Affirmative Action Policy – “Equal Opportunity” for “White” Males

23 Tocqueville’s Limitations What are limitations of Tocqueville’s Analysis? Sources of individualism? Reconsider realities. How can such a patently false ideology survive in 21 st Century? Tocqueville emphasized “social equality” as core source of individualism, focusing on social “moeurs”

24 Tocqueville’s Limitations (cont.) Social Equality as moeurs vs. Social Equality as power resources. Example: G.W. Bush and moeurs vs. G.W. Bush and power resources. What is missing in Tocqueville? One possible path to discovery: Tocqueville’s prediction for democratic despotism vs. realities.

25 Tocqueville’s Prediction I wish to imagine under what new features despotism might appear in the world: I see an innumerable crowd of men, all alike and equal, turned in upon themselves in a restless search for those petty, vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, living apart, is almost unaware of the destiny of all the rest...

26 Predicting Despotism (cont.) His children and personal friends are for him the whole of the human race; as for the remainder of his fellow citizens, he stands alongside them but does not see them; he touches them without feeling them; he exists only in himself and for himself; if he still retains his family circle, at any rate he may be said to have lost his country.

27 Predicting Despotism (cont.) Above these men stands an immense and protective power which alone is responsible for looking after their enjoyments and watching over their destiny. It is absolute, meticulous, ordered, provident, and kindly disposed. It would be like a fatherly authority if, fatherlike, its aim were to prepare men for manhood, but it seeks only to keep them in perpetual childhood;...

28 Predicting Despotism (cont.) it prefers its citizens to enjoy themselves provided they have only enjoyment in mind. It works readily for their happiness but it wishes to be the only provider and judge of it. It provides their security, anticipates and guarantees their needs, supplies their pleasures, directs their principal concerns, manages their industry, regulates their estates,...

29 Predicting Despotism (cont.) divides their inheritances. Why can it not remove from them entirely the bother of thinking and the troubles of life?.... I have always believed that this type of organized, gentle, and peaceful enslavement just described could link up more easily than imagined with some of the external forms of freedom and that it would not be impossible for it to take hold in the very shadow of the sovereignty of the people. (V2, Pt4, Ch6)

30 Keys to Individualism’s Continuing Power in U.S. Key Institutional/Structural Changes: Limited-liability corporation; Legal rights of corporate “personhood” (14 th Amendment) Combination supports invisibility of corporate power and continuation of legal foundation for individualist ideology. Ideology perpetuated via media, education, politics.

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