Originally published in the January 2017 issue of First Things.
The Art of Being Free: How Alexis de Tocqueville Can Save Us from Ourselves
by James Poulos
St Martin’s, 304 pages, $26.99
Alexis de Tocqueville was sensitive about his height, a mere 5 feet 4 inches, but it would have made him feel a giant to see some of the midgets who have followed after him. No amount of hair spray will ever make Bernard-Henri Lévy stand as tall as the man in whose footsteps he claimed to be traveling in American Vertigo (2006). Jean Baudrillard, Stephen Fry, and Karl Ove Knausgaard all retraced Democracy in America’s journey, and not one of them could summon their precursor’s sympathy for those money-grubbing, obese Yankees. On the other side of the spectrum, one Australian imitator whom I will not name promoted his self-styled Tocqueville reboot on a website that, when you opened it, auto-played Tina Turner singing “Simply the Best” over a background alternating his book jacket and billowing American flags. I wish I could tell you that that book was self-published.
James Poulos is not a foreigner, but he is nevertheless good casting for the part of a modern day Tocqueville, as an alien from outer space. Or so he seems in photographs of him in his alternate persona as a rock star, sporting fur coats, tattoos, and varying degrees of eyeliner. But that is only one side of our author. In addition to serving as frontman for the glam band Night Years, Poulos has studied for a Ph.D. in political theory at Georgetown University, covered the 2012 presidential campaign for VICE magazine, and briefly, with the greatest reluctance, worked as a lawyer. He has written for the wonky National Affairs and the dishy Daily Beast. There is no young writer on the right with a resume quite like his. Naturally, unlike everyone else in political punditry, Poulos lives in Los Angeles.
His unusual background furnishes The Art of Being Free with some memorable freeze-frames of life in our mad century. Meeting over M&Ms and Tootsie-Roll Pops with Kylie and Kendall Jenner to pitch them a young adult novel based on their lives. Seeing a long-labored-over novel with a terrorism subplot rendered instantly unpublishable by September 11. Realizing that his apartment building is the same one that Edward Norton blows up in Fight Club. Sitting in a Landmark Forum (successor program to Werner Erhard’s est seminars) knowing that all the self-help in the world will not save his marriage.
Pinning down the thesis that Poulos extracts from all this is more difficult. His starting point is a distinctively American “craziness” that he never quite explains but assumes readers will recognize. Its symptoms are a tendency to melodrama, an anxiety about being interchangeable with everyone else, and a tortured need to treat one’s own authenticity as a secret waiting to be discovered. Tocqueville, he claims, “understood better than anyone how the dramatic craziness of life was a constitutive, baked-in part of Americans.” The Frenchman’s lessons, as summarized by Poulos, are sometimes woolly—the difference between “performing our autonomy” (bad) and “experiencing our freedom” (good) is not intuitively clear to me—but nevertheless are provocative in the way that abstractions can be.
The precedent for blending a scholarly reading of Tocqueville with personal narrative was set by Poulos’s graduate school mentor, Joshua Mitchell, in his Tocqueville in Arabia: Dilemmas in a Democratic Age (2013). Like his advisee, Professor Mitchell grew weary of the squabbles of academia and lit off for more relevant pastures, in his case by moving to Qatar and Iraq in order to help organize American-style universities there. Mitchell’s tale is worth pausing over in order to head off from the very beginning one of the great hazards of talking about Tocqueville: so generalizing his ideas that they collapse into commonplaces no one could possibly disagree with. (Volunteerism is good!) To get a grip on what Tocqueville said, it is useful to find someone who does disagree with him. Mitchell had to go halfway around the world to encounter such people, but he found them.
Mitchell’s Arab students hated Tocqueville. When he taught classes in Buenos Aires and Lisbon, his students there hated Tocqueville, too. This came as a shock to Mitchell, not just as a devotee but because he thought Democracy in America would be the perfect book for their national predicaments. Tocqueville’s basic theme, if you had to put it in a sentence, is the transition from an aristocratic age to a democratic one, which he thought (correctly) would be the dominating theme of nineteenth century politics. With post-colonial and newly globalized countries facing fundamentally the same transition two centuries later, Mitchell assumed they would want to hear about the solutions pioneered by the first country to face its uncertainties and disorientations.
Instead, his students dismiss it as “a book about and for Americans, those exceptional and curious people.” Mitchell blames this on their lingering commitment to aristocratic values, which is hardly fair. His Latin students, for instance, have their own political tradition designed to cope with atomization, class upheaval, and all the other horsemen of modernity: a Thomistic theory of the organic state that emphasizes group rights over individual rights, cooperation over competition, top-down rather than bottom-up decision making. Corporatism is an alternative to Tocquevillean association, not a stage in its development. It is no coincidence that the American political scientist who has written most extensively on Ibero-Latin corporatism, Howard Wiarda, also wrote an exasperated book aimed at would-be exporters of American-style democracy called Civil Society, which would better have been called Against Civil Society as Tocqueville Understood It.
Poulos’s home territory of California is almost as foreign to nineteenth-century America as Mesopotamia. Tocqueville thought the north and the south were as different as two countries—if only he could have driven down Wilshire Boulevard! “We are all in the gutter, but some of us ogle the stars,” Poulos writes of the L.A. mentality, adapting a line of Oscar Wilde’s in order to express a most un-Tocquevillean attitude to our modern aristocracy. Poulos recalls sitting in a theater watching Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups and thinking that its screenwriter protagonist is exactly the person that Batman, that other Christian Bale character, would have become if he had moved to L.A. Quite a transmutation, that. Imagining Tocquevillean man transferred to modern California is nearly as challenging.
But even if we could, it wouldn’t matter. Tocqueville still has much to teach us, Poulos says. However true that may be at an individual level, it does not change the fact that the America described by Tocqueville is well and truly dead.
* * * * *
The term “civil society” has become so imprecise that politicians, pundits, and academics who should know better now use it to refer to a spirit that exists in every society, varying only in its institutional forms and relative strength. It is true that the virtues underlying civil society—altruism, trustworthiness, charity—exist in all places at all times. But the term itself is more specific. As we saw in the Latin American example above, some political traditions reject the idea as too anarchic and individualistic. Moreover, as nation-builders and development NGOs have discovered, one cannot simply create the space for civil society in a foreign country and trust that it will emerge.
The same imprecision has long made it difficult to assess the health of American civil society, as was evident in the backlash against Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. The Rotary Club may have fewer members, his critics said, but the Sierra Club’s numbers are up. We may go to church less, but we brunch more. So what if young people are less active in local politics? They share woke memes on Facebook! Optimists have consoled themselves with the idea that civil society had not weakened, only changed vessels. Two decades after Putnam first published his findings, declining social capital has become harder to deny. A third of Americans have never met their neighbors, more than a quarter live alone, marriage rates are still down, opioid overdoses have quadrupled, one in six working-age men are out of the workforce, and a quarter of those men use three hours per day of their abundant free time to play video games.
What killed civil society? Prosaic factors such as technology played their role, as did the shift of women into the work force. Almost everything that once made American communities cohesive, from child-minding to neighborly casseroles to driving Widow Jones to the grocery store, was powered by the labor of stay-at-home wives, for which they were not paid but for which they will surely be blessed hereafter. Other changes have occurred at that spiritual register to which Tocqueville was so attuned, striking at not just the logistics but the very spirit of civil society.
The first of these is meritocracy. Tocqueville marveled at the power of the country’s commercial ethos to shape Americans’ souls in unexpected ways. It fostered self-reliance and at the same time sociability. When excessive individualism tempted Americans to withdraw into their own small family circles, business sent them back out into the world to mingle and form ties with their fellow men. Meritocracy has much in common with a commercial society—instability, scope for ambition, habits of self-discipline—but it makes us look inward, not outward. It tells us that success lies in constantly refining and supplementing our own talents. Gone is the risk-taking that so impressed Tocqueville, who observed that Americans were “remarkably indulgent toward businessmen who go bankrupt,” so much did they honor audacity. Instead we all follow the paths laid out for us, from university to internship and into our careers, each in our own individual groove.
Another is immigration, a threat that Tocqueville himself foresaw. On his original journey, he observed that, although English and French settlers had lived alongside each other in Michigan for almost a century, “they have nothing in common. They are English and French just as they appear on the banks of the Seine and the Thames.” Years later, when he was informed that hundreds of thousands of Germans were being received into the United States, Tocqueville warned that “soon you will no longer be yourselves.” The Canadian frontier had taught him that national differences do not fade quickly, and Germans, while industrious and personally admirable, had little experience with free institutions in their politics. This is to say nothing of the declining social trust that Robert Putnam has identified as a side effect of increasing diversity, the “turtle” effect that makes citizens “hunker down,” an unforeseen consequence that Tocqueville would have grasped immediately.
Poulos’s subtitle promises that Tocqueville can “save us from ourselves.” The self-help seeker wishing to know the gravamen of his advice might think of it as a choice between the two meanings of the phrase “Deal with it.” Americans rely too much on “dealing” in the sense of haggling, Poulos argues, noting that it is the mentality of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho (those Christian Bale characters again). We should stop bargaining and start accepting, the better to embrace our inescapable freedom. I do not want to suggest that this advice is too personal to meet the needs of our national problems. I dare say a largescale spiritual renovation would go further toward solving them than most people think. Certainly Poulos’s reading is preferable to yet another book citing Tocqueville in support of the same quaint clichés. But if we are going to resurrect a nineteenth century author to speak to our time, our first choice should not be one who celebrated America for qualities that it has ceased to possess.