Alexis de Tocqueville famously believed that the young American republic had a genius for community. “Voluntary associations,” he wrote, sprang up everywhere to solve practical problems, agitate for political change, or try to move other Americans by moral suasion. These supple and pragmatic groupings trained people to take charge of their own affairs and put them in the habit of accommodating those who disagreed with them. They fostered the blend of initiative, self-assertion, and mutual respect that makes civic life work.
But Tocqueville also saw a bleaker face of American community. In a society of restless self-seekers, always eager to do a little better and fearful of falling behind, he worried that the moral imagination would contract. Americans, he wrote, fixed their attention on their own affairs and the affairs of those closest to them. They became indifferent to the larger community. These self-made people “owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody. They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands.”
Tocqueville’s paradox has only become more apt over the last eight years. Americans have both asked communities to do more and withdrawn into themselves, making the country more communitarian and more libertarian all at once. Some of this change is rooted in the politics of the Bush Administration, which has leaned on the language and symbolism of community but asked little in the way of civic engagement. Some of it, though, reflects much deeper changes, beyond anything Tocqueville foresaw or presidents can control. Americans have embraced stronger forms of individuality and self-realization, and they have begun seeking out communities that help to fulfill these goals. The very nature of community in America has changed.
Let’s begin with today’s version of Tocqueville’s paradox. On the one hand, communities are being asked to step up and do work that, not so long ago, would have belonged to government. This is true in the bipartisan embrace of faith-based social services. It is true of lawmaking: Ever more Americans live in housing developments, where homeowners’ associations take the place of local government. Even in political rhetoric, the last two presidents have studded their major addresses with the language of community, service, character, and personal responsibility, emphasizing the role of families and religious institutions in American life and eschewing traditional talk of national purpose or greatness. (The glaring exception is George W. Bush’s dramatic portrayal of a global anti-terrorism campaign as a national mission, but that is sharply divergent from his approach to domestic politics.) The public’s trust in institutions maps these changes, as Americans put their faith in local and civic rather than national and political institutions. Polls find that religious organizations, small business, and the military (a volunteer organization) enjoy far and away the highest levels of public trust, while Congress and the presidency come in near the bottom.
At the same time, there is evidence that Americans are withdrawing, both into their own lives and into communities of the like-minded. For all the quibbles it produced, Robert Putnam’s conclusion in Bowling Alone stands: Recent decades have devastated traditional social networks that were often cross-class and quasi-civic. A 2006 study found that between 1985 and 2004, Americans reported the average number of people with whom they can “discuss important issues” falling from three to two, with a quarter saying they have no one with whom to discuss such issues and 80 percent saying they turn only to family members. These networks are weakest among poorer and less-educated people. So is the share of those who say they more or less trust others.
As for like-mindedness, the most striking piece of evidence is journalist Bill Bishop’s (author of The Big Sort) discovery that between the very close presidential election of 1976 and that of 2004, the share of American counties with landslides (a spread of 20 points or more) rose from 27 percent to over 60 percent. Bishop speculates that this political segregation results from sorting along subtler cultural lines, as mobile Americans choose neighbors like themselves. In turn, party affiliation comes to be less about policy and more about cultural style and identity-reinforcing issues like abortion and guns. Other trends bespeak the same pattern. The local and voluntary organizations that Americans tend to trust (religious groups, small business, public schools in certain communities) are those they share with people like themselves, while the political and impersonal ones they mistrust lump them together with strangers. The emergence of civic brokers in politics, like megapreacher Rick Warren, marks an effort to bypass traditional sources of information in favor of judgments filtered by the like-minded and culturally similar. No doubt some of these attitudes are long-standing. It is probably not accidental that the country Tocqueville described has a fair amount in common with today’s America. But the trends are intensifying, at least across recent decades.
There is fair reason to think, then, that the country continues to play out Tocqueville’s paradox. We are becoming more communitarian toward those who resemble us, substituting voluntary associations for politics in addressing social problems and drawing on like-minded communities rather than national sources in making political decisions. But we are also more likely to feel disconnected from the fates of those we consider different from us, and skeptical of institutions that tie us too strongly to them. And, as in the bleak end-point of Tocqueville’s description, we are more likely to be alone.
The shape of our politics may be in some ways a symptom of this situation. But it could also be a cause, as Bush’s presidency has exploited and amplified these insular trends. Karl Rove’s politics of divisive cultural symbolism and mistrust of culturally different “elites” seized on the underlying changes and made them more politically salient. The administration’s indifference to civic obligation even after September 11 produced no unifying counterpoint to balkanized culture.
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