Patrick’s little essay is pretty important. That’s not because he called attention to anything in DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA that we postmodern conservatives didn’t already know about. And that’s not because he’s challenging his readers over there at THE AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE: He’s supporting the view they already had about the relationship between atomistic individualism and statism. It’s one they often find in the social theorist Robert Nisbet, who partly got it from Tocqueville.
The challenge is to those STRAUSSIANS who attribute our progressivism, statism, and general dependency on entitlements to an HISTORICIST INVASION from Germany that landed, for example, in the library of Woodrow Wilson. Our shortcomings don’t come from foreign influences, they’re pretty darn indigenous deep down.
Individualism, Patrick could easily have made more clear, is the emotional result of the intellectual isolation caused by the Cartesian method of the Americans. That method, reduced to one word, is doubt—meaning doubt of personal authority or the word of others in order to think for yourself. That method, of course, causes the Americans never to read Descartes, which is something you would do only on the word of someone else (including someone who could help you figure out what Descartes really means).
The Cartesian method flourishes in America because it’s the democratic method. It’s the intellectual part of the democrat’s proud claim that “nobody is better than me.” The problem, of course, is the next moment I humbly or at least weakly realize that “I’m no better than anyone else.” And so surrounded by a sea of selves that I have no right to distinguish myself from, I surrender my personal sovereignty in thought to impersonal forces—such as public opinion, popular science or scientism, and history or technology. So that democratic method, by itself, could easily explain why Americans are so easily tempted to think of themselves as parts of impersonal wholes greater than themselves. The greatest of those wholes, Tocqueville memorably told us, is expressed by the doctrine of pantheism. Certainly it’s easy to see how American “free thinkers” could lose themselves, Tocqueville also told us, in the vague (because techno/historical—as opposed to personal) vision of the “indefinite perfectibility of man.”
The democratic method produces intellectual isolation. Its emotional consequence is individualism—the “heart disease” produced by the mistaken judgment that love and hate are more trouble than they’re worth and turn us into suckers. That judgment, we have to admit, is rather Lockean, although maybe more the calculative, contractual spirit Locke wanted to impart in us than the letter of Locke. The “virtue” of individualism is indifference, and it’s indifference that makes us each prey for despots.
So both the democratic intellectual method and the democratic heart-contracting emotional judgment make effective thought and action impossible. They’re both, we can say, deeply unerotic. They deny the truth about the RELATIONAL nature of human beings. Consciousness, in truth, is consciousness with. Tocqueville even says that free thought and free action depends on some common acceptance of dogmatic certitude, on, for example, some reliance on communal or political or religious tradition. Even philosophers can’t think or do it all alone.
I think (as usual) that Patrick is overly dramatic. He forgets that Tocqueville, in DEMOCRACY’s volume 2, distinguishes between democratic trends and American realities. He spends a lot of time talking about the various ways Americans combat individualism. Two of those ways are religion and the family. It is quite the exaggeration to say that “individualism” has completely emptied out the content of American faith or the American family, although I worry as much as the next not-libertarian conservative guy about our indispensable relational or associational institutions becoming too Lockeanized.
I also think that Tocqueville’s famous chapter on soft despotism and all was a kind of thought experiment more than a prediction of the American future.
Not only that, I think we have plenty of evidence these days that “the road to serfdom” (the famous titled sampled from Tocqueville) doesn’t ever get to serfdom. Our individualism is imploding the safety nets—beginning with the government entitlements—on which we’ve come to rely. The omnicompetent rule of petty and endlessly intrusive schoolmarms is not our present or our future. It’s not that there aren’t intellectual tendencies and emotional inclinations in that soft despotic direction, but most of them are unsustainable given, for example, harsh demographic realities and the imperatives of global capitalism. The techno-vision of indefinite perfectibility increasingly lacks a bigger-and-better-government or specifically progressivist component. And History, as I’ve said before, is dead.
Still, all you have to do to be reminded that there is some connection between individualism and statism is to utter the phrase “single mom.”