De Tocqueville’s description of what’s wrong with America today

Alexis de Tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville

One of the great things about switching to the NYT is that now I can read all of David Brooks’ columns without going over my allotment of free stories for the month.

So, I recommend to you his column today, “The G.O.P. Rejects Conservatism.” It’s about the Senate GOP’s morally and intellectually vapid “healthcare” bill, and it’s good throughout.

But the best bit wasn’t written by Brooks but by de Tocqueville about 180 years ago. He documented how the self-deceptive belief in radical individualism was a problem in our country from the start. Here’s the quote about those proto-libertarians:

“They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands. Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.”

Yep. Sounds familiar…

11 thoughts on “De Tocqueville’s description of what’s wrong with America today

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Nope. I’ve considered being an etymologist, though. About as close as I ever came to librarian.

      First thing I wanted to be, when I was 3 or 4 years old, was a United States Marine. I went around singing the hymn, having no idea what the Halls of Montezuma referred to, except I thought it sounded cool. Later, when I was about 9, I thought of being an FBI agent. Then, in high school and college, I moved toward journalism.

      If I had my druthers at this point, I’d direct movies…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        During the heyday of music videos, in the early 80s, I wanted to direct those. I loved that combination of pop music and video, thought it was an amazingly satisfying popular art form.

        But before and after that, I wanted to direct movies. I mean, if we’re just talking fantasy jobs here. And as long as we’re doing that, I might throw in professional baseball player…

        1. Bryan Caskey

          BARTLET: “There’s a great story about Arthur Miller. ‘Death of a Salesman’ had just opened on Broadway the night before, and he was walking around his old neighborhood in Brooklyn and he see’s a hot dog vendor that he went to high school with, and he says, ‘Hey, Jimmy, it’s me, Arthur Miller.’ And the hot dog vendor says, ‘Artie, how you doing?
          What you been up to?’ And Miller says, ‘I’m, you know, I’m a playwright.’ And the hot dog vendor says, ‘Hmm, play writing, I should’ve gone into that.”

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            As I said to someone today in an email…

            I’ve been watching “Madame Secretary” — I’m now in the second season — and rewatching “The West Wing,” and I feel painfully wistful at the spectacle of all those smart, qualified, thoughtful, committed, idealistic people agonizing over doing the right things in our dealings with the rest of the world. They might make mistakes, but they’re never stupid mistakes, or errors arising from just not caring.

            This was our reality for our entire history until 2016. Yet it seems like I’m watching something from a dream about Camelot, it seems so far away….

  1. Doug Ross

    There is a big gap between individualism and expectation of one’s fellow man. I fully support working with and helping those who are willing to put in the same effort. I am not disconnected from all people, I simply choose the ones I want to connect with. I have no interest in dealing with people who are irresponsible, unethical, stupid, or lazy and owe them NOTHING of my time and talents. I also don’t expect or feel I deserve anything from anyone else that I did not work for.

    If we’re all in the rowboat and one person is drilling a hole in the bottom of the boat, I have no problem with kicking him overboard.

    Those who support the “We’re all connected” usually are just talking about using taxes on some to provide benefit for others. They think that there is some moral superiority in redistributing what they do not own.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Oh, we all own it. We all own anything raised by duly levied taxes. It’s our duty as citizens to make decisions, acting through our elected representatives, first one whether to raise the taxes, and then on how we wish to spend those taxes.

      Hence discussions such as this one.

      Everyone gets a say. But not everyone gets his way. You can’t have a civilization that way…

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    A Twitter friend brought this to my attention today: “I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People.” An excerpt:

    I don’t know how to explain to someone why they should care about other people.

    Personally, I’m happy to pay an extra 4.3 percent for my fast food burger if it means the person making it for me can afford to feed their own family. If you aren’t willing to fork over an extra 17 cents for a Big Mac, you’re a fundamentally different person than I am.

    I’m perfectly content to pay taxes that go toward public schools, even though I’m childless and intend to stay that way, because all children deserve a quality, free education. If this seems unfair or unreasonable to you, we are never going to see eye to eye.

    If I have to pay a little more with each paycheck to ensure my fellow Americans can access health care? SIGN ME UP. Poverty should not be a death sentence in the richest country in the world. If you’re okay with thousands of people dying of treatable diseases just so the wealthiest among us can hoard still more wealth, there is a divide between our worldviews that can never be bridged….

    It’s kind of touchy-feely. I’m less about the empathy and more about the fact that it makes sense to look out for each other and have a safety net and such, else what’s the point of civilization?

    But yeah, she’s onto the main division in our political life. It’s far more important than the stupid liberal-conservative thing, or the stupider Democratic-Republican thing. This is fundamental. It’s pretty much impossible to have a meeting of the minds between someone who takes caring about others for granted, and those who get furious, downright indignant, at the suggestion that they should give a damn.

    There are lots of gradations of this. I’m not for single-payer because I’m so touchy-feely, or even because I think healthcare is a “right” (I’m very wary of minting new “rights”). I’m for it because that seems the rational way to deal with healthcare.

    Other people just work themselves into a lather at the thought of someone who in their opinion is “unworthy” getting to see a doctor when he or she is sick. I’ve never been much of one for caring about stuff like that.

    And Doug, I’m not pointing at you here. I know you’re a generous guy. There are all sort of gradations here, as I said…

    1. Jeff Mobley

      What about someone who gets indignant at the suggestion that caring for others must always necessarily imply a transaction to which the government is a party?

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I don’t think anyone thinks that. But I know a lot of Republicans think other people think that.

        And Democrats think Republicans think caring for others must EVER imply a transaction to which the government is a party.

        For my part, if it seems reasonable for there to be a governmental safety net in this or that case — if we can look at other states, other countries and see where it works — I say why not? Ideology leaves me cold…

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