I still remember reading Tocqueville’s Democracy in America for the first time, as a freshman in college. I was astonished! How could this French aristocrat have understood us so well, I wondered. And how could we have changed so little over such a long period of time?
Last week, I reread Tocqueville’s other, lesser-known masterwork, The Old Regime and the French Revolution. I was astonished all over again. How could Trump’s America be so much like Tocqueville’s France? How could we have changed so much in the last 35 years?
Let me explain what is at stake, the problems that we face, and how we can confront them, all from a Tocquevillean point of view. What is at stake is the American creed of freedom, equality, inclusion, and solidarity. What is endangering it is the growing animosity between religious and nonreligious Americans and the growth of tribalism on both the left and the right. What is needed is a unifying vision that draws Americans together again without whitewashing the differences that divide them. But also new policies to regenerate civic unity.
In Democracy in America, Tocqueville observed that religion and republicanism had always gone hand in hand in the United States, and to the benefit of both. Not because church and state were merged or because the clergy meddled in politics but precisely because they weren’t and didn’t. There was no established religion and the clergy maintained a respectful distance from politics. Still, religion provided a powerful buttress to republican government. The churches schooled Americans in the practice of voluntary association while the clergy gently instilled respect for the nation’s laws. Not always, of course, but in their better moments at least.
In France, on the other hand, religion and republicanism were increasingly at odds with each other, and to the detriment of both. The rupture between religion and republicanism during the Revolution was succeeded by a bad marriage between religion and empire consecrated by Napoleon. There was an official religion and the clergy was politically vocal. In this ill-fated union between throne and altar, the Catholic Church supported the French monarchy, while the clergy preached obedience to authority, and republicans therefore opposed both. This same dynamic played out across all of Latin Europe. In these countries, it was politics rather than science that really drove people out of the churches.
Having discerned the likely outcome of these dynamics early on, Tocqueville sagely advised that “Religion by uniting with different political powers, can … form only burdensome alliances. It has no need of their help to survive and may die, if it serves them.”
The religious right in Trump’s America would do well to heed Tocqueville’s advice. Since the late 1970s it has embraced the Republican Party ever more tightly, alienating increasing numbers of Americans from Christianity. For a time, the adverse effects of the evangelical-Republican alliance on American Christianity were concealed by high birth rates among religious conservatives. But then, last year, a number of evangelical leaders made a Faustian bargain with Donald Trump: their moral credibility in exchange for promises of political protection. As a result, the day of reckoning is coming, and coming soon.
Secular progressives are missing a key lesson from the sociology of religion: for most people, belonging trumps maximizing.
Some evangelical leaders have taken a principled stand against this bargain, in effect a suicide pact, and rightly so. Christian intellectuals such as Russell Moore and Peter Wehner have spoken out forcefully against Trumpism; and they are paying a heavy price for doing so. But the price for the evangelical churches will be heavier still. The inevitable result will be the continued secularization of American society—and also the rapid fragmentation of the evangelical movement.
The evangelical community is already splintering along existing fault lines of generation, gender, and race. Younger evangelicals who care about environmental stewardship and social justice, evangelical women disgusted by the hypocritical double standards of male clergymen, and nonwhite evangelicals angered by the abominations of white nativism are increasingly uneasy with their national leadership, even at evangelical strongholds such as Wheaton College and Liberty University. If the national spokesmen of the religious right ignore these warnings—as it appears they will—then they are destined to repeat history—French history.
The coming crisis of the religious right could be an opportunity for the progressive left. From the Revolution to abolition to civil rights, reformist movements in the United States have succeeded only if and to the degree that they have assembled diverse coalitions that included people of faith. As Tocqueville knew, and modern social science research confirms, religious communities can generate levels of moral commitment and social capital that secular movements often cannot. The potential power of such an alliance is already on full display in the Moral Mondays movement that has so effectively challenged the populist right in North Carolina.
Building alliances is never easy. In this case it will require that secular progressives and religious moderates agree to disagree on the issues that divide them so that they can work together on the issues that unite them. Many moderate Catholics and alienated evangelicals are ready to lock arms with secular progressives on issues like climate change policy, the mass incarceration crisis, and immigration reform. Most accept gay marriage as well. But abortion rights are still a sticking point. This is where secular progressives might need to give a little ground, or at least strike a somewhat less strident and more conciliatory tone, by acknowledging the very real moral concerns that many people of faith have about “the life questions.” Not all pro-life Christians are closet anti-feminists.
If Democracy in America contains important lessons for the religious right, The Old Regime should be required reading for the Davos left. One of the most important causes of the French Revolution, Tocqueville argues, was the political abdication of the French aristocracy. The aristocracy did not renounce its privileges—its freedom from taxation—only its responsibilities. When it fled the drudgery of the provinces for the splendors of the court, it ceased to govern; but it did not cease to exploit. On the contrary, disconnected from the daily sufferings of the rural population, it squeezed the last centime out of the peasantry in order to support its idle pleasures. In the long run, says Tocqueville, this arrangement was untenable, making the Revolution inevitable.
The American aristocracy of today operates in much the same fashion as the French aristocracy of yesteryear. From its exclusive bastions in the coastal metropolises, it uses financial engineering to squeeze dollars from an ever-expanding debtor class via interest payments and service fees; and it deploys its coding prowess to “disrupt” the lives and livelihoods of taxi drivers, sales clerks, and other lesser mortals. The once vibrant towns and cities of the great industrial heartland that stretches from the Central Valley to the Hudson Valley have been left to languish and decay.
Of course, the new aristocracy does not explicitly base its claims to privilege on birth and culture. Instead, it points to smarts and effort—to Ivy League diplomas and long work weeks—though in truth its privileges have as much to do with accidents of birth and access to culture as anything else. As currently constituted, the American meritocracy mostly reproduces privilege. In the long run, this arrangement is clearly untenable. Sooner or later, a few class traitors and populist tribunes like Donald Trump and Steve Bannon will explain all of this to those left behind. And to great political effect, as we saw in the recent elections.
So why are downscale Americans continually voting against their material interests? After all, it is clear that Trump & Co. will betray their base whenever it suits them. But the real puzzle here is why secular progressives are so puzzled in the first place. They are missing a key lesson from the sociology of religion. For most people, belonging trumps maximizing. Economic self-interest is less powerful than many progressives like to imagine. And appeals to common vision and universal values are more powerful.
So why haven’t secular progressives countered Trumpian populism with an alternative vision?
Democratic institutions alone are not sufficient to sustain self-government. Democratic mores are also crucial.
This brings us to a second parallel between pre-Revolutionary France and post-Trumpian America. Even as education made the better classes more and more alike, Tocqueville observed, they tried harder and harder to distinguish themselves from one another. They sought solace for their sameness in the finest of distinctions. Closed off from one another in a thousand water-tight compartments, he noted, in so many self-enclosed social niches, all fully isolated from the great unwashed, they first lost the habit of democratic association, then of civic leadership, and finally of mutual sympathy.
Can we not observe an analogous development in contemporary America? The educated middle classes have become more and more alike in their tastes and habits and the old differences of race, ethnicity, and region have been gradually eroded—a welcome development, of course, for which they continually congratulate themselves. But this sameness conflicts with the bourgeois-bohemian ethos of individualism and authenticity. So, they try harder and harder to differentiate themselves from one another by means of the finest differences in taste—be it in hobbies, travel, sports, food, or clothing.
This process of splitting and clustering has been further accelerated in recent years by the advent of social media and consumer capitalism, which allow for the identification and display of ever more fine-grained cultural distinctions. Meanwhile, class contempt grows apace, aggravating existing resentments. Should we be surprised that some Americans react against this preening individualism and yearn for cultural unity, even if they too often find it in all the wrong places?
The university-based intelligentsia is not the prime mover behind these trends. But it has more often abetted than resisted them. The celebration of diversity on American college campuses is now well into its fourth decade. Multiculturalism began as a worthy battle for the cultural recognition of marginalized groups. Yet it has slowly given rise to something else: a utopian crusade to eradicate “cultural insensitivity” of any kind that all too often devolves into scapegoating and witch hunts.
Meanwhile, the populist right has exploited the excesses of the cultural left with considerable success. Some Christian conservatives now present themselves as the most persecuted minority in America. Political performance artists such as Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos camouflage themselves as civil libertarians. And—most worryingly of all—white nationalists now claim that they are just “defending their culture.” In all these ways, the multicultural tribalism of the left has unwittingly provided political cover for the monocultural tribalism of the right.
Populism, Right and Left
The republic is in crisis. That crisis is full of danger; but also of opportunity. The danger is that the populist right will further undermine our democratic institutions. But this gives the progressive left an opportunity to articulate an alternative vision of American patriotism. Not the sort of jingoistic and chauvinistic hyperpatriotism that currently travels under the alias of “American exceptionalism”; rather, the sort of critical but affirmative patriotism articulated by leaders like Lincoln and King. A patriotism that also recognizes the universal significance of the American project, namely: to forge a nation of nations and a people of peoples, a continental republic uniting a diverse citizenry around a shared vision of the common good. Such a patriotism could also appeal to political moderates and perhaps even to disaffected Republicans, thereby reversing the rightward drift of the political center.
One of the central insights of Tocqueville’s writings—perhaps the central insight—is that democratic institutions alone are not sufficient to sustain self-government. Democratic mores are also crucial: habits of association, cooperation, and mutual aid. In early America, Tocqueville observed, these habits were instilled in civil society and especially in religious society. In contemporary America, where commerce crowds out civic life, and collective religiosity is giving way to individual spirituality—even in church—they must be acquired elsewhere. But where? This is a vital question for anyone who is concerned about the long-term health of the American republic.
Let me conclude with a few proposals, some modest, others much less so, about how we might renew America’s old “habits of the heart.” We might start by making civic holidays into holidays again, days when Americans neither work nor shop, days for civic activity and reflection. Second, we could require that every American high school student pass the same civics exam that aspiring citizens take. Third and finally, we could institute a year of national service for all young Americans: no waivers and no exceptions. Together, these measures would go some distance to mending the widening tears in the social fabric of American life. Or, we could continue along the road we are on, a road paved with distraction, disinterest, and disengagement, a road that leads to the not-so-soft tyranny of right-wing populism.