De Tocqueville And The Habits Of The Heart
Re-reading Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America highlights just how individualistic our conversation about habits has become
Our obsession with daily habits, from mindfulness to productivity hacks, could be destroying democracy in our lifetime.
Last year, I re-read Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. My daughter was studying the book for a college course, and I thought it would be fun to read along.
I’d always wanted to revisit de Tocqueville anyway. Sometimes I think about writing a comparison of Democracy in America and Jean Baudrillard’s America, a contrast between the younger USA’s promise at the start of modernity and what it became in post-modernity.
But late last year, my thoughts were not so grand. I was happy to let de Tocqueville accompany me during another pandemic wave. I was curious but not driven in my reading.
“Habits of the heart” was a thoroughly modern phrase de Tocqueville used several times. As if the young French aristocrat was reaching through time to speak to us today, we have become obsessed with the power of habits in everyday life.
Except his words are more of a rebuke than an affirmation.
Habits Of The Heart
For Alexis de Tocqueville, the habits of the heart were what distinguished Americans from Europeans. Family life, church, participation in local town politics, even reading newspapers as a way to stay informed were surprising features of the lives of ordinary people in the New World democracy of America. The way these people’s habits shaped a thoughtful and reflective approach to life impressed de Tocqueville.
These habits of the heart also helped to establish and sustain democratic institutions. They meant people came to the ballot box relatively well informed and with a coherent moral ethos. People were engaged with civic institutions like local government and felt able to speak about and influence the issues of the day.
The habits of the heart reinforced democracy.
De Tocqueville was one of the first to write about individualism, and he wasn’t a fan. He was concerned individualism would lead people to see themselves as distinct from, rather than connected to, other citizens. Individualism might lead people to be less interested in the habits of the heart. They might focus instead on themselves and be less informed about the issues that affected society as a whole, or less interested in participating in civic institutions.
The Danger of Individualism
A particular obsession of de Tocqueville was how a society could resist tyranny and despotism. Local civic institutions and a sense of “common interests” are a way for society to hold on to freedom. The French Revolution was, for de Tocqueville, an example of how democracy didn’t automatically guarantee freedom for all citizens. After the Revolution, local institutions in France were weak, and the country was torn between freedom and tyranny.
In 1985, Robert Bellah et al. wrote Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, a collection of essays that tried to warn against the rise of individualism – particularly the kind that undermined democratic institutions in just the way de Tocqueville suggested.
Since then, though, culture wars, the rise of populism and, in more recent pandemic-era manifestations, individualism have become more prominent, while trust in civic institutions has declined.
Five Contemporary Habits Of The Heart
In his book Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, Parker J. Palmer expands on de Tocqueville’s idea to name five habits we could practice as a way to heal our sense of civic trust.
First, we’re interconnected and interdependent; we need each other, including each other’s experiences and expertise. Second, we need to appreciate “otherness” and be hospitable to different people and traditions. Third, we have to creatively embrace tensions in society and not just shut them down or explain them away. Fourth, we need to cultivate our own voice and agency making an active contribution to society. Finally, we need to create communities.
These five habits help us feel like we’re part of something bigger. They also encourage humility since they help us see how things that seem true for us might not be true for everyone. And they encourage us to take an active role in society.
Habits And Moral Coherence
Habits are a hugely popular topic. I’ve mentioned habits in at least a hundred articles on this blog. And writers who focus primarily on habits, like James Clear and Charles Duhigg, are often quoted in everyday discourse.
But most of the conversation around habits is personal. Primarily, it’s about personal improvement. Habits are a way to be healthier, more productive or more successful. Habits are for our individual benefit.
However, we’re faced with bigger problems than our individual well-being, like the health of our societies and our planet.
De Tocqueville believed the “moral and intellectual state of a people” influenced their ability to maintain the civic institutions required for freedom and democracy. The habits of the heart are the way we address our common interests.
“Democracy is not a state, it is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.”
– John Lewis
The conversation around habits needs to become less atomized, less focused on us as individuals, and better able to address our responsibility to each other. If all our habits are just arrows that point back to our own self-importance, then we’ll never adequately address the problems we all share and cannot solve alone.