The Chinese Tocqueville?

Most Americans–or so I hope–have at least heard of Alexis de Tocqueville, the Frenchman who traveled the United States in the mid-1800s and wrote of his observations. Those of us who have taught social studies of one kind or another generally include at least some of Tocqueville’s writings in our lesson plans.

It’s worth considering just how out-of-date Tocqueville’s observations are, some two hundred years later, especially right now when Americans have evidently lost the ability to govern ourselves. 

What brought Tocqueville to mind was an article a reader shared from a publication called Palladium, which situates itself as “Governance Futurism.” The article focused on a figure from the Chinese Communist hierarchy I’d never heard of, one Wang Huning. According to the article, very few people actually have heard of him, although he is evidently a powerful voice in China’s governing hierarchy. The article describes him as “arguably the single most influential ‘public intellectual’ alive today.”

Such a figure is just as readily recognizable in the West as an éminence grise (“grey eminence”), in the tradition of Tremblay, Talleyrand, Metternich, Kissinger, or Vladimir Putin adviser Vladislav Surkov.

Wang’s work has centered on the centrality of culture, tradition, and value structures to political stability. He has argued that society’s “software” (culture, values, attitudes) shapes political destiny as much or more as its “hardware” (economics, systems, institutions). The article notes that this represents a “daring break from the materialism of orthodox Marxism.”

Originally, Wang was hopeful that classical liberalism could play a positive role in China. That changed after he spent six months in the United States as a visiting scholar.

Profoundly curious about America, Wang took full advantage, wandering about the country like a sort of latter-day Chinese Alexis de Tocqueville, visiting more than 30 cities and nearly 20 universities…Wang recorded his observations in a memoir that would become his most famous work: the 1991 book America Against America. 

Wang concluded that America’s problems all have the same root cause: “a radical, nihilistic individualism at the heart of modern American liberalism.”

“The real cell of society in the United States is the individual,” he finds. This is so because the cell most foundational (per Aristotle) to society, “the family, has disintegrated.” Meanwhile, in the American system, “everything has a dual nature, and the glamour of high commodification abounds. Human flesh, sex, knowledge, politics, power, and law can all become the target of commodification.” This “commodification, in many ways, corrupts society and leads to a number of serious social problems.” In the end, “the American economic system has created human loneliness” as its foremost product, along with spectacular inequality. As a result, “nihilism has become the American way, which is a fatal shock to cultural development and the American spirit.”

Wang observed a growing tension between Enlightenment liberal rationalism and a “younger generation [that] is ignorant of traditional Western values.” “If the value system collapses,” he asks, “how can the social system be sustained?”

Good question. (In fact, very similar to the concerns voiced by Leonard Pitts, about which I previously posted.)

Ultimately, he argues, when faced with critical social issues like drug addiction, America’s atomized, deracinated, and dispirited society has found itself with “an insurmountable problem” because it no longer has any coherent conceptual grounds from which to mount any resistance.

“Coherent conceptual grounds” is another way of approaching what I have been calling the “American Idea”–the belief that to be an American does not require any particular identity, but does require allegiance to the founding, aspirational philosophy of the country. Authentic allegiance, obviously, requires knowing what that aspirational philosophy is. 

In other words, it requires basic civic literacy.

The America that Alexis de Tocqueville visited is long gone, and with it, the cultural ties and local collective practices that made civic knowledge less critical.  If Wang Huning’s observations–and the conclusions he drew from those observations–are correct, we are seeing the socially-destructive consequences of a radical individualism facilitated by a profound ignorance of America’s governing premises. 

The current belligerence being displayed by self-described “patriots’ over vaccination mandates is a perfect example: angry people insisting on their “right” to risk infecting others, and claiming a constitutional protection of that right that does not exist (and never has). 

China has not escaped the modernization and “liberalization” Wang deplored; Chinese society, albeit not its governance, reflects many of the same problems of commodification and inequality that we Americans face. But that doesn’t make our own experience less perilous–or the remedies more ascertainable.


  1. The changes in our country have been raining over us for decades until today they seem to be a flood, a tidal wave if you will, that is drowning out the past and leaving all to fend for themselves. We can argue over the causes for our predicament, and we can discuss what measures to take to get us back to the country’s original conception. But it is too late, IMO. We have changed too much, grown too much, discarded too much of what once made us great.
    I suspect that we will now wallow in this bed of societal sludge for some time to come before a new society arises. What form that society takes is anyone’s guess.

  2. What Wang defined is what we call Neoliberalism. It was ushered in by the Friedmanites or the Chicago Boys during Reagan/Thatcher’s reign leading to Trump/Brexit.

    It negatively impacted both soft and hard wares. Thomas Piketty wrote about it being the cause of our current inequality. You can toss in Ayn Rand in the mix because this has all been orchestrated by the Koch’s, Ailles, and Murdoch’s, etc.

    However, Albert Einstein pointed this out in 1949 but was ignored. His conclusion was capitalism in the USA has caused Mankind to reject the collective WE – even to the point of resenting our connection to others and the planet. Our interconnection to all things.

    He said we were stuck in the predatory phase (empire building) of capitalism where we sought to acquire others (conquest and competition) versus sharing and collaborating.

    The is both hard-wired and soft-wired in our society because it’s in both the “I” and “WE”.

    Mankind is an individual as well as a social creature. Our culture via our institutions is too focused on the I and not the WE. Einstein said we even need to change the structure of our educational system to reduce competitiveness and emphasize collaboration.

    What’s ironic is there is currently a global movement, primarily metaphysical or spiritual, taking place that recognizes this proposing sharing and actionable hope as the solution. Look at the work Jane Goodall has been doing. There are others at the United Nations level.

    Look at our $1 Trillion military budget while our planet is on fire. It’s delusional thinking because we are obsessed with the individual I versus the collective WE. Can you imagine if we stopped warring and began sharing and collaborating with each other?

    I am not sure, but I believe both Buddha and Christ tried to tell Mankind there was a better way. Even Gandhi. 😉

  3. I’m sticking with Bonhoeffer and Cipolla. Europeans have been able to bounce back from WWII by keeping the stupid ones from power. They’ve been a bit lax lately by allowing BOJO and the Tories to take over the UK and there are several other hotspots/stupidspots the EU is dealing with, namely Poland and Hungary where the Stupid seem to be gaining the upper hand.

    I don’t think its any secret that with the rise of the right in the US and the limitations of our form of Government, it was just a matter of time before the Stupid took over. They did so again yesterday in Virginia.

    With simple explanations being the best , I believe mankind has just not reached an overall level of intelligence to self-govern using democracy. We’ve come close but there are simply too many stupid people who will eventually muck it all up.

  4. “Wang observed a growing tension between Enlightenment liberal rationalism and a “younger generation [that] is ignorant of traditional Western values.” “If the value system collapses,” he asks, “how can the social system be sustained?”

    Looking at the breakdown of voters in the Virginia gubernatorial election yesterday, it appears that Democrats are dissatisfied with President Biden’s “performance” during his less than 10 MONTHS in office. Does that mean they voted Republican or sat on their asses and didn’t vote for anyone to get even with Joe Biden? What is enlightenment, liberal or rational using that thought process; especially in this country today with the minority of the current majority in the House and Senate working against sustaining and progressing to save democracy and lives during this pandemic?

    “The changes in our country have been raining over us for decades until today they seem to be a flood, a tidal wave if you will, that is drowning out the past and leaving all to fend for themselves.”

    We can add to Theresa’s quote above that Climate Change as well as our changing social values have been “raining over us” and been ignored and we are suddenly hit with the “tidal wave” of the results of both. We are in greater peril today than during Trump’s actual dictatorship reign because we are ignoring the control they wield “behind the scenes” today as we have ignored Climate Change and Global Warming for decades.

  5. Why is it so difficult for us to learn what we must learn to succeed? Maya Angelou said in “Human Family”: “We are more alike, my friend, than we are unalike.” How can we begin to appreciate just the simple truth of that sentence?

  6. From my friend Clay Jenkinson:

    The radical secularization of American (and first world) civilization in the last century has left us all feeling empty. The nearly universal vulgarization of American life gives the soul almost no matrix in which to find expression. It’s hard to think of a single social standard that has not effectively collapsed in the last half century, and whatever has been gained by that cannot balance a kind of creeping sordidness in the national character. Apparently nobody’s mouth is washed out with soap anymore, not physically, not metaphorically. The result is nearly universal incivility, the shallowing of our cultural inheritance, the breakdown of even a modest commitment to grammar and precise diction, the ubiquity of the s-word, the f-word, and increasingly the c-word, an orgy of popular culture violence, the nuclear winter of pornography on the internet, the total collapse of what used to be called the dress code, and what amounts to a license to be our worst selves whenever it suits us. At this point it seems unlikely that legislation can fix our problems. We are going to need a new life of the spirit…

  7. Dan Rather and the Catholic Church have revived the term “common good.” Groups, especially, governments that try to be democratic must find the elusive balance between individual freedom and common good. There is no group, no government that can last without it.

  8. I struggle, as a hobby, to understand biochemistry. (I agree, that’s eminently weird.) What’s hardest for me to just accept as the way things are is that all life is cellular and the different realities, at the scale of our senses, are all cellular colonies functional because each cell type does their unique cell chemistry based on signals from other cells, unaware until it stops that they are part of something much grander. Of course, our senses aided by our technology can now see the grandest and humblest realities.

    There is no I, only we. Being unaware of that is a fatal flaw. However, preaching otherwise attracts wealth and power and obscures the fact that great wealth and power by some of the colony over others is also a fatal fault.

  9. Reflections of 2000 vs mid-1999 in rural Indiana. Hilliary was demonized for saying “It takes a village to raise a child” or words to that effect. Did not understand why the US majority populace was outraged by the comment, now to my chagrin I do. Back to 1955 in rural Indiana. We had a retarded young man-could not read, did recognize stop signs, understood he had to pay for ‘stuff’. could sign his own name. As an older teen, we told the younger boys not to tease nor steal his bicycle or face physical harm. The adult population protected him while he did work and was paid fairly working in the local junk yard. When classified 1-A for the draft(nam), our local wealthy farmer who had no social or legal status for Johnie contacted the local draft board which resulted in a 4-F classification.
    Second issue. Local farmer suffered from terminal cancer -was not a part of the local social group/Grange, American Legion, local churches. Yet, the farmers and their entire families(me too) spent fall Saturdays harvesting, doing the repairs and preparation for winter and advising his wife on the fair price for selling the farm. No medals were given, no news print, just something that was expected by our parents helping someone in need.
    That culture is gone!!

  10. What extreme individualism does not recognize is that when I harm another being, I harm myself. It also asserts that we are all self-made and can pull ourselves up by our own boot straps no matter what. That is an extremely lonely way to live. I suspect that many of the billionaires are quite lonely, possibly addicted to money. No one is self made. No human is immune from injury or critical illness that requires help from others. No child can survive well on their own.

    Buddhism has taught me that we are interdependent not only with one another but with all the earth’s ecosystems and creatures. Jesus has taught me to be compassionate towards all, and to love and pray for those who are my enemies. Joseph Campbell indicated that we need to return to a mythic belief in the sacredness of the Mother, especially Mother Earth. The suffragettes helped create the radical belief that women are equal to men. Martin Luther King taught me to judge people by their character not the color of their skin. Gandhi has inspired me to be the change I want to see in the world and to practice nonviolence. Al-Anon taught me that when I change myself, others canbe inspired to change themselves.

    But, of course, none of these teachings I have been given are of any use, unless they move into the way I treat the earth and all others.

    For me the question that remains are what values must everyone in a society/culture have that allow a cohesive community? What values allow us to thrive, to create upward mobility for one and all? How do we inspire people to move beyond the “I” to the “We”? How do we inspire and motivate each person in the world to help save the earth?

    It’s true, I love to live in questions that force me to struggle.

    Thanks so much, Shiela, for opening this discussion on the importance of values and how they form a society/culture/nation.

  11. Dan, I grew up in that rural culture as well where people watched out for others and helped each other!

  12. Wang only concludes the obvious and comes out as a tribalist on steroids. His personal background from which to make such conclusions is that of one who lives in a racially homogenous society (other than an incarcerated minority of Muslims), whereas our society contains people of every hue, religion, class etc., thus rendering his conclusions suspect, and that along with the many inequities capitalism has bestowed upon us I for one am not surprised to see the I-We social equation in a state of change. It always has been, but perhaps its acceleration is more than we can manage. Change is and always has been and always will be with us, but how we deal with it in democratic (or lately fascist) terms vary with a greedy search for power and money. Politicians campaign on bringing back the good old days when they weren’t good – only old. Take it from someone who lived during the Great Depression, WW II rationing and service, and lately, fascists like Trump.

    To the extent that the observations of Wang are accurate, they too are headed for the junk pile of history, just as those of de Tocqueville have been left behind by the events of history, fueled as they are by change occasioned by the move these days from an Industrial to an Information society, a move which in turn will be left behind as history unfolds.

    Unlike former days, we are now living in a global economy and on a planet where the We component of collaboration must become a universal guiding philosophy lest there be no planet subject to the tides of history and human habitation itself, so it seems sensible that we put aside our greedy ways (at least temporarily) and put the hose to our burning house if we are enjoy, among other things, the niceties of debate of where we have been, are, and are likely to be as the nature and pace of change itself changes down the road.

  13. Gerald,

    With all due respect…the population of China is roughly 1,446,751,367. Per good science, there is no such thing as “race” – there are varieties of color, ethnicity, etc. There is no way that China is “a racially homogenous society (other than an incarcerated minority of Muslims)”.

  14. “Most Americans–or so I hope–have at least heard of Alexis de Tocqueville…”

    Sheila, no disrespect intended, but I think you profoundly underestimate the ignorance of the American people. I would be very impressed if 2% had heard of de Tocqueville.

  15. Lester: Your correction is well taken. Of course there are varieties of color, ethnicity etc. with respect to Chinese society, just as there are varieties of color etc. within black and white populaces in this country. I am aware of the Han, the Mongol influence etc., but I intended by such wording to refer to relatively common backgrounds of philosopy and social understandings the Chinese enjoy over the multi-background and diverse backgrounds we try to fit into some Lockian contract composed of oil and water participants. Perhaps “racially” was a poor choice of words since standing alone it does not convey the expansiveness I wanted to convey.

  16. Peggy Hannon: You always hit things on the button. And I’m grateful that you don’t take all day to say it. Today, it was the quote from Maya Angelou. So simple, so eloquent. I’ll back it up with one more of Angelou’s sayings. It’s so easy to do that we’re not likely to ever do it! “When you know better, you do better.” (Maya Angelou)

  17. “Wang concluded that America’s problems all have the same root cause: “a radical, nihilistic individualism at the heart of modern American liberalism.”

    Those are simply unfamiliar terms for Over it’s comment about profoundly underestimating the ignorance of American people. Numerous comments that Americans have lost faith in President Joe Biden after only 9 1/2 months and are still too stupid to be afraid of Donald Trump after 6 years, our ignorance is staring us in the face. We were warned by the media that results of yesterday’s elections would foretell what is coming in the 2022 and 2024 elections and Trump’s return being imminent. I readily admit to being totally ignorant as to who or what de Toqueville was or is but I am intelligent to be scared shitless by what happened yesterday and what our future holds for this nation.

  18. A note on China, from the small amount I know – China has long been “multi-ethnic”, but over 90% of Chinese are Han, and that is the dominant (non-Communist Party) culture – The Cultural Revolution was an attempt to finally destroy that – it failed

    Through history, China has also had a way of assimilating “foreign” invaders into “Chinese” culture.

    Also, if people don’t discriminate on the basis of ethnicity, they find other things to substitute. I have been told that my mother-in-law’s family was looked down upon, not so much for their Manchu roots, but rather that they were part of a “landlord” class, a remnant of the old feudal system.

    As for here, we have always had a tension between our “communitarian” and our “rugged individual” selves. We glorify the New England town halls and community barn-raisings, and we glorify the lone trail blazer, “finding” new territory away from “civilization”.

    Add to that the more modern twist – We love “communitarianism”, but we hate “communism” – increasingly we aren’t certain which is which nor actually know what either one means.

    Our Daniel Boone and western Cowboy ideal blends with the “lone entrepreneur” who single-handedly “creates wealth”. Thinking about it – we see Edison as the “lone inventor”, rather than a factory boss who added his name to every patent created in his factory. We think that he did it all by himself and are in awe of the number of patents he held.

    Since the ’80s, the glorification of the “loner” (renegade cop/renegade soldier/business genius) has escalated. The pendulum might be swinging back, but I am placing no bets on it as yet.

  19. Very good topic today, and many thoughtful comments. We all exist in a biosphere as one, but Americans in general don’t think that way. And speaking of thinking, a lot of people veer away from content of substance because they find thinking to be difficult. Are they stupid, or lazy, or ignorant. I hate admitting that anyone is stupid, or cannot learn, but for the last few years I have felt forced to face it.

  20. Not to beat a dead horse (sorry), but nowhere in the animal kingdom does the pack let the stupid one lead.

  21. What about nukes? Isn’t it worse than climate?
    Climate won’t end the world, just make nukes more likely.

Comments are closed.