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It’s worth considering just how out-of-date Tocqueville’s observations are, some two hundred years later, especially right now when Americans have evidently lost the ability to govern ourselves.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