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American Democracy’s Great De-Linking

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Can our democratic age sustain itself here in America? What does it take for democracy to flourish? These questions are at the heart of Tocqueville in Arabia: Dilemmas in a Democratic Age, the latest book by Joshua Mitchell, a Georgetown professor of political theory. Even though the title suggests a focus on Arabia, the book is shot through with Mitchell’s worry that American democracy is in the process of undoing itself, as we shirk from the responsibilities and ties that bind us to each other. But though Mitchell’s observation that we delegating our responsibilities away is astute, he does not fully anticipate that we are outsourcing our social needs and obligations less through legislation and more through technology.

To see how, we first have to look at Mitchell’s description of the American democratic project. Adopting a more sociological than political lens, Mitchell describes the democratic age as one in which people are de-linked, stripped of roles and obligations, and so conceive of themselves as their primary authorities. Its antonym is the aristocratic age, which has characterized most of our human history, in which one’s identity is defined by one’s roles and place in a larger structure, be it family, clan, land, or religion. America, with its uniquely anti-aristocratic origins, lives most fully in the democratic age, but many nations, including those in the Middle East, are also slowly entering it due to globalization, technological advances, and so on.

Mitchell primarily uses cross-cultural comparisons, particularly between his students in Qatar and in Washington DC, to develop a critical and concerned understanding of the risks that America, a democratic nation, faces. His main concern is clear: the democratic age may have produced democratic institutions in politics and elsewhere, but, at least in America, it cannot sustain itself. Mitchell explains his own book via Tocqueville:

The principal wager of Democracy in America… is that face-to-face relations are sorely needed if democratic freedom is to endure. They are needed largely because democratic man is delinked and alone. Through the associations he forms with his neighbors, he is drawn out of himself, his world expands, his faculties are engaged, and his disposition is enlivened.

The problems of withdrawing into one’s own cocoon play out on both a personal and political level. Personally, it cultivates a conflicted mental condition, one not unfamiliar to any ambitious twenty-something:

Shorn of the social links that had once held him fast, [democratic man] oscillated back and forth — now thinking himself capable of all things, now despairing of his insignificance; now throwing himself frantically into the world, now broodingly withdrawing.

As individuals with no social script to follow, we at once celebrate and are terrified of the fact that we can carve our own destinies. This individualization creates a complicated widening and thinning of our ability to empathize. If we truly see all of humanity as a floating sea of individuals, then there is little difference between me and another stranger, creating the conditions under which wide-ranging empathy can grow. This globalized empathy perplexes Mitchell’s students in Qatar, a nation less influenced by the Democratic Age. He writes, “Almost all my students on the main campus [in Washington DC] are haunted by the suffering of others and think that the sole purpose of social policy or political action is to eliminate it. In Qatar, my students are perplexed by this fixation American students have about eliminating suffering on a global scale.”

In contrast, in an aristocratic order obligation and loyalty tightly bind one to kin and class, but no real sympathy that crosses the chasm between families, classes, tribes, or castes is possible. Mitchell notes that in Qatar, multiple families live together in a walled compound, so much so that a neighborhood might consist of several compounds; while the insides of the compounds are often clean and spacious, the public spaces in-between the compounds are sometimes littered with garbage that no one feels responsible for and picks up.

But while Americans might be able to empathize with a starving African child on TV or a political protestor in Ukraine on Twitter, our moral imagination is weaker when it comes to our neighbors. The more we withdraw into ourselves and away from face-to-face relationships, the less generous our impressions of our neighbors become.

“When all politics becomes national politics, when we less and less need to reach out to our neighbor, then political ideas need no longer be tempered or attenuated,” he writes, for we come up with -isms instead, such as, “capitalism, corporatism, socialism, communism, environmentalism, feminism, postmodernism, multiculturalism, et al. —that promise to put an end to the void in their lonely souls but cannot.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in The Social Contract, wrote that for democracy to thrive, citizens had to vote and think beyond their particular interests by adopting the point-of-view of society at large: the “general will,” as he terms it, or, as we might call it, a “civic mindset.” What Mitchell fears, then, is the narrowing of our purviews, the diminishment of our ability to channel the general will. All that democracy will then amount to is a battle of parochial interests and ideas.

If the aristocratic age understood the world in terms of limits, the democratic age understands it in terms of uninhibited freedom, a trend that Mitchell predicts will become more and more unbearable and terrifying. For instance, the dizzying volatility of market commerce might prove, as it in some ways already has, too risky for our economic security and for the environment. While the sustainable and ideal response would be to learn to cultivate collective moral restraint and responsibility animated by an awareness of each other, if we continue to withdraw from one another, then we will rely increasingly on impersonal laws and regulations to make decisions on our behalf. Terrified of freedom, we crawl back to the warm hearth of externally imposed laws that force all of us to restrain ourselves. Quoting Tocqueville, Mitchell writes, “The legislator claims to promulgate eternal laws [with the view to] sparing future generations the care of regulating their destinies.”

We see this phenomenon already at play, for example, in the form of carbon credits, which can become an easy substitute for building the capacity to make hard, moral decisions about the impact of our actions on our neighbors. Carbon credits have the advantage of clarity and standardization. But Mitchell wants us to understand the trade-off we are making in the name of pragmatism when we rely too much on legislation. We are prioritizing logistical efficiency over the development of our character (Mitchell is quite preoccupied with character, even writing that owning property would help cultivate our character, as we will have a place to anchor our imaginations and care, instead of drifting around like a nation of renters). We are unable to translate our newfound “freedom from” constraint and limitations into the “freedom to” voluntarily re-link, cultivate deep relationships and make moral choices. Instead, we take the easy route of regulation.

While Mitchell rightly fears that that we will shirk more and more decisions that force us to confront our neighbor, he pays scant attention to how we are increasingly outsourcing them to technology, not legislation. Need a hand to carry out a few errands? Don’t bother asking your neighbor; just use Task Rabbit. Need to borrow a car for a few hours? Don’t text your friend; download Lyft – whose slogan is “Your friend with a car” – instead. Tocqueville was worried we would outsource important decisions to the cumbersome nanny state; while that may be true, we have also sent them to the efficient algorithms that reside in our apps.

Technology has not only changed the way we create solutions for our problems, but also how we define the problems themselves. A Wired article came out a few years ago with the headline, “Africa? There’s an app for that.” It touted the benefits of Apple’s inroads into Africa (an Apple a day keeps poverty away, it seems), neglecting to raise any of the complex dynamics of politics, culture and history that shape Africa’s opportunities and problems. Evgeny Morozov, contributing editor at The New Republic, wrote a NYT op-ed last year calling this elevation of technology into savior-status “solutionism.”

[It is] an intellectual pathology that recognizes problems as problems based on just one criterion: whether they are “solvable” with a nice and clean technological solution at our disposal. Thus, forgetting and inconsistency become “problems” simply because we have the tools to get rid of them — and not because we’ve weighed all the philosophical pros and cons.

The technological imagination is certainly vast, but it sees the world in terms of problems and solutions and resources, bugs and apps and big data. It is a meager substitute for moral imagination, which sees nuances and relationships, and is needed to rebuild the social infrastructure that holds our democratic age together. “You can’t hack your way to social change” was the title of a recent HBR blog post. Tocqueville might agree and add, “Neither can you hack your way to democracy.”

If there was a follow-up to Tocqueville in Arabia, it ought to address the question of what it takes to re-link ourselves. I suspect that it begins by finding the shared story we all inhabit; Mitchell, in a way, is trying to do that by casting all “Americans” as participants in the democratic experiment. But, despite our nation’s cultural ideology of equal individuals, not all Americans have been equal participants. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent article in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” made waves by inundating readers with historical and modern evidence to support that very point. But the brilliance of Coates’ article was that he chose to highlight the stark differences in the treatment of African-Americans in contrast to white Americans through linking the mostly-untold story of African-Americans to the larger narrative of American history. In that way, Coates was not so much telling us the story of African-Americans as much as he was (re)telling the story of who we are as Americans. It was an act of re-linking what has been sundered. In that way, Coates did exactly what Mitchell is calling for. Tocqueville would be proud.

Sarah Ngu

Sarah grew up in Malaysia and California, and is now a freelance writer in Brooklyn, New York. She is an alumni of Trinity Forum Academy and Columbia University.