“Habits of the Heart,” a 1986 book by my teacher Robert Bellah and four colleagues, is a sweeping and provocative study of individualism and commitment in American life — and a fit focus for a meditation on community life and civic responsibility.
The book is rooted in the tradition of Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman who visited the United States in the 1830s and wrote a book about it, “Democracy in America.” Tocqueville admired the United States and he predicted great things for the fledgling nation.
But Tocqueville also concluded that the individualism so basic to the American character has a darker side. He feared that radical individualism would lead to a breakdown of civic cooperation, which in turn might call forth a new form of totalitarianism. In America, said Tocqueville, “Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.” Paradoxically, individualism threatens freedom.
Following Tocqueville, Bellah et al. concluded that American individualism has become cancerous. In the unbridled pursuit of self-interest, success-driven Americans forget that personal welfare depends on general welfare. Polls reveal that most Americans are pessimistic about the future of U.S. society but relatively optimistic about their own personal futures — as though the two had nothing to do with each other.
Most of the people interviewed for the book were found to lack the language to explain what appear to be the real commitments that define their lives. Limited to a language of radical autonomy, most respondents justified even their deepest ethical virtues as matters of personal preference.
Family, religion, and civic participation can help moderate our individualism, yet these spheres are themselves tinged with individualism. For example, investment in the family can serve as an excuse for not participating in community life. As Tocqueville observed, “Each citizen isolates himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraws into the circle of family and friends.”
Religion in America is increasingly sectarian and individualistic, less and less able to provide the broad ethical consensus on which social order depends.
Even civic participation may be rooted in a variety of motives. Some who are active in public affairs are moved by a genuine concern for the local community, while others are involved in order to look out for their own interests. Many political actions originate in gatherings of like-minded individuals whose cooperation depends primarily on their common economic interests.
Gordon Clanton teaches sociology at San Diego State University. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.