Alexis de Tocqueville argued that American democracy was rooted in associational life. What role did women play in building this capacity for association? In this episode of the Governance Podcast, Dr Sarah Wilford (University of the Andes) sits down with Dr Irena Schneider (King’s College London) to discuss how the domestic sphere shapes free societies and stems the tide of democratic despotism.
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Dr Sarah Wilford is an assistant professor of politics at the University of the Andes in Santiago. Her research focuses on the political thought of Alexis de Tocqueville regarding family, women, and democratic conditions. Other research interests include the relationship between religion and liberty in Tocqueville, womanhood during the nineteenth century, and the use of Tocqueville in later twentieth and twenty-first-century political theory and political science. She received her PhD in Politics from King’s College London in 2018.
00:51: Tocqueville is a very popular writer to turn to nowadays, particularly when we think about modern questions of the loss of associationalism, virtuous citizenship, and community values. But we don’t often think about Tocqueville in terms of gender and the domestic sphere. That’s where you have been working and I wanted to ask just to get started, how did you get interested in the gender angle on Tocqueville?
03:13: To delve into the details, what exactly is the role of womanhood and the domestic sphere in Tocqueville’s work?
07:23: My first reaction is– you talked about paternal authority and that being a prime element in democratic citizenship, and being the first school of citizenship. What about the mother and womanhood in general? How does that contribute to the raising of virtuous, democratic citizens?
09:30: To delve further into the question of authority, both maternal, paternal, and the domestic sphere, it seems almost like an oxymoron to say that respect for authority leads to more democratic norms and civil society. How does that transition play out in Tocqueville?
11:30: Tocqueville really is seen as a scholar of civil society, of associationalism. We throw around these terms but we’re not often very clear by what Tocqueville meant by them. When he observed these things in American society, what was he talking about? What does governance and associationalism mean for Tocqueville in this sense?
17:21: A lot of times, when it comes to Tocqueville, we hear the term, ‘the habits of the heart and mind.’ A lot of the networks that exist within civil society are driven by people’s common acceptance or commitment to certain values or beliefs or ideas. That is a kind of glue that ties society together and is generated within the domestic sphere. Can you talk a little more about the habits of the heart and mind that a self-governing citizenry is supposed to have?
21:08: Tocqueville has been used and appropriated by many modern scholars in social science, from thinkers like Robert Putnam to Vincent Ostrom, and others. And they often use Tocqueville to address modern issues or crises of democracy. You’ve certainly worked a little bit on how they interpreted Tocqueville. What did they get right, and what did they get wrong?
28:04: What is your contribution on these perspectives? Are they hitting the point? Are they being accurately Tocquevillian, or are they misunderstanding parts of his argument?
37:44: I think part of the difficulty in transmitting this more 19th century perspective into the 21st is that society doesn’t really look the same as when Tocqueville observed it. You talked a lot about the virtues of a self-governing society in which women take a disproportionate role in bringing up children and transmitting the virtues of citizenship, where religion plays a big role in people’s lives that does constrain morality, where there is a tendency to respect authority more, where information and authority are not democratised. We live in a completely different world now. And you might say that women’s empowerment is a completely positive achievement and that women shouldn’t be spending the majority of their time in the domestic sphere transmitting these virtues to citizens. So there are a lot of tensions in taking the Tocquevillian example and being perfectly Tocquevillian in the 21st century. Should we be Tocquevillian nowadays given that society has completely changed?
44:44: Do you think we’re in a period of democratic despotism today?
48:13: In light of this potential that we are living in a period of democratic despotism, we’re more secularised, atomised, lonelier; we’re lacking a lot of the social ties and mores that existed in the 19th century, especially in urban environments. We lack a lot of those central ingredients of democratic citizenship that Tocqueville was talking about. It seems like an opportune time to go back to the literature and ask, how do we replicate those mechanisms nowadays given that we’ve lost a lot of it in the process, and throughout history?
Welcome to the Governance Podcast at the Centre for the Study of Governance and Society at King’s College London. My name is Irena Schneider and I’m the Assistant Director of the Centre. Joining me today is my colleague Dr. Sarah Wilford. Sarah received her PhD in politics from King’s College London in 2018. And is soon starting as an Assistant Professor at the University of the Andes in Santiago. Her doctoral research was on the political thought of Alexis de Tocqueville regarding family, women and democratic conditions. She’s also worked on the relationship between religion and liberty and Tocqueville, womanhood during the 19th century, and the use of Tocqueville in later 20th and 21st century political theory and political science. So welcome, Sarah.
Thank you so much for having me.
Tocqueville is a very popular writer to turn to nowadays, particularly when we think about modern questions about the loss of associationalism, virtuous citizenship community values. But we don’t often think about Tocqueville in terms of gender and the domestic sphere. That’s obviously where you have been working. And I wanted to ask, just to get started, how did you get interested in the gender angle on Tocqueville?
So I got interested in the gender angle, the domestic sphere themes around family in a slightly mundane way, which is: I observed a problem in a scholarship. So initially, the passion for Tocqueville was to sort of separate from this particular angle. I read Democracy in America a long time ago, and I fell in love with it. And I was blown away. And then quite separately, just in terms of history, I’d always been interested in history of women, women’s history, gender themes, and I thought, well, I have that interest so maybe I’ll take a closer look at this family and womanhood sections in Democracy in America, and in taking a closer look, I realised that there was kind of this gap in literature around Tocqueville on gender and family, but there’s not a lot of literature, like he’s not, it’s not it’s not usually what we talked about in relation to Tocqueville. And what I found was a very conservative perspective on gender and family in Tocqueville and in a sort of a feminist reading on gender and family and Tocqueville and I thought both sort of missed the mark and I wanted to delve a little bit deeper into getting that interpretation right. And then once I started delving into it, I realised how particularly unique family and womanhood were in Tocqueville’s overall perspective on democracy. And they were these sort of peculiar entered entities that seemed robust in the face of everything else he was observing about democracy, and that reinforced my feeling and my intuition that it might be a particularly good lense of particularly good way into understanding Tocqueville and that’s how I got interested in it.
So to delve into the details, what exactly is the role of womanhood and domestic sphere in Tocqueville’s work?
So my main research is on Tocqueville’s associationalism, which is what we usually associate Tocqueville with. And the domestic sphere, which I sort of understand is comprised of a way of thinking about family and a way of thinking about womanhood and the structure of that project sort of in the big picture starts with Tocqueville’s profound concern for liberty being at risk in a democracy. But he also thought that liberty within democracy could be secured by social norms, and morals, cultural habits, and the importance of social norms is very much well established in the existing scholarship on Tocqueville. But the role of the domestic sphere was where I come in and argue that the domestic sphere was actually a central component of Tocqueville’s democratic theory. And the way that I do that is saying that within Tocqueville’s associationalism, womanhood and family life were actually normative models that he constructed and had a primary significance because they generated these social norms that are exercised across all these different facets of his picture of associative life.
And they do this in two ways. First, the domestic sphere is sort of a feeder, it’s the most initial, the most proximate, the most natural school for small citizens. And that’s a very sort of chronological way in which it feeds associative life. But the second way it feeds associative life is that the domestic sphere is a very peculiar, genuinely bizarre place in democratic society, by Tocqueville’s own sort of account, where authority still exists. So one of the things he observes in general about democratic society is a breakdown in authority, in you know, the breakdown of hierarchy has this breakdown of “Who are you to tell me what to do?” The thing about a family is it preserves what he calls natural authority. So just the natural authority a parent would have over their child. So the domestic sphere, the home establishes that unique habit of respecting authority, which is actually necessary to the perpetuation of social norms in other domains.
So I argue that when we look at the domestic sphere, we can find a way into understanding how nature, authority and virtue exists within his wider democratic theory. And what I examine is that for Tocqueville, sex differences, preserving different gender roles and preserving paternal authority, a father’s authority over his children, resists this total democratisation of family life. So by saying sex difference matters and paternal authority matters, he’s saying something in the face of this complete flattening and equalising of individuals in their families so that they’re not just a group of equal people hanging out at home. And, and that’s important because that authority safeguards the moral work that’s, happening in the home, the moral inculcation and therefore ultimately benefiting the preservation of liberty. And then I just, I guess my case is, we often think about civil associations, religion, decentralization of clubs, you know, you could go on this long list of these mediating institutions. My case was really to try and say, the domestic sphere belongs on that list, you might even be the most important one on the list. So that’s an overview of my project.
You said a lot of really interesting things there. And I want to ask you a lot of questions right now. I guess the first one is, my first reaction is, you talked about paternal authority and that being a prime sort of element in democratic citizenship and being the first school of citizenship, what about the role of the mother and maternal authority and womanhood in general? How does that contribute to the raising of virtuous democratic citizens?
That’s a good question because I think in terms of authority, Tocqueville speaks more about paternal authority and then he talks about an authority between husband and wife with a surprising authority of the male over the female. But he does carve out this vision of womanhood that sets her in not necessarily as she is a person with authority, but she is a person of unique moral character. It’s very much starts to look like an ideal that is forged in the freedom of a democratic youth and then in her maturity becomes this extraordinarily self sacrificing figure. And I think it’s through that ideal or normative model of woman as a self sacrificing figure that she imparts the kind of lesson of being another citizen, of being concerned for others in terms of neighbourliness and and the other kind of civic responsibilities that we associate with Tocqueville.
So she is very unique, I said, the family and the domestics phere are incredibly unique in the whole picture of, of everything else he’s diagnosing about democracy. But the woman, Tocqueville’s woman is very unique because she’s peculiarly self sacrificing, it is so unusual with his diagnosis about what democracy does to the human spirit everywhere else in his thought that this person can be so self sacrificing. So I think it’s through that that she is most instructive.
To delve further into the question of authority, both maternal and paternal, and the domestic sphere, it seems almost like an oxymoron to say that respect for authority leads to more democratic norms and civil society. How does that sort of, how does that transition play out in Tocqueville?
So I understand how it’s counterintuitive to say habits of ceding ground to authority don’t seem like democratic habits. I understand how that almost seems like a contradiction. But in order to do anything in this world, we have to learn how to operate within the social norms. And we can only learn those things if we give some ground to authority. So what I’m trying to say, in the family is this peculiar avenue to accepting authority, it’s a training ground that comes naturally, it’s very natural to do what your parents tell you to do. That allows us to then enter the public sphere and be at the town council, and naturally understand that the people who have been on the town council probably know how to do things and then we follow their patterns and habits and pick up on social norms. So it’s something it’s, it’s something a little bit more gentle than, than maybe what we put in mind of when we think of giving too much ground to authority. And the reason that it relates to freedom is these social norms, in the localised sense, in the intimate relations are within Tocqueville’s system, what ultimately keeps at bay the threat of a more pernicious tyranny and authority and what he calls democratic despotism. But I can talk about that a bit more if we want to talk about Tocqueville’s associationalism in a more general sense.
Well, precisely, I think that’s a really good transition into that because Tocqueville really is seen as a scholar of civil society of sociationalism, we throw around these terms, but we are not often very clear about what Tocqueville meant by them and when he observed that in American society, what was he talking about? What does governance and associationalism mean for Tocqueville in this sense?
Okay, so one way we could ask it is, is Tocqueville a theorist of self governance and I think we can think of Tocqueville as a theorist of self governance even though maybe he didn’t. I think I often just think of Tocqueville as more of a moral philosopher, how do we remain moral and virtuous in a democratic society? But if we understand Tocqueville’s associationalism as the guard against potential democratic despotism, then is associationalism is both the thing that allows us to govern ourselves and it is also it also is self governance. So, self governance both maintains our freedom and just is the structure of governing ourselves.
So to be a bit more detailed in depth in democratic society, according to Tocqueville there are two components of quality and liberty and in an equal society where we don’t have hierarchy, democratic people lack pre prescribed social roles, social class and an economic destiny. Equal citizens are free citizens, because being equal allows us to have more choice. So in a way, equality is a prerequisite. It’s a, it’s a necessary but not sufficient condition of liberty. So equality is necessary for us to be free but in order to maintain freedom, we’re going to need some other things as well and that’s, that’s where Tocqueville’s associationalism comes in.
He talks a lot about democratic despotism, which is this unusual form of tyranny, special to democratic societies. And what it does is it can maintain the quality of citizens while devastating their liberty, hence, despotism. Now equality as well as affording us liberty by taking away all of those hierarchies and arbitrary social status, equality also has some negative side effects according to Tocqueville. Like individualism, uniformity, mediocrity, social atomization, materialism, spiritual restlessness, even a taste for centralization, and he calls all of those things defects of democracy, all of those things can lead down the road to despotism. And Tocqueville saw liberty as related to this, the absence of that tyrannical power, and he defined liberty, understood liberty in contradiction to a mighty administrative, centralised state enacting this despotism.
The problem is the negative byproducts of equality that I just mentioned individualism and the like, make citizens all the more receptive to the promises of a large administrative state what he calls a tutelary power. Like, it’s not exactly a paternal power, it’s just like your tutor, right? It’s not the father figure, it’s this sort of gentle, gentle tutolary power and democracy within it as much as it had the potential to make us free has the potential to to be predisposed to this democratic despotism. So managing the problems of equality, the tendency to individualism, the tendency to uniformity, mediocrity, managing all that mess, the defects are essential to liberty. And that was a bit of a long winded picture to get me to say that is where associationalism comes in. And that’s where Tocqueville’s associationalism comes in. And that is why we associate it with something to do with self governance, something to do with contra the mighty administrative state. It’s because it was his answer to those problems.
So associative life for Tocqueville is a network of moderating forces that work with the best of democracy, things like self governing independence of equal people making an effort in the world together and cooperating to oppose the very worst in democracy, which is things like individualism, homogeneity, moral mediocrity, and finally the ultimate problem of despotism. So, in Democracy in America, he talks about how he found in American society, a lot of examples of this and what that sort of self governing independence could look like. And he saw the social mores, the associations, the local institutions, that were keeping Americans free. These things are like everything from habits and ideas and beliefs, social attitudes, customs values, to things like decentralisation associations, clubs, volunteerism, local schools, free press, religion, churches, and as I’ve described earlier, I think the domestic sphere fits into that network. As an originator in some sense, as I said earlier on, in terms of establishing certain habits that can then be drawn upon across that whole network. So, that’s how I see associationalism working as a self governing concept in Tocqueville’s thought.
A lot of times when it comes to Tocqueville and associationalism, we hear the term ‘the habits of the heart and mind’. So a lot of the networks that exist within civil society are driven by people’s common acceptance or commitment to certain values or beliefs or ideas. And that is a kind of glue that ties society together and is generated within the domestic sphere. Can you talk a little bit more about what are the habits of the heart and mind that a self governing citizenry is supposed to have?
That’s a good question. One time I was asked what is the typical Tocquevillian association? And it was a really overwhelming question because there isn’t like a prototype association. I wish I could sort of figure it out if that would be a good paper. But the thing is, we do with the part that’s confusing as we do look at these associations, the way that he talks about them, they seem so diverse. And so what is it? What is the underlying thing? And I’m glad you brought that question up, because it’s something that I don’t think is talked about a lot and which I do try and talk about, which is behind all of this, maybe there is a unifying feature. I think, often we look at self governance in Tocqueville and we want to say something like, Oh, look, in the 19th century, even Tocqueville understood that local solutions provide efficient outcomes. And I want to say something like, I don’t think that was the point of his example. and I want to say something like, when we look at self governance in Tocqueville, the point, the end of self governance has this morally compelling, this moral weight to it, we’re talking about the thing that helps us not be selfish in the face of a society that entirely encourages us to be selfish. So the habits of the heart, I think, are some, if we had to say, well, what are these habits of heart? I do think it has something to do with other regarding virtue. Tocqueville has some language that I like to write about, and quote about dragging man else out of himself. And I think it’s the habit of being habituated to not being preoccupied with yourself. So it isn’t, he didn’t say, and the habit of the heart that I am talking XYZ, but, but I think from how he talks about association and associations in general, we can get to a conclusion of other regarding virtue that’s quite a unified habit that can be exercised across all of these different avenues of association.
But I think a lot of people often sort of categorise and think about Tocqueville’s associations in quite separate groups, almost a topology rather than a kind of unified project. And I think it is helpful to ask that question as you did and make the observation that maybe in all of these things, from participating in a church to local governance to volunteerism, there’s this underlying other directedness other regarding habit that’s being formed. That is good for people and it has that general, there’s more general spirit to it than simply these sort of network of band aids stemming the flow of despotism from all different angles. The primary thing might just actually be a habit of the heart that is other regarding.
Tocqueville has been used and appropriated by many modern scholars in social science, from thinkers like Robert Putnam to Vincent Ostrom and others, and they often use Tocqueville to address modern issues of democracy and modern crises of democracy. And you certainly worked a little bit about how they interpreted Tocqueville, what did they get right and what did they get wrong?
Okay, great question. Thank you. So, I think there is like you said, like a lot of Tocqueville around if you’re a strange person like me who has Google alerts for Tom Phil, you’ll see that every week there’s a comment or an opinion article that starts with “In the 19th century, Tocqueville said …” you know, he’s often often quoted, so, I have zeroed in on sort of three areas that I like to look at where Tocqueville is cropping up for in more modern conversations. And that is, like you mentioned, Robert Putnam. So the social capital area, the polycentricity area and the communitarianism area. And I think very loosely, Putnam can kind of represent the social capital folks, the Ostrums represent polycentricity and Nesbitt can represent communitarians, although it’s a bit earlier, but because for the main guy and the communitarians, so all three of those groups focus on associations in some way. And I think they all have a claim to the trophy alien legacy, both through just the things that they’re talking about, but also, I use this word way too much, but they also self consciously, and subconsciously have this tocquevillian association, which is they’re actually quoting Tocqueville or something like that. And they were all motivated like, like you mentioned, by this kind of, something’s wrong. Something’s a mess in America. Society and we have a problem. So for the social capital folks and Putnam, the problem is civil disengagement and weakening social ties. For the Ostrums and people who are interested in studying polycentricity the problem feels like it’s originating from a tension between local nodes of social organisation and a large, centralised power and localism is somehow crowded out or going extinct.
And that’s bad because localism can be so efficient. And then I think, the communitarians and people like Nesbitt, but there’s moral tension for them between mass society, so things like the large modern democratic state, complex market economy, massive political parties, so a tension between mass society and private life like family, church, local neighbourhood. For them, this means that these more intimate networks aren’t providing for things like welfare and mutual aid the way perhaps they once did. So that’s similar to the polycentricity folks in terms of being worried about this crowded out problem. But I think the communitarians are also worried more, more clearly and more openly worried about moral life being put at risk, that all three of those groups have a similar answer to this problem, which is associations and, and that’s how they appear to be alien.
So for Putnam, who I would call maybe the least tocquevillian of the bunch, though one of his reviewers called him the Tocqueville of our generation, which I’m raising my eyebrows, it’s a podcast, but I want to let you know I’m raising my eyebrows, and I’m not sure about that. But Putnam’s project basically, that important project recorded the way in which Americans were just dropping out of civic responsibilities and for public life in general. Everything from friendship and socialising, to church attendance to volunteering to, you know, just being a part of a club and local council so just he documented that decline and, and really worried about it and wanted to get the conversation started for regenerating associative life.
Second to the Ostrums and polycentricity, they, they, I’d say more self consciously than Putnam, understood themselves as tocquevillian. Vincent Ostrom said of himself, I’m trying to work to resolve Tocqueville’s puzzle and Elinor Ostrom said that Tocqueville informed the questions of their workshop. And I know as scholars that they’re quite different, but here I’ve just sort of grouped them. The other thing about the Ostrums and the theme of polycentricity is people who operate in the Ostrum’s legacy or in their spirit, very much write about them and use the word tocquevillian to describe them. It’s a sort of consistent theme and later literature and polycentricity that the Ostrum’s tocquevillian project. And as they described, they were very concerned with these, these hybrid and multi jurisdictional answers to governance problems. And that tension between how local answers and local solutions can be crowded out potentially. Vincent Ostrom does talk about family a bit, but it doesn’t end up becoming a kind of defining feature of their work. It’s not something we usually associate with them in the way that we do with communitarians.
So communitarians are what I would say maybe the most Tocquevillian of these three that I’m describing. They have particular attention to family in a very obvious way, religion and immediate neighbourhood, what they call the smaller associations. They talk about how these areas are the ones that can really refine character, and I think there’s more attention to those Tocqueville themes that I raised earlier in our conversation like family and authority in the communitarians. So, those are the three main examples I like to talk about in terms of the sort of appropriation of Tocqueville and what all of these people will do is use Tocqueville quotes, make references to Tocqueville or be described as Tocquevillian by outside commentators.
What is your contribution to these perspectives? Are they hitting the point? Are they being accurately tocquevillian or are they actually misunderstanding parts of his argument?
Thanks for that question. Yes, because I think that my contribution or what’s the point of bringing this up and noticing that some, some scholars like to quote Tocqueville, I think that there is a critique to be made about their use of Tocqueville. And this especially relates to what we’re talking about at the beginning of the podcast about the domestic sphere. I think the things that all three of these groups maybe miss is that it is inevitably related to the domestic sphere. They are inextricably linked to the domestic sphere, so things like family and gender roles, authority, love of locality, loyalty to locality, virtuous habits and that unified habit that we were talking about earlier. All of those are things that we learn about when we look at the domestic sphere. And I think they’re all areas where these fields of scholarship have not gotten anything wrong in particular, but it’s kind of missed something.
So for example, with family and gender roles, Robert Putnam, in particular. How do I describe this? It’s almost as if he’s very worried to put any blame for the decline of social capital at the feet of a changing family dynamic and changing gender roles. He actually uses words like exculpate and, like provide an alibi for to literally get women off the hook, or any kind of any kind of responsibility for the decline of social capital at the same time he talks about how women are measurably more avid social capitalists. That’s what he says. So I have to say there’s something like the picture doesn’t quite add up. And he has been criticised by reviewers who I can’t think of the name of the reviewer right now, but who particularly drew attention to this, but I think maybe it was just unfashionable for him to point this out. And I think that that’s a huge oversight. And if you really were going in with, if you really read your tone, you’d really have this perspective that gender roles might be a big component in the formation of, of social capital, and you wouldn’t put that aside so readily. So I think there are some issues like that in Putnam’s work. Another critique would be about the role of familiarity, familial authority in terms of the transmission that we talked about earlier. I think Putnam again, kind of misses the mark a little bit in terms of, of that intergenerational perspective.
And I also think that the communitarians and the polycentricity scholars, their intention on this issue of authority as well, because I think the communitarians accept a degree of familiar authority, that perhaps coercively because children are children, in families, people are initiated into caring responsibilities. And the communitarians talk a lot about caregiving roles in a way that maybe a more liberal perspective, the polycentric perspective, might not really be able to use this language of rights to articulate and describe what looks like a very authoritative relationship intergenerationally so I think that there’s, there’s a little bit of difficulty there more significantly, I think, from my Tocqueville perspective, the polycentricity folks run into a problem in terms of rooted love of locality. So for Tocqueville, you know, he understood loyalty and the best formation of social norms as what he called in areas that were, quote “long and settled”.
So there has to be these layers and a little bit more of a historic loyalty in the formation of a culture that really has strong social norms. Now, the people studying polycentricity want to advocate for these strong social norms that can govern us locally. But the problem is because the polycentricity has also this multi jurisdictional element, sometimes there’s this emphasis on competition and exit, voting with your feet that’s inappropriate and incongruous with what’s necessary loyalty to the formation of strong norms that can actually govern us and have any control over our lives. And I think that, you know, because the polycentricity folks are so self consciously operating in the tocquevillian spirit, they’re quoting Tocqueville, they’re calling themselves tocquevillian. It’s really worth highlighting that Tocqueville did not indicate that the real value of associations or localism was in a competitive diversity, that wasn’t the real value to him. But there’s such a spirit of that competitive diversity, that institutional diversity in the polycentricity scholarship. So I think it’s important to just point out that little bit of Tocqueville that might have been missed because they’re very much operating this tocquevillian legacy, well kind of missing like, actually loyalty is important. So there’s work that’s, that talks about the tension between loyalty and exiting and voting with your feet. I think that’s another part of my critique.
And then I think issues around virtue and transferable skills, that transferable habit of the heart that you brought up earlier. I think that that is really missed out in a lot of social capital literature on the idea of moral grandeur, big, meaningful, virtuous pursuit is really just not in the conversation when we talk about the values and the virtues that social capital scholars want to talk about. Those are trustworthiness, cooperativeness, accountability. And those are all things that maybe relate to other regarding virtue, but they’re not, they’re not quite in the same world vein as Tocqueville and they also, the other thing is I think social, in particular people who study social capital, because they’re there’s that tendency to differentiate different types of social capital, you’ve heard of bridging and bonding, you’ve got social capital that’s religious, you’ve got these different kinds of social capital and it’s measured in different ways and it’s studied in different ways. And I think that there’s a risk when we slice and dice it and dissect it and measure it, social capital scholars don’t know how to put it back together again.
I mean, Putnam, definitely, I don’t think did, I mean, there’s he does, he gets very close to describing something like a, like a unified sense of habit that’s transferable across different spheres, when he talks about religion because he talks about how religious people are correlated to be more volunteering, you know, in non religious activities, but then he just doesn’t go anywhere with it. So we think that’s another risk. That’s another part of my critique is you’re kind of missing this, this unity of habit that Tocqueville offered us as food for thought.
And I think, I guess my critique is my exasperation sometimes with the appropriation of Tocqueville really comes down to wanting to say something like the democratic, I’ve said this before, and I’ll say till I’m dead, but the the democratic citizen is free and flourishing, not because she can go to her local association rather than the centralised state authority to have a pothole fixed. And the reason I use the pothole example is modern social scientists often like to refer to Tocqueville’s example of an obstruction in the road, and how people come together and have this volunteer experience to fix the obstruction. They don’t need to go to Washington to fix the obstruction and you know, people really like that anecdote. But the point of that anecdote is not that you know, I’m not a free citizen because I can go and solve my pothole locally rather than have this centralised state do it and the democratic citizen is not more free because she can move down the road to a different county that’s better at fixing potholes. It’s because she has this other directed spirit that allows her to not be atomized alone, that solitary and is part of something bigger. And that’s how, how people maintain that freedom. And I just, I think that missing these facets of Tocqueville means that there might be more to these projects than have so far been investigated.
I think part of the difficulty and transmitting this more 19th century perspective into the 21st century is that our society doesn’t really look very much the same as when Tocqueville observed it. So you talked a lot about the virtues of the self governing society in which women take a disproportionate role in bringing up children and transmitting the virtues of citizenship. Where religion is a very big aspect in people’s lives, that does play a constraining role in morality, where there is a tendency to respect authority more, where information is not so democratised, where authority is not so democratised. We live in a completely different world now. And you might say that certainly women’s empowerment is a completely positive achievement in light of history, and that women shouldn’t necessarily be spending the majority of their time in the domestic sphere transmitting these moral virtues to citizens. So, there are a lot of tensions in taking the Tocquevillian example and being perfectly Tocquevillian in the 21st century, should we be Tocquevillian nowadays given that society has completely changed?
Great point. I mean, yeah. As you started describing, you know, we now live in a different society. I’m like, Yeah, I know what a nightmare? No, of course, of course not. And obviously, simple things like us having this conversation now. One of the great things about living in a modern society. I think my critique, I, first of all, I want to say I think my critique of Putnam doesn’t look at these gender roles. And it’s not to say he and the polycentricity folks and the communitarians, really, if they were doing Tocqueville, probably they would tell women to all get back in the domestic sphere. Not at all. I just think in terms of historical sort of evaluation of trends, Putnam just wasn’t looking at something that is true. That I, I haven’t looked at all of the data but my instinct and also I think, if he had been more truly tocquevillian perspective maybe he would have had access to this insight in a different way.
But I really don’t want to have this critique be like “Tocquevilles, you’re under arrest. We’re going to the court of history of political thought.” Not at all. It is absolutely not to police the use of Tocqueville as a historical mascot in modern social science. It is just to say that new ideas can be offered by highlighting what Tocqueville has to offer. So, particularly with what you said about changing social norms, about the way that domestic work is divided and women being part of the workforce, I think my critique basically provokes questions like, you know, how can we make that trade off from an older form of associative life between women’s participation in the public sphere, what is that trade off? And I just want to provoke that question a bit more. Not necessarily advocate with the Tocqueville full force of the Tocqueville beliefs that women need to move back into the private sphere or anything like that.
But just ask, what trade-offs are we making, you know, in terms of loyalty? In the face of social optimization and very permissive exit options? Can we really have associations and local life that’s really robust if it lacks loyalty, and just probing those questions and then saying, how do we get around those problems? So I certainly don’t want to wholesale transport to that advice and plant it on the 21st century. And you’re right, that we’re sort of working things out in our, the thing that is most indicative of how much we’re still working out the social norms is the fact that women are largely part of the world workforce, but we see all these studies that women take on whatever it is 75% of the domestic housework. And that just that just shows, maybe we haven’t quite worked this all out. Men still work more of what people call first shift hours, you know, and so maybe hours wise it does work out but we don’t really understand how all of that work is inside the home and outside the home and how it’s going to form citizens.
And so I think I’ve moved a little bit away from your question which, sorry, your question was about, is it appropriate to just transplant Tocqueville’s advice? I don’t think it is. But I do think that the thing that is sort of always going to be applicable is that overarching structure, his overarching analysis of democracy and how it works and what it might encourage in the human soul, there’s a lot of wisdom in that. And there, the themes that I raised by looking at the domestic sphere can provoke a lot of these questions. All of these three areas that I talked about are very concerned with private life. And we need, if you’re concerned with private life, it’s worth looking at the home.
So I agree we can’t transplant all of his advice, but it’s worth a more thorough reading of him because he has helpful things to say and these accounts could be more fleshed out. Or, you know, future scholars working in these areas can start to think about some of these things. And I just I particularly when it comes to gender roles, I just don’t think people should be so shy of, of talking about that there might be something really valuable and it doesn’t mean you’re saying “This is the way it should be.” It’s just examining how social capital is working in different groups and different localities. If it does certain kinds of social capital falls along gender lines, just don’t be shy of saying that. That’s interesting. So, I appreciate your question. And then I don’t want to seem that this whole critique is a scolding of people’s interest in Tocqueville. I’m glad that people are interested in Tocqueville because it gives a certain relevance to everything I’m interested in. That being said, I don’t think the relevance of Tocqueville is solely defined by how much he’s quoted in modern social science conversations, I think in and of his own right, we should all just be reading Democracy in America all the time.
Do you think that we’re in a period of democratic despotism today?
Okay, wow, that’s a tough one. So, I imagine, I do like to think about Tocqueville arriving in his time machine and what he would make of all of this. And the thing I think that he might be most surprised by is actually the ways in which we are tyrannised by non state actors, like major technological companies, that we have outsourced our entire brains to, I think that’s sort of the thing that would totally shock him. He’s like, oh, but these are private companies. So I wonder if we live in a form of despotism with certain, I mean, you know, Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram or, you know, all integrated and they all surveil us, and that kind of tyranny is alarming when you think about it too much. And I wonder, I think that’s an area where he might identify some despotism, but it would not be in terms of that mass centralised state that he was worried about. He probably would also be surprised by the size of the French state and the American state nowadays.
Do we live under a democratic despotism right now? I think that there are certain ways in which we do, because his fear was that certain parts of life would be taken out of the hands of the individual. And there are many aspects to everyday life that are taken out of the hands of the individual and it’s much more normal for it to be in the public domain. I also think in terms of his fears around individualism, social atomization, moral mediocrity, and consumerism. I mean, we do have a lot of those things going on in modern society now. And you know, when you think about his description of mediocrity is not just moral mediocrity, but it’s mediocrity on every level. It’s some artistic mediocrity. It’s a very, it’s just nothing’s too bad in democracy, but nothing’s too great either.
And I think he might observe that in, you know, our TV and our entertainment and our our poetry and our novels and, and this kind of, our amount of education we have, you know, when was the last time you met someone who was like, you know, these incredible scholars that are you can work across like CS Lewis or something like you’re gonna work across 50 different fields like knows nine languages. We’re all very very educated, but we don’t know a lot of folks like that and superstars. But we’re, we have so much more education than previous generations. So in all of these different facets, I think he would observe a mediocrity. It sounds weird to use mediocrity when we obviously live in an extremely luxurious age. But I think you would notice that things are neither really, really bad or these like heroic acts of the most great fantastic minds and the most powerful credible art being made? I do wonder, I think maybe you’re right, maybe we are. Maybe we are living under some kind of despotism.
In light of this potential that we are living in a period of democratic despotism, we are more secularised. We’re more atomized or more lonely. We’re lacking a lot of the social ties and the social norms that existed in the 19th century, especially in urban environments. We lack a lot of those central ingredients for democratic citizenship that Tocqueville was talking about. So it seems like an opportune time to go back to literature and maybe ask how do we replicate those mechanisms nowadays given that we’ve lost a lot of it in the process and throughout history?
Okay, that’s good. We’ll try and end on a more optimistic note. I feel like in your last question, things got a bit grim. And I’m actually very pleased to live in the 21st century, and in many ways think it is the greatest time to be alive. It is extraordinary that we have such a widening in the middle of access to so many, quite good things, if not the most glorious. I’d rather live in a quite good world than a world with a lot of low, vile, evil, bad things going on, or poverty or other kinds of issues. But so I think, is worth ending on a more optimistic note, I think Tocqueville in a way had an optimism about what I like to think about is he says, we have to make the more as appropriate to our age and as I think about that all the time when I’m despairing that maybe we live in bad times. And because his advice so much has to do with maintenance, caring, preservation, in almost a cyclical job. A regenerative fashion, it’s hard to see how his advice could be used when things are already pretty severely broken. And I guess my answer is if we see that these things are broken, we really have a, if we see that these things are broken, and we think they’re important, we really have responsibility to try and rebuild them, to make them again.
And I think, especially friendship is a key component of this. Be it like you said, in a more secular world and in more, you know, urban environment in certain modern democracies. I think it begins with rich friendships, because it’s the most accessible and there it is actually, the most democratic friends are usually made of equals. And to begin to form strong social ties, it’s just not a norm for rotary clubs to exist, like Americans love to talk about rotary clubs, but if they just don’t really exist, you can’t join one. So the place to start is in building really strong friendships and I think good conversations is part of that and you know, an ability to be self sacrificing for your friends, is a start to building up those social ties that are lacking. But it is tricky to apply Tocqueville’s advice because it really was about preservation. It was about mate maintaining, not remaking or building from scratch.
Something that I find interesting, this is taking us back to the grim perspective. But you know how there are so many like memes and jokes on the internet about hoping your friends will cancel plans, and like friends cancel plans and then like some sort of joke thing you say “Oh, so sorry to miss you” but then you know, the picture in the meme is like delight that you can stay and watch Netflix by yourself. And I’m not saying that those have never made me laugh because I don’t relate to them but I find it like this interesting phenomenon, that’s like the most basic moving yourself out of the house to go be there for your friend when they need you in a time of need and like to connect with your friends and, you know, so even I guess my point is like, even on the friendship front, we might be going back to the grim stuff, sorry Irena, but I think even on the friendship front, we’re so I’m comforted by Netflix and the delivery meal that you know, we might not even get out and be there with our friends and have a drink and have a good conversation or help them move or help them do something. And I think that’s really serious because I think the most the place we can really get to work out this is in friendships and you know if we already have this kind of a lot of creature comforts, Tocqueville would be disappointed.
I took it back to the grim side of things, but I think he would be a bit disappointed by memes like that. But look, I think we have to just make the mores appropriate for our age, which is going to be women in the workplace, and how do we balance that work? And if we see that the social ties are lacking, just build them, you know, just build them up, start making them happen.
Well, on that more optimistic note, I think we’ll end there. Thank you so much, Sarah, for joining us today.
Thank you so much.
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