Farewell to America’s Modern Democratic Patriotism?
Mark Lilla 20 November 2020

The following is the text of Mark Lilla’s upcoming keynote speech at “The Divided Society after November 3rd“, the upcoming conference (November 23-24) organized by Reset DOC in cooperation with the Italian Academy at Columbia University and the Centro Studi Americani.


Today’s theme is our divided societies. I think you’ll admit that most conversations about this question follow what is by now a familiar script. We focus understandably on the forces we think are driving us apart: incivility, intolerance, dogmatism, reaction, radicalism, identity, social media, and the like. I assume we’ll get to many of these today.

But before we do I’d like to focus our attention elsewhere. Any medical diagnosis of an illness must focus on two sets of factors. One is whatever bacteria or viruses have invaded the body. The other is the body’s pre-existing capacity for resistance – the immune system. If a body falls ill, it might be due to a new virus, say. Or it might be due to a collapse of the immune system, which renders the body incapable of resisting bacteria that are always around.

If you think about it, most of the writing and discussion regarding our divided societies focuses on what we presume to be new microbes in the air.  The new populism; the new anti-Semitism; the new racism; the newly partisan media; the new identity politics; neo-liberalism.  We pay far less attention to what is, so to speak, our political immune system.

That’s understandable. In politics as in medicine, the immune system is a vague idea; it’s a construct, really. You can’t examine it under a microscope like you can bacteria. But still, one needs to make a stab at gauging a body’s resistance, whether the body of an individual or a body politic.

So the question I’d like to pose to begin discussion is the following. What are the factors that hold together a democratic society of individuals in the first place? And what changes in those factors do we notice in our democracies over the past decade or two?

The first is a very old question of political psychology, not of political principle. Political psychology is a dying art, both as a subject of academic inquiry and a basis for political commentary. What we first need today is to better understand the psychological ties that once bound us together more tightly.  Then we can ask ourselves to what degree those ties may have loosened of their own accord, and therefore have made us more vulnerable to forces like populism, xenophobia, and social media.

French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859)

To explore these questions, I’m going to lean heavily on the greatest psychologist of modern democracy, Tocqueville. And in particular two passages in Democracy in America that I’ve been puzzling over recently. (Just a reminder: except when he writes about race, when Tocqueville speaks of Americans, he is referring to what he also calls Anglo-Americans.)

Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America in the 1830s for a French audience that was skeptical – to say the least – of the prospects of modern democracy. Given the French experience in the half century before his visit to the US, that skepticism was understandable.  One of the charges being made against it was that it was atomizing.  If everyone were endowed with individual rights and there were no mystical authority above them, the argument went, you would see nothing but division, conflict, selfishness, and indifference to the public good.

Tocqueville tried to persuade his readers that things were turning out differently in the US.  And to explain why he distinguished between what might be called ancient love of country (or patriotism) from the modern version. This is what he says about the ancient version:

There exists a love of country which springs mainly from that instinctive, disinterested, and indefinable feeling which binds a man’s heart to his birthplace. This unreflecting love blends with the liking for ancient customs, respect for ancestors, and the memories of the past. Those who experience it cherish their homeland as they love the family house…This love is itself a sort of religion; it does not reason, it believes, feels, and acts. [274]

Note that Tocqueville uses the language of love to describe patriotism. It is not a love of government or the state apart from the people in it. It is rather a kind of fellow-feeling, what Aristotle called “political friendship.” The ancient version of this love is deep and enduring so long as it is “unreflective,” that is, instinctive. But it proves to be fragile in periods of profound historical change:

But sometimes in the life of nations there occurs a moment when ancient customs are changed, behavior patterns destroyed, beliefs upturned, the value of memories has vanished… At such a time, men no longer perceive their native land except in a feeble and ambiguous light; it is rooted neither in the land nor in the customs of their ancestors which they have been taught to view as a yoke, nor on religion which they doubt, nor on laws which they do not enact, nor on the legislator whom they fear and despise.

So men retreat into a narrow and unenlightened egoism.  They have neither the instinctive patriotism of a monarchy nor the reflective patriotism of a republic. [276]

This sounds familiar. And in fact, French society in the 1830s was as divided as ours are today. Over the previous half century the monarchy had been overthrown and the first Republic flamed out in a reign of terror. Then Napoleonic despotism rose and collapsed in turn. Tocqueville was writing just after the July revolution of 1830 that put an unloved constitutional monarch on the throne, and a cynical, self-interested bourgeois class in parliament. The old patriotism was definitely dead.

But could it be revived, as some French conservatives were arguing? No, says  Tocqueville, that’s impossible.

Nations do not return to youthful opinions any more than men return to the first tastes of their infancy; they may regret them but not rekindle them. So one must move forward and hurry to unite, in people’s eyes, the interest of the individual with that of the country, for disinterested love of country escapes never to return. [276]

In other words, modern democratic societies cannot be held together by the old traditional ties and feelings. But they can be held together if self-interest and the public good become associated in people’s minds. This, he asserts, can be the psychological basis of “another, more rational patriotism.”  This is how he describes it.

It is less generous, less passionate perhaps but more creative and lasting; it springs from education, develops with the help of laws, increases with the exercise of rights and in the end blends in a sense with personal interest. A man understands the influence which the wellbeing of his country has upon his own. [275]

This makes “rational patriotism” sound like a dispassionate insight born of self-conscious calculation.  But love of country and fellow citizens – like any love – is a feeling, it is an affect that inspires sacrifice and a sense of duty. Can a mere political calculation give rise to a political feeling? Obviously not. So what does Americans’ fellow feeling rest on? According to Tocqueville, some shared unreflective dogmas.

The inhabitants of the United States speak much about their love for their country; I confess to having little faith in this calculated patriotism which is founded on self-interest….The thing which keeps a majority of citizens under the same government is much less the rational decision to remain united than the instinctive and, in a sense, unconscious agreement resulting from like feelings and similar opinions. [438]

“Like feelings and similar opinions.” Tocqueville then goes on to enumerate some of the unconscious assumptions Americans make about the world.  In the moral realm, they believe in the authority of reason, but also in the utility of self-interest.  Regarding history, they believe in human perfectibility, the inevitability of change, and the possibility of progress.  Regarding politics, they believe in the absoluteness of human freedom, and of human equality (at least for whites), and of the right to self-government. And in general they believe education is a good thing, and ignorance a bad thing.  Whether Americans always act in accordance with these assumptions is one question. That these dogmas structure the way Americans look at experience and have feelings about it is another.

So: Tocqueville is convinced that unreflective, ancient patriotism tied to land and people is dying and cannot be revived. But he does think a new, democratic love of country can develop around dogmas – prejudices, really – that make people look at the world in the same way and expect the same things from it. As a good psychologist, he knows that we all love our little dogmas as much as we love ourselves.  What’s striking in America, he thought, is that Americans associate their country and their fellow citizens with these same dogmas. And therefore they come to love their country and their fellow citizens as a mirror of themselves. This is Tocqueville’s deepest psychological insight: modern patriotism is nothing but extended self-love. It develops through what psychoanalysts might call a transference. This is how he puts it:

Men living in democracies love their country after the same manner as they love themselves and transfer the habits of their private vanity to their vanity as a nation. [711]

So this, Tocqueville thinks, is one factor that holds individual Americans together. Of course within three decades after his visit the Civil War broke out, so clearly democratic identification was not enough to keep the Union together. But as readers of Democracy in America know, already in the 1830s Tocqueville anticipated the possibility of secession or war. While he extolled the visceral consensus and pride that brought white Americans together, he also saw a threat to unity in the daily practice of enslavement. He was obviously morally appalled by slavery and the affect had on the enslaved. But he also paid attention to the psychological differences it had caused between Southern and Northern elites.

Orginal title page of Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” – George Dearborn & Co., Adlard and Saunders, New York (1838)

After visiting both the North and the South, Tocqueville thought he saw that while ideas shape our opinions, social reality shapes our customs and what he called our characters. And therefore there can be a gap between our ideas and our characters.

It is generally believed among us that slavery gives one area of the Union interests quite opposed to those of another area. I have not observed this to be the case. Slavery has not created in the South interests opposed to those in the North but it has altered the character of southerners, giving them different customs…. The dangers faced by the American Union do not spring any more from diversity of opinions than from diversity of interests. They must be sought in the variety of American characteristics and passions. [440]

Because Northerners are forced to be self-reliant, Tocqueville argues, the way they live and the customs they have developed are compatible with – indeed seem an expression of – Americans’ shared dogmas.  While in the South, slave-owners were living a contradiction.  Not just a contradiction between one principle (equality) and another (slavery).  They lived a contradiction between the beliefs they shared with Northerners, on the one hand, and the habits and customs arising from daily life, on the other.

From birth, the southern American is invested with a kind of domestic dictatorship; his first conception of life teaches him that he is born to give orders and the first habit he learns is that of effortless domination. Education, therefore, has a powerful tendency to turn the southern American into a haughty, hasty, irascible, violent man, passionate in his desires and irritated by obstacles. [440-1]

In a sense, then, the Southerner talks like a democrat, but perceives realty and has the feelings of the decadent French aristocrats whom Tocqueville had come to despise.

The southerner is not preoccupied with the material cares of life; someone else takes care to think of them for him. Free in that respect, his imagination is directed toward other greater and less well-defined objectives. The southerner loves grandeur, luxury, reputation, excitement, pleasure, and, above all, idleness; nothing constrains him to work hard for his livelihood… [441]

So what really separates Northerners and Southerners is what Tocqueville calls in French “lifestyles” (les modes de vie):

If two men belonging to the same society have the same interests and to some extent the same opinions but their characters, education, and style of living are different, it is highly likely that they will not see eye to eye. The same observation applies to a society of nations. Slavery does not, therefore, attack the American confederation directly through interests but indirectly through customs. [442]

And so it looks like we have come across a second source of unity in democratic societies. The first was the community of feeling established by shared, unquestioned beliefs about political things and things beyond politics. The second source, we now see, are shared lifestyles that seem compatible with those beliefs.

Therefore, to speak in medical jargon, we can imagine two ways in which the immune system of a democratic society can be weakened, rendering it more susceptible to external threats – such as, today, populism, nationalism, xenophobia, charismatic authoritarianism, and the like.  One way would be a weakening of the community of feeling and beliefs.  The other way would be a widening gap between groups’ ways of life. If we are to follow Tocqueville – which I think we should; in fact, I think it is about time we tried to imitate him – it is time to ask ourselves the question he asked himself: has an old form of patriotism disappeared, never to return?  That was his view of ancient patriotism.  Should it also be our view of modern democratic patriotism? Are we witnessing its death throes? And if it so, can we imagine a different basis for what we might as well call post-modern patriotism?

At the end of my last book, The Once and Future Liberal, I argued for a robust civic education in citizenship in order to re-cultivate a sense of shared American destiny and of duty toward each other.  Looking back at the conclusion, it now strikes me more as a prayer than as an analysis. After four years of Trumpism in the U.S., and especially the rise of populist authoritarian demagogues in democracies around the world, I’m starting to think that we might be witnessing a deeper historical change at work:  the death of the modern democratic patriotism. Not for superficial reasons having to do with political partisanship, but for deeper ones regarding how we think and live today, and not only in the United States. I want to focus on the preconditions of democratic patriotism that Tocqueville identified: that is, a shared lifestyle producing similar characters and habits; and shared dogmas regarding politics, morals, reason, and history.

This would require significant elaboration. But just to get conversation going, I want to briefly mention two social developments we are all too familiar with, but consider them from Tocqueville’s psychological perspective.

Let’s call the first the lifestyle gapWe are all aware that the income distributions in all our democracies have become wildly and increasingly skewed. We are also aware that meritocratic privilege based on education has increased and colored the new economic class divide. And there are reasons to think that, given the nature of the modern global economy and of the importance of education for participating in it, this divide may become a permanent feature of our societies.

Once consequence of this divide is an increasing gap in lifestyles that is starting to rival the 19th century one between Southern, slave-owning landed aristocrats and Northern small business entrepreneurs. (To simplify matters I will continue to limit myself to white America, though I’d be interested to learn whether Jelani Cobb thinks similar lifestyle distinctions are developing within the African American community as well.)

The new lifestyle gap is not quite what you might expect. Our antiquated assumption is that so-called working-class Americans live traditional lives revolving around work, family, and church, while the meritocratic elite are less conventional. In fact, it is meritocrats like us who are more likely to get and stay married, to have kids, to hold steady jobs, to go to church, and to vote. As liberals they may not think of themselves or speak of themselves as traditionalists, but they are. It is under-privileged white Americans who are marrying less, divorcing more, having fewer kids (and more abortions), and are less likely to be employed or go to church or to vote.

In fact, one could argue with only slight exaggeration that today’s meritocratic elite now shares many characteristics with antebellum Southern aristocrats. Let me quote again what Tocqueville said about them:

The southerner is not preoccupied with the material cares of life; someone else takes care to think of them for him. Free in that respect, his imagination is directed toward other greater and less well-defined objectives.

Does that not sound like us? People in our class have lots of servants, though they don’t live with us.  These people, many immigrants, take care of our children, they mow our lawns, they shop for us, they repair our machines. (In fact, one sign of which class of Americans you belong to is whether you try to fix something broken or just by a new one.  Call it the Home Depot gap.)  Finally, we New Yorkers in particular even have people to cook our meals and deliver them right to our doorsteps.  (As a friend of mine once put it, all food in New York City is Mexican food.) As meritocrats we are increasingly cushioned from much of the grind of daily life that our parents and grandparents took for granted. At the same time disadvantaged Americans are increasingly feeling nothing but the grind, imposed by the new economy and by us directly.

Quite apart from questions of justice, it is important to recognize that this change in our lifestyles also changes our general outlook on life and our expectations for the future. How could it not? Our daily lives – not to mention our tastes in food, entertainment, travel, and the like – are increasingly different from, and alien to, those of the less privileged.  This was not so true in the decades following World War 2, when white Americans pretty much ate the same food, watched the same movies, and attended church at about the same rates. And very few went to college.

I don’t think it is much of an exaggeration to say, using Tocqueville’s terms, that we are developing two very different national characters today. And not just in the United States, but also in other democracies that have been turned inside out by the global economy. Meritocrats and the less privileged may profess the same attachment to broadly democratic values – freedom, equality, the rule of law – but they are starting to see each other as different species.  (Even our bodies look different, frankly.)  And consequently it is even harder for us to enter into each other’s heads. Not because we have different values, or even different interests, but because our characters have been shaped in very different ways.

This is one reason why, I think, it is so hard for those of us in the meritocratic class to understand the deep and visceral attachment the less privileged in our democracies have to populist demagogues like Donald Trump, Matteo Salvini, and Jair Bolsonaro. Whoever it was who quipped that Trump is a poor person’s idea of a rich person got to the heart of the matter. His lifestyle would be theirs if only they had the money to live it, I think. And to mock Trump – his limited intelligence, his bombastic vocabulary-starved speech, his love of television and fast food – is to mock them.  That is how deep the unconscious identification is.  And it shows how weak white Americans’ unconscious identification with each other across class lines has become.

Now let’s look at a second development that Tocqueville might have recognized as undermining modern democratic patriotism. He claimed that Americans’ fellow feeling depended on what he called their “unconscious agreement resulting from like feelings and similar opinions.” And one of the opinions he thought crucial was an unreasoned belief in the moral authority of reason.

It is no mystery why this assumption might be crucial in binding citizens together in a democracy. If we put a premium on reason-giving in moral and political discussion, it is much easier to imagine working toward agreement – or, failing agreement, to imagine people respecting each others’ opinions despite differences. An adversary who gives reasons for his or her position is quite different from one who simply asserts it and refuses engagement.

Do we still share this unconscious belief in moral reasoning? Less and less, I think. Americans of every political stripe now seem more attached to a kind of moral emotivism that makes each person’s feelings the arbiter of moral and political matters, especially if those matters affect them personally. Any reasoned discussion of such matters therefore feels to many Americans, particularly the young, like a threat to personal autonomy. I was very struck a couple years ago to discover while teaching J. S. Mill’s book On Liberty that my students generally supported free speech, on one condition: that it not hurt anyone’s feelings.

Of course moral emotivism does not stop us, particularly the young, from making categorical moral judgments about others, often severe ones. What’s missing is a sense that those judgments – including our own – are open to challenge and refinement. Instead, our working psychological assumption is increasing that moral and political views are simply an emanation of the individual self (or one’s identity).  And if we also make the moral assumption that whatever emanates from the depths of the autonomous self is a priori legitimate, the basis for political discourse disappears. All that’s left is a moralistic and emotive war of all against all.

Now, I’ve said nothing original about American lifestyles or contemporary moral discourse. We talk about these things all the time. My point has simply been to get us to think about them as two psychological elements among many others that could be weakening our democratic immune systems.  Because there are very good reasons for thinking that disidentification and moral emotivism will be with us for some time to come. The global economy and the internet are here to stay. As for moral emotivism, the question I suppose is whether it will disappear as the young get older. I would not count on it.

Before the Civil War Tocqueville declared that “the dangers faced by the American Union do not spring any more from diversity of opinions than from diversity of interests.”  They sprang, he thought, from deeper social and psychological forces. I think that is equally true today. But unlike him, I find it hard to imagine what sub-atomic forces might hold together the elementary particles that we are becoming. It makes no sense to be nostalgic. Contrary to what our “national conservatives” think, ancient national feeling is not going to return. (Instead we see a surge in ersatz, populistic, and anti-democratic versions of that feeling.) And contrary to what liberals like myself might hope for, the way we live and how we think about ourselves today are starting to appear incompatible with the modern patriotism Tocqueville analyzed.

So where would that leave us?  Can we imagine a new basis for unity compatible with how we now live and think? A kind of post-modern patriotism? I regret to say I cannot.


An Italian version of this text was published here.


Cover Photo: Elena Seibert / Random House

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