Updated: Jun 23
In the early 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville traveled to the United States at the behest of the French government to study the American prison system. Pennsylvania had recently finished the construction of Eastern State Penitentiary in 1829. At the time, Eastern State was the most expensive prison in the world. It was designed so that every prisoner would be placed in their own individual cell. Part of what made Eastern State so expensive is that they needed to make sure every cell had its own heating and plumbing. Every cell had flushable toilets, which might not sound that amazing, but in 1829 the White House didn’t even have flushable toilets.
Alexis de Tocqueville travelled to Pennsylvania so he could observe this new prison system, which he studied with intense curiosity. However, Tocqueville was also intrigued by America itself. At the time, the United States was just emerging from its infancy as a country and there was intense curiosity about this new land of opportunity. Therefore, after de Tocqueville finished spending time in Pennsylvania, he travelled all around the United States, taking detailed notes of everything he observed. He spoke with hundreds of people about their lives, examining the various communities and institutions that comprised this new nation.
As he travelled out west, Tocqueville met the descendants of European pioneers who had settled across the United States in the 1700s. He noted their fierce commitment to personal liberty. Yet, at the same time, he observed something unusual: Among the same people who claimed that liberty was of utmost importance to them, they were willing to come together to help the people in their community, both in public and private spheres.
De Tocqueville was the first person to coin the term individualism, which he defined as “a selfishness that disposed humans to be concerned only with their own small circle of family and friends.” As a French aristocrat, de Tocqueville was keenly aware of the pitfalls of individualism. Fifteen years before he was born, the unbridled selfishness of the French aristocracy had led to the French Revolution where numerous aristocrats had their heads lopped off by the guillotine. The hyper-individualism of the aristocracy is what caused them to ignore the needs of the proletariat, which ultimately led to France’s undoing.
De Tocqueville was inspired by what he saw in America. Again and again, he encountered people who were profoundly protective of their independence, but through deep communal connection, they were able to overcome their selfish desires by engaging in collective problem solving and collaboration. This spirit of egalitarianism was propelled by what de Tocqueville called “self-interest, rightly understood.”
The Gilded Age
Unfortunately, by the 1890s, this egalitarian, communal spirit had dissolved. Following a bloody civil war, the people of the United States were no longer willing to work together. The individualism that de Tocqueville dreaded had overtaken the fabric of American society. Rather than pulling together for the greater good, communities were at odds with each other. Not only was the political polarization acute, just like we’re experiencing today, but similarly, workers were facing highly deflated wages.
The industrial revolution had inspired workers to flood into cities seeking jobs. With no minimum wage regulations and a seemingly endless supply of workers, business owners could exploit their employees by making them work 12-18 hour days for very little pay. Like a replaceable cog in a much larger machine, the value of human life felt insignificant. The industrialists had ushered in an era of survival of the fittest. It was kill or be killed. Nobody was looking out for your best interests. You had to look out for yourself.
But then America found itself sucked into World War I. Democracy and the world order was under attack. The younger generation was drafted into fighting what would become the bloodiest in history owing to the use of machine guns, mortars and chemical weapons. Those who survived did so because they worked together. The men who fought alongside you in the trenches were no longer fellow soldiers, but your brothers. You were so bonded that you would divulge secrets to your brothers in battle you would never dare tell your priest.
Upon returning from war, these men and women married, creating closer and more bonded communities, teaching the value of sacrifice for the greater good. By the 1930s, the Silent Generation was growing up in the midst of the deprivations of the Great Depression. Sharing with the community became essential as everyone needed each other just to survive. Then the United States was called upon once again to fight in World War II. After allied powers claimed victory over Germany, Japan and Italy, the selflessness of the men and women returning home would continue the tradition of community fostered by their parents, but it wouldn’t last long. As their children became teenagers, the swing back towards individualism would begin in the 1960s with the Baby Boomer generation. My generation of Xennial/Millennials would grow up with fraying community structures, and today, some 60 years later, our country now finds itself in a similar pattern as in the 1890s.
Community vs. Individualism
If you’re interested in learning more about this cycle, I recommend reading the book The Upswing by the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam. Published in 2020, Putnam demonstrates how our society swings back and forth from communalism to individualism with each generation moving the pendulum closer and closer to one extreme until eventually a new generation changes the momentum back in the opposite direction.
I was intrigued by this theory because I noticed an interesting pattern that correlated with Putnam’s theory. Churches are community-based organizations and they only work well when we put aside our individualism and work as a collective unit. Therefore, given that the 1960s was moment when the pendulum started swinging in the other direction, is it any wonder that the peak of church attendance in the United States was the 1960s and ever since we have seen a slow steady decline? With the rise in individualism, the church has experienced a steady exodus.
If your perspective on the world is dominated by the belief that the freedom of the individual trumps the greater good of the community, then you’re obviously not going to want to be affiliated with an organization where the message is all about personal sacrifice. Consider who Christians worship every Sunday. Tradition states that the entire premise of Jesus’ life is that he sacrificed himself for the benefit of everyone. Our model of what it means to be a Christian is sacrificing everything we have for the benefit of others.
This is a big reason why traditional versions of Christianity are dying and other versions of Christianity like the prosperity gospel are thriving. The prosperity gospel teaches that God wants every individual person to have material wealth and comfort. According to the prosperity gospel, the more faith you have in Jesus, the more God will bless you with money and riches. Prosperity gospel preachers tell their audience to sacrifice their money and God will pay you back with more money down the road. The goal is not to sacrifice for the larger community. Your goal is to sacrifice to benefit yourself.
Of course, the prosperity gospel is not an accurate reflection of Jesus’ teachings. Take a look at these scriptures:
“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” (Lk. 12:15)
“Sell your possessions, and give alms…For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Lk. 12:33-34)
“So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” (Lk. 14:33)
I think it’s pretty clear, your individual success is not Jesus’ top priority, so the prosperity gospel is a perversion of Jesus' original intent. Indeed, Jesus' original message is not particularly popular. Personally, I preach these verses at my church all the time. When I started at my church 9 years ago, there were almost 600 people a week spread across three Sunday morning services. Today we’re worshipping less than half that. Some of our decline is due to the pandemic fatigue and demographics shifts (deaths, transience, etc.), but I know for a fact that a large swath of people left because they were tired of hearing a message where the focus was sacrificing for the benefit of the community.
However, let’s take a moment and examine our world and where rampant individualism has gotten us. We are the most divided as a society we have been since the Civil War. Families are literally split in half because they can’t have a civil conversation. Similar to the 1890s, the tension between fascism and democracy have come to head. The only difference is that, rather than the German Kaiser declaring democracy to be a failed political experiment, those same calls are coming from within America itself from an ever-growing proportion of the population.
More than 40% of Americans believe a civil war is likely in the next 10 years. Why? Our views of what constitutes a free and fair society are so diametrically opposed to one another that we cannot even comprehend the logic being employed by the other side. Part of this is because we’ve stopped having conversations with people who disagree with us. As I wrote about in my article on the volunteer crisis, when we are isolated from each other, we lose touch with our empathy, sympathy and compassion.
We have to be in community to feel empathy, sympathy and compassion because being in community causes friction. If I’m living in community with you and we have a disagreement, we have to work out our differences if we’re going to continue working together. Compromise is only possibly through putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes. That’s how we build empathy and sympathy. Friction helps us to see the world from opposing perspectives.
Unfortunately, we now live in a world of echo chambers. We tend to only interact with people who parrot our own perspectives and are inundated with an ever-shrinking funnel of information from AI algorithms trained to feed us articles custom-tailored to our political preferences. This is not a uniquely American problem. The deleterious effects of hyper-individualism can be seen in countries across the world where autocratic and fascist leaders are quickly rising to power.
To say the I’m scared for the future would be an understatement. The last time we were this divided, the swing back towards a communal mindset was triggered by the need to fight a world war. Moreover, the circumstances feel eerily familiar to World War I. Like Germany invading France, Russia has invaded Ukraine for the purposes of territorial expansion. Ironically, Russia’s aggression is the product of Vladimir Putin’s social isolation. He lives in a bubble, where no one dares contradict his decisions for fear of being executed.
I tend to be an optimist, but it feels like our world is teetering on the edge of a very dangerous precipice. When you combine the pressures of climate change, inflation, supply chain interruptions, food insecurity, the collapse of natural ecosystems, political upheaval and mass human migration, it feels like we’re trying to plug multiple fissures in a dam. Just when you think one is under control, the pressure increases with the others, until eventually the whole structure gives way and we’re inundated from all sides, unable to catch our breath. The animator Steve Cutts has perfectly captured this existential angst in his newest short A Brief Disagreement.
Solving the Unsolvable
Practically, most of these issues are very much out of our control. There is little we can do as individuals to overcome such an oppressive onslaught of problems. However, one area where we can make a difference is by intentionally being part of diverse multigenerational/multicultural communities. It’s critically important that we leave our homes and interact with groups of people with differing perspectives. Although many churches have become homogenous echo chambers, there are still some churches that house a variety of people regardless of age, race, class, ethnicity or political affiliation.
But even if religious communities aren’t for you, there are other venues where varieties of people mix and match—gyms, sports clubs, book clubs, fan clubs, community centers, game groups, support groups, and skills classes to name a few. The most important thing is taking a chance and being social with people outside of your friend groups. Once you are integrated, the next step is bringing more people into the fold. Invite friends, neighbors, acquaintances, particularly those who possess diverse and opposing points of view.
I know this might sound uncomfortable and perhaps even a recipe for disaster because of the potential friction. However, the minor friction we experience in small communities is necessary for us to avoid the larger friction that will build up and spill over into large-scale violence when we remain separated. The more empathy and sympathy we can develop in small communities, the more likely we are to avoid large scale conflicts, such as war. As Alexis de Tocqueville understood, when we are only concerned with our own small circle of family and friends, heads will roll. Let’s do our part to intentionally create a welcoming, diverse community to make sure that doesn’t happen.