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For Bellah, individualism is the enemy of democracy, emerges in opposition to it, and can be eradicated by more of it. His precise position is this: to the extent the idea of the individual is democratic or egalitarian, it is salutary. The goodness of democracy or egalitarianism is his first principle. His dogmatism on this point is what, above all else, separates him from Tocqueville.

What Is Political Culture?

My purpose is to examine both Tocqueville and Bellah to illuminate the problem of democratic individualism. T ocqueville argues, and Bellah agrees, that democratization dissolves the ties or duties which link human beings to one another—those that constitute the family, religion, and political community. Each of them is to some extent inegalitarian or undemocratic. They, for the democrat, require the illegitimate subordination of the individual to other human beings. Democratization means freeing the individual from the rule of others for self-rule. He or she should be free to live however he or she thinks best.

The problem with this destruction of authority, both Tocqueville and Bellah agree, is that the complete self-sufficiency or autonomy required by radical individualism is impossible for human beings. For Tocqueville, radical individualism and radical egalitarianism really point to the same thing—atomism. Atomism is the result of the destruction of all that binds human beings to one another and all that distinguishes them from one another. An atomistic world would be one full of a mass of equally insignificant, identical, isolated selves, each of which is radically free from all external duties and restraints that might determine the purpose and direction of its existence.

This freedom is freedom for an impossible task: the human self cannot originate its own content out of nothing. The atoms are alike because they are equally without distinctively human content. The very perception of unlimited freedom by a human being is dizzying and terrifying. It is something from which the apparently radically liberated self desires above all to escape. Without communal resources to shape and limit self-determination, the democratic self chooses not to determine itself, i.

It passively defers to public opinion, Tocqueville says. But this opinion itself is determined by no self in particular. The democratic self really seems to defer to some principle of impersonal materialism. Both Tocqueville and Bellah also call attention to the unendurable misery of this unsupported self—the one which is free from the undemocratic or anti-individualistic illusions which once bound human beings to religion, family, and political community. The liberated self is not full of the self-confidence that might make genuine autonomy possible. It is all too aware that it is not a god.

American Political Culture

It is aware primarily of its radical contingency or neediness. It knows that it cannot really satisfy its own deepest longings. The deepest of these, according to Tocqueville but not Bellah , is the longing for immortality. Bellah follows Tocqueville both through his examination of affluent Americans and in his observation that the democratic individual is restless even in the midst of abundance.

No amount of material success can wholly satisfy human desires, those which are at the root of the need for morality and religion. Democratic individuals continue to pursue even greater amounts of such success only because they believe they have no choice but to hope that somehow it can become satisfying.

No other standard of success is credible to them. Because their hope is unreasonable, and Bellah never tires of pointing out the incoherence of American arguments based upon it, democratic individuals tend to avoid the leisure that might lead to self-contemplation.

Their need to work hard has remarkably little to do with want in the usual sense. But it seems they cannot work hard enough. In a self-consciously individualistic time, they can hardly hope to avoid self-contemplation altogether. Bellah and Tocqueville agree that democratic individuals cannot help but be anxious, sometimes even melancholic.

They are susceptible to religious madness and ideological fanaticism on the one hand and the pantheistic lullabies of therapists on the other. Generally speaking, their reason tends to give way; if their humanity is sustained, it is only through an assertion of will.

Claiming Individuality

This self-destruction of the mind occurs most readily among the most talented democratic individuals, the ones who are most aware of the futility of democratic striving but who see no credible alternative to it. For Bellah and Tocqueville, a related problem with democratic individualism, the one which makes it not really democratic, according to Bellah, is that its destruction of qualitative or community-generating human distinctions causes economic distinctiveness to become far too important.

The result is a materialistic assertiveness or competitiveness which distorts all of human life. The idea that individuality is rooted only in materialism really produces nothing but misery. It produces poverty and related forms of human degradation for those who fail in the race of life.

It also produces the anxiety of extreme self-consciousness for those who succeed. Both the affluent and the impoverished have reason to be radically dissatisfied with a wholly democratic individualism. It is their opinions that Bellah criticizes.


He wants to heighten their anxiety and lead them to acknowledge the cause of their misery. He is somewhat unclear concerning why this would occur. He has the propensity to equate anxiety with guilt. Affluent individuals know they do not deserve the affluence that sets them apart from other human beings. They are worried about being able to sustain it in economic competition. They know it causes undeserved suffering by others; they are afraid of these others.

They are no longer isolated by their wealth and competitiveness. He also, following the lead of other contemporary American socialist intellectuals, makes the case for understanding American populism as indigenous socialism. Bellah responds to this observation by criticizing the opinions of most Americans.

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He takes his bearings from what he believes a consistent articulation of the American tradition to be. He tries to improve America through usingthe Socratic method in the service of egalitarianism. He calls it the deepest insight of the biblical and republican—or to some extent anti-individualistic—elements of the American tradition.

It is the only one of these insights, apparently, which has not been rendered incredible by the progress of democracy or individualism. Socialism is, in principle, the only regime more democratic than democratic individualism; it is more consistently egalitarian. It is also correct to call Bellah a Marxist, although, in doing so, I do not want to be misunderstood. He is not a partisan of the Soviet Union. He is, more generally, a sincere opponent of totalitarianism. He believes he is interpreting the development of the American tradition correctly.

He is right to imply that the Tocquevillian and the Marxian analyses of the excesses of individualism are similar, and he is to be applauded for discovering that Tocqueville thought through more clearly than Marx many of the key Marxian insights. By calling Bellah a Marxist I only mean to say that he leans toward the Marxian, rather than the Tocquevillian, solution to the problem of democratic individualism.

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  • Tocqueville and Marx seem to agree that radical individualism is unendurable for human beings. If religion—or the truth of the idea of the soul—cannot be sustained in democratic times, then socialism is not only inevitable but perhaps even beneficial. Tocqueville believed that the perpetuation of religion in democratic times was possible because the human soul really exists.

    Human beings have nonmaterialistic or spiritual needs which must be satisfied wherever they exist. The end of religion would signal the end of humanity, and Tocqueville did not think that the destruction of humanity is necessarily the final consequence of the unalterable progress of democracy. Bellah wants to do justice to both religion and socialism, but he cannot do the impossible.

    Socialism is really his choice. His propensity is to reduce religion to the theology of liberation, to an instrument for bringing socialism into being. He alsocontends that Catholicism finally came into its own after Vatican II, by which he seems to mean that its leaders lost interest in almost everything but economic reform and opposing nuclear war. To put it bluntly, how can the queer destabilization of identity be compatible with a political agenda based on the fight against the oppression that LGBT individuals are victims of?

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