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Mark L. Movsesian Opinion: American Values Decline with American Community

The following is a condensed version of “American Values Decline with American Community” by Mark L. Movsesian, published at Law & Liberty.

A poll on American values in the Wall Street Journal last month has caused a stir. The poll, which the Journal conducted along with the well-regarded NORC at the University of Chicago, shows a marked shift in American values over the last 25 years, towards an apathetic detachment from the wider society.

According to the new poll, only 38% of Americans today say that “patriotism” is very important to them, compared to 70% in 1998. Only 39% say “religion” is very important, compared to 69% 25 years ago. “Community involvement” has also decreased in importance, as has “tolerance for others,” notwithstanding the unrelenting focus on “inclusion” in the media, elite educational institutions, government, and large corporations. “The only priority . . . that has grown in the past quarter century,” the Journal reports, “is money, which was cited as very important by 43% in the new survey, up from 31% in 1998.”

Some questions exist about these results. Differences in polling methodology in the past 25 years may make the changes seem more pronounced than they are. Moreover, the cumulative response in the new survey was only 4.3%. Pollsters nowadays are comfortable with low response rates, but the possibility exists that the poll reflects an unrepresentative set of respondents, which would make results less reliable.

Nonetheless, the survey is consistent with oft-observed trends in American life and should be taken seriously. In his famous book, Bowling Alone, sociologist Robert Putnam describes the withdrawal of contemporary Americans from civic involvement. Unlike their parents and grandparents, Americans today devote relatively little time to community organizations such as churches, social clubs, scouting associations, hobby groups, charities, reading circles, and volunteer fire and ambulance teams. Once a nation of joiners, the United States is now a collection of people surfing the internet and posting on social media.

The declining importance of community will surprise no one who has read Tocqueville. In Democracy in America, he explained that democratic societies lead to “individualism,” which he defined as detachment from the affairs of the wider society. Unlike aristocracies, which have status hierarchies that naturally encourage deference, democracies accustom each person to think of himself as equal to everyone else—not only in terms of citizenship, but moral judgment as well. Because everyone is equal, no one must defer to communal values; in deciding how to live, each person must rely on his own judgment and look out for his own interests. Over time, Tocqueville wrote, this “sentiment disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of those like him and to withdraw to one side with his family and his friends, so that after having thus created a little society for his own use, he willingly abandons society at large to itself.”

Tocqueville believed that individualism created the potential for two sorts of tyranny. The first was state oppression. The despotic state desires nothing more than for individual citizens to feel isolated from and indifferent to the concerns of others, so that the state can easily divide and dominate them all. The second was the tyranny of public opinion. Socially isolated individuals are no match for the pressure of majority viewpoints, which, like state oppression, can squelch free thought.

Tocqueville famously argued that the United States overcame the dangers of individualism through voluntary associations, which encouraged Americans to look beyond themselves and cooperate in common enterprises. Collections of like-minded people stand a much better chance than isolated individuals of resisting both state oppression and the pressure of public opinion.

Last week’s poll suggests what happens when mediating institutions weaken and disappear. As Tocqueville predicted, people lose interest in the wider community and focus more and more on their own projects. They “withdraw to one side” and “willingly abandon society at large to itself.” This can help explain why Americans decreasingly value tolerance and increasingly value money. Working in a joint enterprise teaches people to overlook personal differences to achieve a common goal; it trains us to forbear and forgive. But tolerance is unnecessary in a society in which everyone bowls alone. And money allows one to fulfill one’s desires without relying on the cooperation and approval of others.

Whether the tyranny of the majority that Tocqueville predicted will follow remains to be seen. The signs are ominous, though, in our increasingly centralized government and the increasingly strident and unpredictable social media cancel campaigns that ruin the careers of individuals who run afoul of public opinion. Detachment, as Tocqueville saw, ultimately doesn’t lead to security and independence. In fact, it makes all of us less free. Americans should strengthen the voluntary associations that have served us so well before it is too late.

Mark L. Movsesian is Frederick A. Whitney Professor and Co-Director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University Law School. This article was originally published by Law & Liberty Exclusive and made available via RealClearWire.

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