A review of Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, by Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler and Steven M. Tipton
Habits of the heart” is part of Democracy in America’s encompassing definition of “mores,” a word Alexis de Tocqueville uses “to cover the whole moral and intellectual state of a people.” It is an apt title, I think, for this most recent attempt to update Tocqueville, a Democracy in America for the eighties if you will, and not merely because its coauthors intend their book as a “detailed reading of, and commentary on, Tocqueville” (p. 306). More than a few books that build upon Tocqueville do not merit a Tocquevillian title. In this case, however, a title testifies to a fundamentally Tocquevillian purpose. Like their predecessor, Robert Bellah and his coauthors seek to render America “intelligible” by illuminating its opinionative core, the “mental habits” and “habits of the heart” that combine to drive, to maintain, and sometimes to endanger the “democratic republic” in its American manifestation (Tocqueville references are to the J. P. Mayer edition, pp. 19, 287).
In this respect, Habits of the Heart is admirable. Whereas other recent analysts of America are so governed by ideology, so overwhelmed by America’s heterogeneity, so angry at what they construe as its people’s lack of proper sympathy for those less fortunate than themselves, or so distressed by the special-interest characteristics that increasingly define its politics that they tend to look upon the American people as heartless in both the Tocquevillian and Christian senses of the word-they are not mutually exclusive-the coauthors of Habits not only accept the premise that an American heart still beats, they believe that they can delineate it by way of survey research. Thus, beyond their commentary on Tocqueville, they would persuade us that “we have enough in common to be able mutually to discuss our central aspirations and fears” (p. vii). In short, their book testifies to their refusal to be governed by the current fashion or conventional wisdom of the academy. Such independence, I must add, has long been true of Bellah, to my mind the premier American sociologist of our day and the senior scholar, if not senior author, in this collaboration. He and his coauthors bear no animosity toward their fellow citizens and are less interested in criticizing them than in understanding them. And even where they are critical, they remain sympathetic and charitable. Indeed, I take them to argue that such qualities mark them as faithful to a central, if understated, element of American tradition, that which is manifested in American religion. In their version of the American heartland, a good deal of decency prevails.
Unfortunately, Habits does not stop at this. Its description of contemporary American ways reflects the view that individualism is the characteristic American excess and, therefore, that it poses the greatest threat to what is admirable in American life. Thus, as its subtitle indicates, the book openly reverses Tocqueville’s hierarchy as regards the dangers inherent in a democratic people’s “passion for equality” and its “natural taste for liberty.” “Not equality,” we are told, but individualism, which, as Tocqueville sees it, is coupled with a natural bias toward freedom, “has marched inexorably through our history.” We need worry, and take precautions, lest that individualism grow “cancerous” and destroy the “social integuments” that protect us and our freedom, in effect, from ourselves (p. viii; see Mayer, pp. 503-6, 667). This is particularly true, the argument goes, insofar as individualism manifests itself in our disinclination to commit ourselves to civic and communal affairs.
In itself, such an argument is not especially objectionable. There is room in American thought to emphasize something other than what Democracy in America emphasizes. Tocqueville, one is constrained to say, holds no monopoly on the truth about America or democratic politics generally. Moreover, the coauthors of Habits, who acknowledge Tocqueville as the most profound influence upon their “thinking about life in America,” touch upon something of fundamental importance to him (p. 306). We recall his concern about the loneliness which is the condition of the self-dependent individual in an egalitarian society, the man who accepts that all opinions and sentiments are of equal authority and, thereby, can say with Turgenev that “I share no man’s opinions, I have my own.” Who can forget Tocqueville’s description of the sorry state of such a man, devoid of hereditary friends whose help he can command, without a class upon whose sympathy he can rely, easily gotten rid of, and trampled upon with impunity (Mayer, pp. 506, 697).
Insofar as Habits denotes the problems attendant upon individualism, then, it is on solid ground. Indeed, even Tocqueville, who could visualize “an innumerable multitude of men, alike and equal, constantly circling around in pursuit of the petty and banal pleasures with which they glut their souls,” might have been amazed by the picture it draws of the forms contemporary individualism takes (Mayer, pp. 291-92). Moreover, the book may be said to improve upon Tocqueville by emphasizing, correctly I think, how traditional American individualism combines with the various psychological revelations of the last century to create, at least in some of us, an extraordinary self-absorption, not to mention self-indulgence. Here Habits is engaging, even fun. It is the stuff of sitcoms to consider what life is like for a disaffected California businessman who has discovered its real meaning-“. . . just do your own thing. That is kind of neat”-but whose commitments are “precarious,” an embryonic middle-management John DeLorean if you will (pp. 7-8). This is not to say that this part of Habits is without flaws. Despite its extensive and well-wrought survey, for example, its cross-section of America is unsatisfying. Its representative examples of Americans at large-our disaffected businessman, a director of public relations for a large manufacturing firm and small-town New England civic activist, a practicing therapist, and an organizer for Tom Hayden’s Campaign for Economic Democracy-constitute, one immediately notes, a white-collar, middle-class equivalent of the proverbial WW II Hollywood bomber crew. But how faithful is this group to Americans in the aggregate? As a politically sensitive friend put it to me, for him it represents the first glimmerings of a new Democratic coalition and majority for 1988. Certainly, it is hard to imagine much support for Ronald Reagan among our “representative characters,” notwithstanding Reagan’s enormous popular majority in 1984. Habits’ claim to having chosen a diversified sample-ethnically if not racially-of middle-class Americans, in short, is not compelling. Perhaps this is because Bellah and his colleagues-three professors of sociology, one each of philosophy and theology-adopt the conventional academic distinction between working-class and middle-class. This may make for good social science theory, but it may not provide an adequate foundation for studying American attitudes. Tocqueville, who begins by describing how America differs from the continental class-based society which gave rise to the very theories of class that Habits incorporates, would have known better. Certainly, he would not have chosen a sample so heavily weighted toward people who think in terms of therapeutic categories. Bellah and his colleagues, I think, would have gotten a better cross-section of American views by visiting a ballpark or two. Indeed, they could have saved a great deal of time and resources; assured a balanced economic, ethnic, and racial sample; and enjoyed a first-rate season had they confined their efforts to Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park.
But it is not Habits’ methodology that makes the book so troublesome. For this we return to its emphasis upon individualism, rather than egalitarianism, as the characteristic problem of American life. Whereas Tocqueville understands such individualism as of “democratic origin” and argues that it grows “as conditions get more equal,” Bellah and his colleagues seem to sever individualism from its democratic and egalitarian sources (Mayer, p. 507). Thus, whereas Tocqueville considers the crucial question of democratic politics to be how can the potential excesses of egalitarianism be checked, Bellah and his colleagues seem to argue that one can treat individualism in isolation from egalitarianism. Indeed, they go one better. They would seem to want to solve the problem of individualism by feeding the egalitarian spirit, thereby, from the Tocquevillian perspective, encouraging the growth of the very thing they so dislike. Their wish, for example, is for a “recovery of a genuine tradition” that would lead to a new “moral ecology, the connecting tissue of a body politic,” and a revitalization of democratic civic spirit and a sense of “commitment and community” (pp. 277, 283). Their version of this “genuine tradition,” an amalgam of millenarian religion and progressive politics, leads them, in turn, to argue for a lessening of the competitive nature of our society by somehow reducing the rewards and penalties, particularly economic, that follow from our “exaggerated” independence (pp. 286-90). In short, they call, in Tocquevillian terms, for an increase in equality of conditions to stem the tide of individualism. This, presumably, would narrow the distance that divides us from one another, and that which divides our public from our private selves, by increasing our sense of mutual identity and decreasing the impact of what the book calls ontological individualism; i.e., “a belief that the individual has a primary reality, whereas society is a second-order, derived or artificial construct” (p. 334). With this, of course, Bellah and his coauthors dispose of the central notion of modern liberal political thought and thereby of the principal argument for the kind of society they extol. In this respect, they are nothing if not bold. They are willing, for example, to reconsider, in the face of “a technologically complex society dominated by giant corporations,” the typical American understanding of freedom as the absence of restraint (p. 25). They are concerned about whether a conception of freedom as “freedom from” provides resources for considering our collective future. They do not, at least explicitly, wonder about some of the possibilities inherent in the alternative view of freedom. More to the point, they do not consider the possible antagonism between the new freedom and the “spirit of freedom” that, according to Tocqueville, is coeval with “love of political liberty” (see, e.g., Mayer, pp. 47, 697).
Habits’ posture-indeed, its insensitivity-with regard to the dangers Tocqueville saw as inherent in the egalitarian urge, also, I think, helps explain other disturbing features of the book. We have already touched upon one of these, its adoption of a misleading modern class bias. Where egalitarianism is looked upon and accepted uncritically-to be critical of equality, as Tocqueville was, is not necessarily to be an enemy of equality, and Tocqueville wasn’t-class emerges as about the only standard whereby people are legitimately differentiated. That is, in the absence of the natural and traditional sources of social differentiation which the egalitarian spirit sweeps aside (e.g., age, strength, sex, birth, even wealth), one is led to create artificial classes (e.g., working-class, middle-class, white-collar, blue-collar, proletariat, bourgeoisie). By the same token, one loses sight, in the romance with abstract classification, of the practical matters crucial to the well-being of any community. Thus, Habits largely disregards Tocqueville’s argument on the need to constrain the democratic majority such that it will not tyrannize over individuals, who have no defense before an authority based upon the naked power of numbers. For Tocqueville, this meant emphasizing the things that would encourage the majority to retain its respect for those not a part of it. Most especially, it meant emphasizing the things that lead to good opinions in a democratic society-in America’s case, a dissenter moral-religious tradition and republican political tradition-and reinforcing those which might mitigate the potential for majoritarian and opinionative excess-in America’s case, the aforementioned tradition and such institutional and structural factors as the standing of the legal profession, the jury system, a free press, a decentralized administration, and the rest of the long list we learn about in a good Government 1 class. Like Lincoln afterward, Tocqueville understood that opinion can fluctuate extraordinarily in a democratic age, and insofar as it governs the real political world, we must carefully attend to it and keep it within proper bounds. Habits loses sight of this. Its argument that individualism and liberty pose the greatest danger to America’s heart is in keeping with its disregard for Tocqueville’s, not to speak of Lincoln’s, emphasis upon the need simultaneously to lead opinion and to guide it, lest we be tyrannized by it or watch it be turned by the blandishments of demagogues and worse. Indeed, the end product of Habits seems to be a society that is oblivious to opinion altogether, a suicidal situation if that society is given to a belief in popular rule. At the very least, it seems oblivious to the opinions of American society as it is presently constituted. Thus Bellah and his coauthors urge us, in phrases that would not be out of place at a revival meeting or crusade, to accept and welcome poverty, and they appear to mean this in an economic as well as spiritual sense (pp. 295-96).
In these respects, Habits becomes decidedly unpolitical; i.e., it looks for political answers in what is essentially beyond politics. Ironically, Bellah and his coauthors seek solutions for contemporary problems in a social science and spiritual version of the kind of therapy which leads, in their subjects, to the self-absorption they criticize. Our disaffected businessman, for example, has a perfectly adequate and decent regard for how one ought to act in a democratic society. He believes in integrity and in being honest. He is confident, if not certain, about such things. He has more than sufficient grounds for his political and social activities. Habits, however, would improve upon this. How, it asks, does he or anyone “know” that his priorities are better than those of others, and again, how does he or anyone know that the “inherited conventions” of his family or community are better than those of competing families and communities (p. 21)? In seeking to answer these questions, Habits seeks for what politics cannot supply and, one fears, subjects democracy to possibly fatal tensions. Perhaps this is why the book alludes favorably-although not uncritically-to the proposals of the proponents of “the Administered Society” and “Economic Democracy” (p. 287). Those who have watched the unfolding, in the recent and distant past, of regimes based upon different versions of scientific and spiritual truth cannot help, however, but be made nervous by the book’s object, however well meaning and charitable its authors. In their desire for commitment and community, Bellah and his colleagues run the risk of giving up on democracy.