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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

New study of American character recalls Tocqueville’s Democracy in America

Is it still possible to define the American character? Was it ever? Recent reviews of Claude S. Fischer’s Made in America: A Social History of America’s Culture and Character are stirring lively debates. Writing in Boston Review, David M. Kennedy applauds Fischer, a sociologist, for undertaking a time-honored pursuit abandoned by historians in the 1960s. Kennedy finds in Fischer’s book echoes of Alexis de Tocqueville’s path-breaking two-volume study, Democracy in America (1835–40), which “remains the most astute analysis of American society ever penned, a touchstone and inspiration for all subsequent efforts to grasp the elusive essence of America’s national character.”

In his book, Fischer locates the central trait of the American character in voluntarism. Sarah E. Igo in her review for The American Prospect finds Fischer rediscovering (and sometimes straining to find) this “key trait that binds Americans together.” Similarly, Kennedy writes:
[Fischer] creatively fuses Tocqueville’s familiar observation about Americans as inveterate joiners and his equally famous notion of individualism. Voluntarism, for Fischer, embraces both the recognition of each person as a “sovereign individual” at liberty to pursue his or her own destiny, and the belief that “individuals succeed through fellowship—not in egoistic isolation but in sustaining, voluntary communities.”
On dagblog Donal interweaves thoughts about Fischer’s book with his reaction to watching the New Year’s Day Twilight Zone marathon and laments that “voluntarism isn’t uniting us.” But is it supposed to? What’s appealing about voluntarism as a unifying principle is that it can explain the impulse for some Americans to identify with the Tea Party and for others to join MeetUp or the Green Party or to attend the Rally to Restore Sanity.

The diversity and contrariness of the American character was exactly what de Tocqueville celebrated:
There is perhaps no country on earth where one meets fewer idle people than in America, or where all who work are more passionately devoted to the quest for well-being. . . An American will attend to his private interests as though he were alone in the world, yet a moment later he will dedicate himself to the public’s business as though he had forgotten them. At times he seems animated by the most selfish greed, and at other times by the most ardent patriotism. The human heart cannot be divided this way. The inhabitants of the United States alternately exhibit a passion for well-being and a passion for liberty so strong and so similar that one can only believe that the two passions are conjoined and confounded somewhere in their souls.
Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy in America

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