Today we share a guest article from Brian Jones with some philosophical reflections on the meaning of democracy.

At the conclusion of a recent course I was teaching, the class read the following prophetic passage from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America:

Aristocracy links everybody, from peasant to king, in one long chain. Democracy breaks the chain... Each man is thereby thrown back on himself alone, and there is a danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.

Underneath this new social reality of democracy is the realization that a looming condition of existential loneliness is possibly waiting for us, hiding quietly in the shadows of democratic optimism.

My students were quiet after the passage was read aloud. Following this silence, the students seemed aware of the tense paradox that Tocqueville was encouraging us to contemplate. In one respect, the equality of social conditions that is the principle of democratic ages is to be praised. And yet, underneath this new social reality of democracy is the realization that a looming condition of existential loneliness is possibly waiting for them, hiding quietly in the shadows of democratic optimism.

One of the fundamental reasons for referencing Tocqueville’s insights here is that they provide a lens through which the students, and all contemporary democratic citizens, can come to better understand themselves. Tocqueville put his finger on the following synthesis that left my students yearning to hear more. In sum, “democratic man” is fundamentally brought into existence by a series of social disconnections that leaves him feeling apart and alone. Thus, as Americans become increasingly isolated and conceive of themselves as primarily individuals, they become more willing to give themselves over to ever-destructive hopes that aim at some kind of reattachment. There is perhaps no better description of where we are now as a culture, especially witnessed in the plethora of “movements” and identity politics.  

The rise of identity politics is deeply problematic because, among other reasons, it ultimately reduces human beings to the category of quality. A quality, such as being “white” or “black,” is not something to which who and what we are can provide full explanatory power. Said differently, the qualities of a person do not fully tell us what it means to be a human being. Even a healthy emphasis upon the importance of a quality such as race or gender can prevent us from recognizing that the explanation is only a part.

Related to this point is an illuminating judgment made by the French philosopher Etienne Gilson, who remarked that the history of modern philosophy can be understood as the attempt to transform some part of reality and elevate it as the whole of reality. For a variety of philosophical, sociological, and historical reasons, allow me to posit that political reflections today are inundated by this temptation. In particular, we are continually mesmerized by this haunting spell of identity politics. Not only has identity become the primary linguistic political category. More than this, there is increased pressure for the whole of human life being understood only through this lens. 

What we need is the courage to find and foster those opportunities wherein we can come together in the presence of other people.

The exhaustive nature of this shallow manner of seeing politics and the whole of existence in this way requires further causal connections. My thesis in this regard is rather simple: identity politics has become normative, both in theory and practice, because of the fact that democratic citizens understand themselves as disconnected. The congruence between the loss of real, particular associations with other human beings and the saturation of identity politics is then understood as one of cause and effect.

At the most basic level, we can come to an initial agreement that all human beings yearn for a sense of belonging and connectedness. Ask your neighbor or a family member if they would want to feel isolated, depressed, or alone. This experiential “fact” of human life requires some theorizing to solidify it. Human beings, as the kind of ontological creatures they are, are inclined to live in communion with others. And the reason why this is the case is, initially, a negative one. The biblical injunction that “it is not good for man to be alone” is our jumping off point. Notice that this notion of being alone is to be understood within the context of creation. Our created, embodied nature is such that it is ordered towards relation and community as for our flourishing. This is why it would not be good to be alone. Loneliness in the present context can only be understood in existential terms: it would be an ontological affront to the sorts of beings that we are to have to endure the type of loneliness that breeds despair.

And so we return to the passage above from Tocqueville. The judgment is unsettling for us to hear, for it is revelatory of a deep undercurrent at the heart of democratic life itself. If the cause of identity politics is traceable to this real experience of being isolated and cut off from communion with others, then at least an initial prescription can be given. What we need is the courage to find and foster those opportunities wherein we can come together in the presence of other people. The depth and variety of these possibilities is extensive, but we must not lose sight of the key here. This coming together, in the local community of, say, our neighborhood, is the first step in getting us to move outside of ourselves. In so doing, we work against the perennial temptation that we are certainly living through in these democratic times, which is to see our selves as alone, and the ultimate judge and standard of reality. 

Identity politics and the polarization that is common in American life may begin to subside when we are drawn out of ourselves and into engagement and communion with our friends, family, and neighbors. In this way, we can have a share of that limited hope that democracy can give birth to a form of civic vitality that can overcome the debilitating death of loneliness.  

(Top photo source: David Solce)


Brian Jones is currently a Ph. D candidate in philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. He is originally from Cleveland, Ohio and is married with three daughters.