Friday, April 21, 2023

Individualism, Community, and the Tocqueville Problem: A Chat with Alan Ehrenhalt

Alan Ehrenhalt


On Wednesday, I had the awesome privilege of interviewing the great Alan Ehrenhalt, author of  The Lost City: The Forgotten Virtues of Community in America, and former executive editor of Governing Magazine. Mr. Ehrenhalt is, without question, one of the most important figures in social capital literature. His writing on the decline of American community is of utmost importance and should be read alongside the work of Putnam, Fukuyama, and Etzioni. 

Frank Filocomo: American discourse right now, both on the right and the left, seems to be overemphasizing the "I". There's a lot of libertarian thought and hyperfocus on individualism. Do you agree that we are ignoring the "we" in American discourse?

Alan Ehrenhalt: Well, when I wrote The Lost City, I definitely felt that we had descended into me-first individualism. I predicted, perhaps out of desperation, that in the next generation there would be a return to community and communitarian values. And what I would say now is that what we really have is a split. On the one hand, libertarianism is very strong. Gay marriage, for example, was unthinkable 30 years ago. There's a lot of emphasis on personal freedom in the younger generation. Yet, the interesting question to me is: to what extent does the use of social media reflect the desire for community? That's one question. And the second question is: is that a real community? You get various answers to that latter question. I think the social thinker Leon Kass at the University of Chicago made the argument a couple of years ago that this really was a search for community. That people were getting together and that people who were interested in butterflies, for instance, can get together with others who are interested in butterflies. That's one of the more innocent things. But then the question is: what if that becomes a robust vehicle for people relating to each other but, at the same time, there's a decline in physical community? In certainly seemed, in the 1990s, that we were developing suburbs in which people didn't know their neighbors and people were living relatively atomized lives. Is that still true? I don't know. Critics of that point of view talked about book clubs, soccer leagues, and so on...My kids are way into adulthood now but, we're friendly with people my daughter played soccer with 20-25 years ago. So, I think, to some extent, I underestimated the extent to which community ties, while initially weakening at the neighborhood level, strengthen when people's kids go to school. We made most of our friends after our daughter started going to school. So, I think I maybe underestimated that, even in what we would consider the most soulless of suburbs, people forge relationships with other parents. I don't see any reason that that has atrophied. And it is a form of community. 

FF: So, you write about how in the mid-20th century, these small communities were incredibly close-knit and house moms acted as the de facto neighborhood patrol. Do you think that some of the atomization and the overemphasis on individualism today is a rebellion, or rather, a reaction to that kind of close quarters living?

AE: Yeah, I don't think many people in any neighborhood now would want to discipline the neighbor's kids, which at one time was quite acceptable. I mean, we wouldn't do that. So, there was a reaction against that kind of close-knit neighborhood feeling, and yet there's a nostalgia for it. People feel like they've lost that feeling. 

FF: Right, well that is what's confusing to me. There's a nostalgia for the good old days of American community, but at the same time it seems like people are rebelling against it. The baby-boomers have definitely rebelled against it. So how do you square that?

AE: Well one way I would square it is by saying, in every generation in American history going back to the 18th century, people, especially as they got older, lamented a community in decline since their young years. I started to write a book about that, but it never happened. Nostalgia for community is a given in modern Western life. And yet, when you look at the way that things were in the 1950s, it's not a matter of crying wolf. If you look at the 1950s, there really were tight networks of community and it was not a delusion. So, on the one hand, we're always worried about that. And, on the other hand, it really does seem to be getting worse. 

FF: So, in a lot of the social capital literature that I've read, there is a big emphasis on Tocqueville. Authors often speak about Democracy In America and the vibrant community life of the 1830s with all of the voluntary associations. Theda Skocpol, however, wrote an essay called The Tocqueville Problem wherein she dismisses the premise that America, at that time, had a weak state accompanied by little social groups. What do you think about her thesis? 

Theda Skocpol

AE: Well, I have to admit that I am one of about three people in the entire world of this subject that is not an admirer of Tocqueville. I mean, I think he was writing a work of philosophy. Tocqueville wasn't much of a reporter. He knew what he wanted to find and he found isolated examples of it. I think, as a work of reporting, it's typical French academic writing. It's all deductive and not based so much on experience. I mean, Tocqueville had interesting things to say, and the writings are part of the intellectual landscape, but I think there is a Tocqueville problem. 

FF: That's interesting that you say that, because all of the literature seems to center around Tocqueville. I mean, the term "Tocquevillian" has become synonymous with community. 

AE: He was making a case for community. The question is: how much of it did he see during his relatively limited time in this country? But yes, we did form associations in the 1830s; I'm not trying to dispute that. Putnam talks very convincingly about these associations that we had in the 1950s. The interesting question to me is: are we replacing those in any significant way? Are we replacing them with things like book clubs or with parents groups. Parents are getting more active, for better or worse, in the management of schools. And, whatever else that does, it has the function of bringing parents together as more of a community. And, then again, there's the question of: what has the internet done to community? 

FF: Right, and part of my problem with the literature is that it's very long in description, but short in prescription. When you read Bowling Alone, for example, you get this very gloomy picture of American community and social cohesiveness in decline. But what's the upswing in your opinion? Normatively, what's something that you think ought to happen, or could happen? 

AE: Well, I try not to be prescriptive very often. Putnam, if I got one piece of prescription from his writing, says to stop watching so much T.V. He even tied it to a percentage of community and institutional decline: the more you watch T.V., the less contact you'll have with your neighbors. But many of these problems work themselves out as generations go on. It's very hard to say, "If we only did this, community would return". You know, fortunately, in the books that I wrote, I was never asked by the editor to tell people what they need to do in the last chapter. So, I never did that. But, if you read a lot of books, which are otherwise good, authors wind up looking kind of silly in the last chapter because they're full of recommendations that the writer doesn't have any idea are going to do anything. Society's change, I won't say glacially, but gradually. There's an exception in the way that the internet and social media have changed American life, I do agree with that. I didn't mention this but, I wrote a book about the desire of young people to live in the center of cities. And, to some extent, it was truncated by COVID. But the population of downtown and central cities has gone up in the last couple of years. And it's not that were going to have a vast movement into the center, but we're going to have an affluent center of cities surrounded in the suburbs by an increasingly poor population. And that started to happen before COVID, but I think that it's resuming now. But, cities are not, by and large, losing population in the downtown areas. And as office building cease to serve their previous function, they should be converted into residences, and there are people who would want to live in them. There are a lot of technical difficulties involved with doing that based on how the buildings are built but I think that's where we're going. So that's one sense in which a younger generation wants, if not community, the vibrancy that they get from living in the center of a city and going out to bars and restaurants, and shopping at boutiques. It seems pretty clear that affluent people want that. 

Empty office space

FF: I would agree with all of that, and I find it funny what you say about the office because I'm in one right now and it's totally empty! 

AE: I read recently that there is an increasing number of, particularly young people, but affluent people wanting to live near their offices even though they only go there a couple of times a week.   



  1. Urbanization, people moving from the country to the city, and technology, people staring vacantly into a smartphone, have given new meaning to being alone in a crowd. Today, community requires a degree of self awareness of what’s missing and the determination to seek it out. Otherwise, you can find it in old tv shows and museums.

    1. Could not have said that better myself! Thanks for reading!