Feeling for liberal democracies

Tocqueville writes: “the manners of the people may be considered as one of the great general causes to which the maintenance of a democratic republic in the United States is attributable. I here use the word manners with the meaning which the ancients attached to the word mores; for I apply it not only to manners properly so called, – that is, to what might be called the habits of the heart, – but to the various notions and opinions current among men” (On Democracy in America, vol.1, p.383, transl. H. Reeve, ed. Fr. Bowen. John Allyn, Boston, 1876).

It seems to me that Tocqueville is saying that feelings of liberty, enjoyment of right, and attachment to being free to enjoy one’s rights can only be kindled in a society actually based on those rights and liberties. The institutions themselves might prove unstable absent such feelings, and the feelings can only be nurtured by well-functioning institutions. To love and promote freedom and individual rights in an otherwise hostile environment would then be heroic: admirable yet unexpected.

If true, this raises the question of how fast such feelings deteriorate when people who enjoy the safety of privilege get to smell the coffee the others drink daily. Calls for soul-searching are commendable and should be heeded. But, if Tocqueville is right, that doesn’t stop those feelings from dwindling. Only the full range of rights and liberties for all can nurture these feelings.

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