James Poulos wants you to consider how to be, freely, with the help of Alexis de Tocqueville. Not how to become “free”; he suggests, instead, thinking in terms of adverbs: how you and your neighbors are and how we all might be. Most of us are not doing so well at being, and only practicing the art of freedom can ameliorate what he calls the “constitutive craziness” of American life.
The book is not, despite its subtitle, a self-help book or a how-to manual. On the contrary, Poulos thinks the American obsession with the “self,” with “performing our autonomy,” is a big part of our problem. The volume is instead a discursive and personal meditation on how Tocqueville’s Democracy in America illuminates our predicament. Tocqueville can help us see that, notwithstanding our current preoccupation with inequality and with our differences, what defines us is in fact our remarkable equality and interchangeability. To gain this perspective requires widening the historical lens and seeing our moment as part of the “Great Transition” from an age of aristocracy that is gone but not forgotten to an age of democracy that we have not yet fully entered. This historically anomalous equality and state of constant change is at the root of Americans’ unceasing anxiety, our “competitive conformity,” and our complicated relationship to money, sex, faith, play, love, and death — all of which have chapters devoted to them.
Poulos does not so much advance an argument about any of this as invite the reader to try to follow his thinking as he wends his way through a sometimes disorienting maze of philosophical and pop-culture allusions. He weaves Marilyn Manson, the Kardashians, Hamlet, Socrates, Nietzsche, Bruce Wayne, Zoolander, and American Psycho into his reading of Tocqueville and contemporary American society. The liberally scattered footnotes provide further wide-ranging digressions that are often interesting in themselves even when not exactly to the point. His tone is, as he says, “playfully earnest,” and his prose style is prolix and laden with italics. A characteristic sample:
Now, we can see that Tocqueville’s religion-first approach also actually operationalizes [the] insight [that the spirit of freedom and religion can combine in fruitful ways], making us receptively unafraid to experience our apparent crises as something other than solvable problems.
This will not be to everyone’s taste, but a patient reading is rewarded.
Poulos’s book is easier to understand if you keep his biography in mind. He graduated from Duke, went to law school, realized law wasn’t for him, studied political theory at Georgetown, realized academia wasn’t for him, tried to write a novel, put it aside, tried to make a living from making music, realized this was unlikely to work. An observation from Tocqueville, which he quotes, is apropos:
When all prerogatives of birth and fortune are abolished, when all professions are open to all and a man’s own energies may bring him to the top of any of them, an ambitious man may think it easy to launch on a great career and feel that he is called to no common destiny. But that is a delusion which experience quickly corrects.
In Poulos’s case, experience finally steered him toward success in political media. He writes for outlets as diverse as Vice and National Affairs and recently announced that he would be joining a new publication, American Affairs, that aspires to articulate the ideas animating Trumpism. He is unusual among many conservatives writing today in that he cares and thinks deeply about pop culture, movies, and music. He lives in Los Angeles.
From this vantage point, he observes the various paradoxes and contradictions of modern American life: We desire unity, yet fear uniformity. We furiously pursue leisure activities as if they were work. We simultaneously seek refuge and release in our romantic relationships. We feel paralyzed and dispirited by our limitless opportunities and possibilities. And we have a love-hate relationship with money.
According to Poulos’s gloss of Tocqueville, in a society with no fixed ranks or castes setting men apart from birth, money inevitably becomes the measure of all things. We are so obsessed with inequality precisely because the rich among us are not different in kind from us. By and large, they have the same low passions and pursuits, only writ large. The possibility of becoming rich ourselves excites envy and competition. And we fear the accumulation of money in the hands of a few because we fear it will return us to the past, to aristocracy — or worse, propel us toward oligarchy.
We cannot really go back. But Poulos thinks that today’s rich can successfully ape aristocracies of a bygone era to the extent that they succeed in cordoning themselves off from the rest of us. Their desire to do so, however, is limited by their own need for love from the masses. They will have to do some mingling with the plebs to receive the adulation and acceptance they crave. See: Mark Zuckerberg, or, if you like, Donald Trump.
Perhaps even more complicated than our relationship with money is our relationship with other people. “At the intersection of sex and freedom” Poulos finds “serial failure.” His account is much more interesting than the by now drearily familiar tale of sexual revolution giving way to familial breakdown. Tocqueville had much to say about relations between the sexes in America, which he found to be altogether different from what they were in aristocratic France. Much has changed since the mid 19th century, but his original insight, that sexual mores both reflect and shape the social fabric of the nation, remains true.
Poulos worries not only about the “futility, or fruitlessness,” of the “pursuit of purely sexual gratification,” but also about a “perversely self-sterilized way of life” in which men and women retreat “so far into their own petty cares that the nuclear family [becomes] a lazy, indulgent, isolated, and soulless way to play house.” Our democratic propensity toward individualism presents a danger of a similar kind.
The central contention of his book is that most of these inherent tensions in our way of life cannot be solved — they can only be understood and accepted. We need to learn, he says, to “deal with it,” to reconcile ourselves to reality. This understanding, in conjunction with the rediscovery of an “irreducible I” (a concept that Poulos contrasts with an artificially constructed “self”) and an “anchored heart,” allows one to carve out a space for “sanity and shelter” in our crazy world. Poulos hints that a belief in the soul and some type of creator, as well as openness to grace and mystery, are necessary here. Only someone who has found this inner stability can enter into fruitful conversation and relationship with others.
This individual self-mastery and a regained capacity for dialogue, Poulos intimates, are the preconditions for civic and political renewal. While his book is not explicitly political, in the sense that it is not about electoral politics or current affairs or ideological battles, he makes clear that our political life depends on whether we can relearn how to live freely. Tocqueville, and Poulos’s book, are as good a place as any to start.