Tocqueville, Whitman and Enlightened Self Interest
Is Tocqueville’s concept of enlightened self-interest still a useful way to think about democratic citizenship? Perhaps Walt Whitman has something to say about this?
Citizenship implies myriad things and practices. To some it’s simply voting and for others it incorporates complex systems of engaging and investing time in one’s community and to others it could include charitable donations or the choice of one’s vocation and for others, it is an all important legal status.
I am thinking it might be useful to introduce another concept of how self-interest and civic engagement can play out in a democracy. The poet, essayist, newspaper editor, federal government worker and civil war nurse Walt Whitman spent a lot of time thinking and writing about the intersect between individual needs and collective responsibilities, and he modeled how to take responsibility for what we do through his credibility as a poet and (hu)man.
Whitman who was born on Long Island in 1819 and died in Camden, New Jersey in 1892 lived to experience some of the post-revolutionary fervor including General Lafayette embracing him as a young boy, the tumult and horror of the civil war and the painful reconciliation of the reconstruction era.
Whitman was an ardent democrat who deeply believed that well developed and evolved persons would make great parents, friends, lovers, leaders, warriors and enlightened citizens. He also believed that democracy was forever transforming, changing and adapting and would forever remain an unfinished work. Not coincidentally, he believed people were also works in progress and whose divine impulse was to develop into “new persons” who would participate in the body politic. Whitman believed the job of the poet was to “write the epic of democracy” and work toward “making a new history, a history of democracy, making the old history a dwarf”. Literature and poetry comprised an important aspect of democratic society by using a common language to communicate a shared story and set of values.
Whitman created his own system of philosophy for advancing democracy that called for great individuals who would populate and influence great nations. In 1871, while living in Washington, DC Whitman published Democratic Vistas an eighty page essay defending the merits of the democratic experiment in light of Thomas Carlyle’s essay “Shooting Niagara…and After” which called into question the value of universal suffrage. Carlyle believed that a country could only be adequately ruled with the influence of established power structures comprising a “wise elite”.
Whitman’s democratic philosophy included a concept that he called Personalism. In many respects it is akin to the Chinese theory of Tao the interconnection of yin and yang…two seeming opposites that provide balance and in this case, between the one and the many. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s friendship and influence on Whitman is also evident to some degree in Whitman’s notion of Personalism. Emerson believed that people must rely on the self-reliant truth within themselves rather than on an outside interpreter or leader. This Self however is universal, existing in all others. Transcendalists called this the Over-Soul and while Whitman was not a transcendentalist he believed deeply in the divine connection between people.
Among Whitman’s well-known poems “Song of Myself” declares:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
This is a powerful realization of individual identity that connects us together in a greater whole. Whitman believed that first we needed to develop ourselves intellectually, physically and spiritually so that we might realize our larger shared connections and mutual interests. As our individual identity develops so too does our capacity for “comradeship” and he borrowed a term from phrenology “adhesiveness” to describe what he believed was the critical ingredient in building a public. In Whitman’s perspective it is only after we have self created a ‘noble’ citizen that we can begin to truly act out in an enlightened self-interested manner. Whitman wrote “Adhesive love, at least rivaling amative love” is a critical ingredient to cement the ties between friends, neighbors-citizens. Put another way, democracy and camaraderie depend on trust and of a kind of love.
For many elected leaders, governments/municipalities and public institutions of all kinds from philanthropic organizations to public utilities a core challenge is how to earn and sustain the public trust? High performing public institutions and leaders, intentionally or not, tend to do three things well:
1. They operate with a high degree of transparency
2. They are relational (core constituencies feel close)
3. They are accountable
Whitman espoused these three sensibilities in his philosophy, poetry and his life. In his poetry he uses the ‘out of doors’ to represent openness and public-ness. It is on the open road and under the night star shine that we are at liberty to be and to literally practice what we preach and be who we are (representing transparency). Whitman’s writing was innovative because it was written in such a way that people have formed a personal bond with the work and the poet. The way we live our lives determines in many respects how authentically we follow our own path and if there is a disconnect between words and deeds, credibility is lost (representing relational). In Whitman’s case, he devoted his health both physically and psychologically to service the sick and dying in the Civil War. As a first hand witness to the suffering, death and disease of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers from both the North and South his role as nurse provided comfort for many and his voluntary service put his words and integrity into practice (representing accountability). The frustration that many people have with their public leaders is that they are uncertain if they can really trust what is being said to them and they are uncertain if they will do what they say they will do.
Whitman also radically believed that all institutions would someday become democratized including the military. He felt that it was a significant contradiction to espouse democracy in society on the one hand and on the other hand support public and private institutions that managed their employees as if it were still the Middle Ages. This type of corporate/governing structure with an all-knowing CEO/elected/appointed leader at the head of an organizational hierarchy and employees in the positions of serfs did not lend itself well to a mature democracy he believed (not to mention public constituencies are easily pushed out in favor of organization charts and effective bureaucratic systems). In this way, Whitman predated many of the modern management guru’s who seek to devolve leadership and responsibility to workers in exchange for greater creativity and loyalty. It is also a clarion call for public institutions to turn “outward” and to serve the public faithfully.
Fundamentally, Whitman believed that people and systems/organizations of all types need to develop their capacities to their fullest extent, open themselves/itself up for observation, understand how different entities are interconnected and finally…to have deep trust in oneself that creates an authenticity easily recognizable for all to see.
In closing, one could argue that enlightened self interest, at least the way Tocqueville describes it in Democracy in America is an instinctual by product of the way American communities organized themselves in the early 19th century. Natural disasters, threats from Native Americans and foreign nations, wild animals and criminals necessitated that people work together for protection and public safety. Implicit in enlightened self-interest is the distinct possibility of ‘self-sacrifice’ and in today’s society; this is a notion that appears to often be put on the wayside. Few of today’s political leaders talk much about their constituents sacrificing their comfort for the larger cause in meaningful ways. Perhaps, Whitman was on to something when he wrote: “produce great persons and the rest follows…” I will end with this question, “What can institutions and leaders do to create an informed and self confident public that could foster enlightened self interest?”