Alexis de Tocqueville warned that as the economy and government of America got bigger, citizens could become smaller: less practiced in the forms of everyday power, more dependent on vast distant social machines, more isolated and atomized—and therefore more susceptible to despotism. He warned that if the “habits of the heart” fed by civic clubs and active self-government evaporated, citizens would regress to pure egoism. They would stop thinking about things greater than their immediate circle. Public life would disappear. And that would only accelerate their own disempowerment. This is painfully close to a description of the United States since Trump and Europe since Brexit. And the only way to reverse this vicious cycle of retreat and atrophy is to reverse it: to find a sense of purpose that is greater than the self, and to exercise power with others and for others in democratic life. To rediscover those habits of the heart, however, we have to cultivate a habit that precedes all this: being honest, especially with ourselves.
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