Last week I went to Houston to see the rodeo. That rodeo is not like other rodeos. It’s gigantic. It goes for 20 days. There can be up to 185,000 people on the grounds in a single day and they are of all human types — rural ranchers, Latino families, African immigrants, drunken suburban housewives out for a night on the town.
When you are lost in that sea of varied humanity, you think: What on earth holds this nation together? The answer can be only this: Despite our differences, we devote our lives to the same experiment, the American experiment to draw people from around the world and to create the best society ever, to serve as a model for all humankind.
Unity can come only from a common dedication to this experiment. The American consciousness can be formed only by the lab reports we give one another about that experiment — the jeremiads, speeches, songs and conversations that describe what the experiment is for, where it has failed and how it should proceed now.
One of my favorites of these lab reports is Walt Whitman’s essay “Democratic Vistas,” published in 1871. The purpose of democracy, Whitman wrote, is not wealth, or even equality; it is the full flowering of individuals. By dispersing responsibility to all adults, democracy “supplies a training school for making first class men.” It is “life’s gymnasium.” It forges “freedom’s athletes” — strong and equal women, courageous men, deep-souled people capable of governing themselves.
Whitman had hoped that the end of the Civil War and Lincoln’s sacrificial death would bring the nation together. But instead there was corruption, division, demoralization and inequality. For Whitman, America’s great foe was feudalism, the caste structure of Europe that Americans had rebelled against, but that always threatened to grow back: “Of all dangers to a nation, as things exist in our day, there can be no greater one than having certain portions of the people set off from the rest by a line drawn — they not privileged as others, but degraded, humiliated, made of no account.”
Whitman feared economic and social feudalism, but above all he detested cultural and moral feudalism. He believed that writers, artists, musicians, poets and preachers were the real legislators of mankind, and in America they were detached from the nitty-gritty American experience. They still looked back to Europe — to the parlor, the perfumed courtier and the spirit of gentility — for their models of character, manners and education. They looked down on America’s democratic mass.
That left a spiritual vacuum, he believed. Americans had no way to see how their daily exertions contributed to a common spiritual cause. They saw no way to achieve individual salvation through community effort.
America has created a brilliant political constitution, Whitman wrote. It has amassed untold wealth. But it has not created a democratic culture that captures, celebrates and ennobles the way average Americans live day to day.
“The problem of humanity all over the civilized world is social and religious, and is to be finally met and treated by literature.” When there is no common sense of mystical purpose, you end up with alienation, division, distrust, “universal ennui,” a loss of faith in the American project. “Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States,” he observed.
Whitman was not, however, pessimistic. He had worked as a nurse during the Civil War, watching men recover and die, and the experience had given him illimitable faith in the goodness of average citizens. Average American soldiers showed more fortitude, religious devotion and grandeur than all the storybook heroes, he wrote. They died not for glory, nor even to repel invasion, but out of gratitude to have been included in the American experiment. They died “for an emblem, a mere abstraction — for the life, the safety of the flag.”
Whitman spent his life trying to spiritualize democratic life and reshape the American imagination, to help working people see the epic heroism all around them that unites the American spirit.
He didn’t mind a little healthy rudeness, what we would call the politically incorrect. He thought that the cause of democracy is sometimes aided not by “the best men only, but sometimes more by those that provoke it — by the combats they arouse.”
And above all, he pointed out that the American experiment is young. It is just getting started. “Thus we presume to write, as it were, upon things that exist not, and travel by maps yet unmade, and a blank. But the throes of birth are upon us.” True democracy is still in the future.
So much of what he wrote rings true today: the need to see democratic life as an exhilarating adventure, the terrible damage done when you tell groups that they are of no account, the need for a unifying American mythos, the power of culture to provide that mythos and, above all, the reminder that this is still early days. We’re still a young country. The times may be discouraging, but the full strength of American democracy is still waiting to be born.
David Brooks became a New York Times Op-Ed columnist in 2003.