On what de Tocqueville thought of impatient Americans, the radical changes some people demand right away, and the slow way to preserve an America worth keeping
A general impatience is a long-running feature of the American character. Alexis de Tocqueville made note of it in Volume II of "Democracy in America": "It is strange to see with what feverish ardor the Americans pursue their own welfare; and to watch the vague dread that constantly torments them lest they should not have chosen the shortest path which may lead to it."
■ Restlessness with the state of affairs that are unjust or inadequate is a virtue, of course. If a real injustice is uncovered, it is for the best that the people of a democracy recognize it quickly and seek to purge it swiftly. Attitudes on same-sex marriage are a prominent contemporary example; according to Gallup, support grew from a small minority (27%) in 1996 to a majority (53%) in 2011, and now stands at a super-majority (71%).
■ In retrospect, that pace of change is remarkable by historical standards. But it most likely felt altogether too slow to those who campaigned for it. From 1996 to the present is just about one generation. Change often seems unsatisfying when it involves lots of individual decisions, as most matters of public opinion do.
■ It's worth recalling that humans have always been this way -- we are not unique today in requiring time to come around to new ideas, nor in being dissatisfied with conditions that don't quickly come around to our point of view. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus declared, "All great things are slow of growth; nay, this is true even of a grape or of a fig. If then you say to me now, I desire a fig, I shall answer, It needs time: wait till it first flower, then cast its blossom, then ripen."
■ Epictetus died around 135 AD. People are still discovering and re-discovering his ideas more than 60 generations later, but they have to be learned in order to be valuable. The same goes for any other philosophy or perspective on the world. It's easy to slap a motivational quote on a poster, but nobody has ever "Successoried" their way into a fulfilling worldview.
■ The same goes for a great country -- one that is, at its center, an idea about the rights of individuals. There are those who demand radical social and political changes of one flavor or another, often lashed to long wish-lists of individual policies, often quite radical in ambition.
■ Americans need to recognize our own tendency towards that impatience identified in our predecessors by de Tocqueville. We also need to acknowledge the inescapable fact that if we want to conserve what is fundamentally right with our country, then we have to commit to learning it for ourselves and patiently teaching it to our own children.
■ Epictetus was right; all great things are slow of growth. Great things are never achieved overnight. But bad ideas, like fast-growing weeds, can work their way in and choke out the slow-growing good things if we're not diligent about cultivating those good things over the long term. The risk is especially great in times when impatience is widespread. Getting and keeping good things requires thinking far down the road.