In this episode, we dive into some of the profound changes occurring in American society. Back in the day, social scientist Robert Putnam observed a concerning trend—he called it “bowling alone”—where Americans were becoming increasingly disconnected from community bonds and support systems. Fast forward to the present, and we see not only a retreat from these vital sources of communal life but also a rise in loneliness, anxiety, depression, and overall mental and physical distress. Marriage and parenthood are also being delayed or foregone altogether. These developments have far-reaching implications for both American politics and civil life, as well as for the individual’s well-being and fulfillment.


Taking us back to the roots of democratic thought, we turn to Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America.” Tocqueville recognized the unique nature of the democratic social state and the need for a “new political science” to navigate its strengths and weaknesses. He explored how the principles of democratic equality would transform our intellect, sentiments, and social norms, painting vivid images of democracy and the dangers of soft despotism that still resonate today.


While Tocqueville’s masterpiece provides a comprehensive view of American democracy, there are areas he did not directly address. One such topic is friendship—a central element in Tocqueville’s own life. Although seemingly absent from his work, we can draw upon Tocqueville’s theories, as well as insights from Aristotle and C.S. Lewis, to ask: How does democratic equality transform friendship, a fundamental association crucial to human flourishing?


Today, Dan Churchwell, Director of Program & Education, talks with Sarah Gustafson, as they exploring how democratic equality opens up new possibilities for meaningful connections while also introducing habits and trends that can erode genuine companionship and push individuals into the “solitude of their own hearts.”


Sarah H. Gustafson is a PhD Candidate in Government (Political Theory) at Harvard University where she is completing her dissertation on the thought of Alexis de Tocqueville. She graduated from Davidson College, and earned a MA in the History of Political Thought at Queen Mary University of London, where she won the Quentin Skinner Prize for Excellence in the History of Political Thought. In her years at Harvard, she has had the opportunity to work closely with Professors Harvey Mansfield, Michael Sandel, Richard Tuck, and Eric Nelson, among others, and is a Fellow at the Abigail Adams Institute. In her free time, she has authored reviews for publications such as Law and Liberty and The University Bookman.


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