Individualism as an American virtue was challenged by the emergence of progressive values at the turn of the 20th century. Rugged self-reliance that tamed the west morphed into self-interest as the agrarian economy industrialized and as rural life urbanized. The constitutional protections of individual liberty against the tyrannies of concentrated power and majoritarian democracy inhibited the objectives of progressivism to transform the country.
Individualism became less defined as self-reliance and more identified by individual ambition. The capitalism of the protestant ethic required deferred gratification, sacrifice, and productivity. The Gilded Age was more about consumption, and entitlement earned in the name of social Darwinism. It was no accident that the same Progressive Era that sought to regulate and control trusts and monopolies also welcomed eugenics as social policy.
Consumerism became a driving force and Keynesianism advocated stimulation of demand in times of timidity in production. Government thought they could control the economy, the sum total of individual human action, like fine tuning a ham radio.
Individualism became synonymous with greed, but much of our discord is based on the different meanings we assign to words. Much of our progress comes from the efforts of a very small percent of our population; individualism is about recognizing the value of individuals as individuals.
Progressives and European socialist movements spoke of a general will or the people’s will. The will of the people is not defined by objective measurements or even national elections; the country remains divided by interests and differences. A republic places certain rights such as our natural rights beyond the reach of a democracy; individual rights were the epitome of liberty, not greed. A leader according to Woodrow Wilson discerns the will of the people; he may even form the general will. Is this not the definition of a demagogue?
Factions in the time of the constitutional convention did not include blacks or women, but it included ideologies and economic interests, including geographical and regional interests. The general will precluded political differences and factions. It assumed certain mechanics of government were beyond political considerations, justifying the rise of the administrative state. While progressives pushed for greater democracy, they also pushed for more of the business of government to be moved beyond the accountability of an election.
Identity politics subdivides the general will based on race, gender, and ethnic considerations. Race and gender have replaced ideologies as political interests. Is it any surprise that the result is a resurgence of white nationalism and anti-Semitism?
Is the rise of #BLM and #MeToo after a half century of stunning progress in racial and gender equality an effort to regain the political power of these earlier struggles? The power of identity politics like the political power of the general will is antithetical to individualism. Individual liberties are quickly sacrificed to the politically correct and identity politics.
Individualism may require a different meaning in an urban setting or more mobile society where ties to neighbors are weaker. Individualism does not have to mean a return to social Darwinism and a rejection of the welfare state. It does not have to mean a return to the self-reliance of the frontier. Individualism is not isolation, it is a component of the interdependence that defines a community. We remain unique and still share common ideals.
It does mean a recognition of individual rights and respect of dissent and contribution. It requires the priority of common ideas over common biologies. Modern individualism rejects the identity politics of groups, the mobocracy, and the thin veil of the peoples’ will hiding the demagogue.
When the masses rise up the individuals suffer in mass. Professed love of humanity often justified horrid treatment of individual humans. The problems of division are not the result of individualism, but the poor substitutes that subvert it.
PS 2019 09 16
Modern individualism is the individualism of Warren Buffet and John Coltrane, Elon Musk and Rosa Parks, Sergi Brin and Pink. It is not limited to the rugged individualism of the old west, but the appreciation of our infinite uniqueness and the capability for disproportionate contribution, regardless of race or sex, that benefits us all. We are united by the fact that we are all different and all valued as individuals.