Many years ago a noted political theorist, George Sabine, wrote about the “two strands of democratic theory” which influenced the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. Although much was missing from Sabine’s analysis, discussions of class, race, and gender for example, it did capture perspectives critical to the contradictory cultural reality of the United States then and now.
Communitarianism Versus Individualism
One strand, influenced by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and a host of utopian and communitarian thinkers, posited that individuals were inextricably connected to each other. To be human, in fact, was to be part of a community. This meant that basic survival, human happiness, and the maximization of human potential were tied to larger social units: communities and societies. Individuals were responsible to each other, to the community, to the society and communities and societies were responsible to individuals.
Another strand, influenced by such British theorists as John Locke and Adam Smith, emphasized the atomistic nature of humanity. Humans were engaged in competition for survival, wealth, and power. Society was comprised of millions of individuals seeking to maximize their own interests. One of these, of course, was wealth. In the most extreme expression of this theoretical stance, community and society were hindrances to human wellbeing. “Government is not the solution, government is the problem,” former President Ronald Reagan suggested.
For the most part, ideas or worldviews, which I call here political cultures, are reflections of the dominant economic and political interests of a society at any given time. But ideas become material forces also such that they serve to justify and legitimate political practices of elites. Sometimes the clash of ideas figures prominently in political argumentation and from time to time one or another of these worldviews gains dominance.
Two Strands of Democratic Ideas in American History
From the Gilded Age of 1870s until 1929, despite intense class struggle, world war, and imperial expansion, individualism and Social Darwinism dominated popular discourse. Iconic public heroes ranged from Buffalo Bill, to Thomas Edison, to Andrew Carnegie, to Henry Ford. In the 1920s modern consumerism emerged, labor and the left were repressed, and financial speculation grew with virtually no government regulation.
The Great Depression brought an end to the dominance of the individualist political culture of Locke, Smith, and their conservative descendants. With the mobilization of millions of workers, the rise of the left, a prolific expression of people’s music, photography, painting, and writing, a sense of community and social responsibility became dominant in the political culture. The approximation of the communitarian spirit reflected in the tradition of Rousseau prevailed until the 1970s economic crisis occurred with declining rates of profit and a draconian shift from a manufacturing-based economy to financial speculation.
The Reagan Revolution institutionalized a return to a more crass form of the individualist strand of American political culture. As a character in the movie Wall Street put it “greed is good.” And it is a version of that perspective that has come to dominate the political culture, the popular arts, and the discourse of both political parties ever since.
Consequences of the Demise of the Idea of Community and the Rise of Individualism
In a recent essay in USA Today, conservative pundit George Will praised a speech former Indiana Governor and now President of Purdue University, Mitch Daniels, gave at that institution’s 2016 commencement exercises. Will pointed out that Daniels praised hard work, denied any connection between social support and economic success, and quoted with approval statements by Thomas Edison, Samuel Goldwyn, and an out-of-context Frederick Douglass. Will argued that his friend Daniels could have been responding to an earlier speech by President Obama who made it clear that success also involved luck. Obama was probably referring to what he often has suggested: that no one can succeed alone. In terms of securing education, training, and degrees, it was society that made them possible. Even though hard work and education could not guarantee success because of class, race, and gender impediments, the provision of them by society offered the possibility of personal achievement. No one succeeds without the benefits of community and society.
The Will/Daniels position in opposition to President Obama’s is a reflection of the contradictory character of American political culture. For Will and Daniels, it is individual hard work alone that leads to success. For the President hard work leads to success in the context of commitments by communities and the society at large to provide the opportunity, the venue for success. (Of course, Douglass, who Daniels quoted, was a premier fighter against racism in the nineteenth century. The abolition of slavery was a necessary if not sufficient condition for the achievement of social and economic justice. Hard work existed under slavery but to create a society where all people can thrive, Douglass believed, a mass movement to overthrow it and the construction a non-racial society was necessary).
The two strands of democratic theory can be examined in the light of contemporary history to see what the consequences of each have been. Since the individualist strand has been predominant since the 1980s, we can conclude that it relates in some way to the following:
1. An enormous increase in income and wealth inequality.
2. Poverty rates, particularly childhood poverty, upwards of 20 percent of the population.
3. Increased crime and rates of incarceration among the most marginalized sectors of society.
4. And monumental increases in police violence, mass killings, and war.
In sum, the strand of democratic theory that has its roots in individualistic and anti-government thinking is one source of America’s twenty-first century political crisis. The loss of community and sense of collective responsibility has left a heavy burden on those who work to create a more just society.