This is the fourth in a series of articles on politically disengaging forms of individualism. This series explores the connections between individualism(s) and politics through in-depth interviews I conducted with young (20s and 30s) American professionals for a book I am writing on American political culture. Individualism is a word familiar to academics and non-academics alike. Academics and political liberals often equate individualism with selfishness. But individualism as Americans speak it and live it is not simply selfishness, though it has profound and often problematic implications for whether and how Americans connect with government and politics. Part 4 looks further into the language of choice, and a corresponding “self-determining” individualism.
The language of choice is part of the vocabulary of contemporary American individualism, and that vocabulary nurtures and is nurtured by a particular individualistic self. A number of major modern developments have likely spurred the advance of this individualistic self, including an extensive division of labor, massive expansion in consumer choice, and the proliferation of niche markets and diverse lifestyles. Americans have long been viewed as individualistic, but that individualism has evolved in part in line with these major modern developments in work and leisure. One important component of this evolution of the individualistic self has been a long-standing, gradual movement from a felt sense of social obligation to family, church, employer, party, government, etc. to a sense of individual choice (Bellah et al 1985, Yankelovich 1982, 1998, Wolfe 2001). Contemporary Americans are in some sense freer than they have ever been in the history of the United States, if not the world. Sociologist Alan Wolfe explains (2001: 199-200):
Never have so many people been so free of moral constraint as contemporary Americans. Most people, throughout most of the world, have lived under conditions in which their morality was defined for them. Now, for the first time in human history, significant numbers of individuals believe that they should play a role in defining their own morality as they contemplate their proper relation to God, to one another, and to themselves….Moral freedom has become so ubiquitous in America that we sometimes forget how pathbreaking it is. We simply no longer live in a world in which women are encouraged to stay home and raise the children, government’s word is to be trusted, teachers can discipline as well as instruct, the police enforce laws against what is considered immoral conduct, and religious leaders are quick to offer – and their parishioners are quick to accept – unambiguous prescriptions for proper Christian conduct.
Similar to other scholars’ generational findings (e.g., Jensen 1995, Putnam 2000, Zukin et al. 2006), Wolfe believes that those Americans who experienced the Great Depression and/or World War II as children were, Wolfe argues, the last generation of Americans to consider this “moral freedom” strange (2001: 211):
Had you asked most Americans in 1950 whether they lived in a free country, they would have quickly answered in the positive. And had you asked them whether this meant that they could pretty much live in any manner that best seemed to fit their inclinations – that they could join or quit any church at will, enter divorce as frequently as they entered into marriage, join or not join the armed forces as they saw fit, and pick the school that, in their opinion, would best educate their children – they would not have understood the question.
The trend toward what Wolfe calls “moral freedom” or what I will call a self-determining individualism is by no means uniformly negative. For instance, if Americans now feel that they have a personal choice to step away from marriages, churches, workplaces, politics, and other institutions when they feel these have become oppressive, this may mean less personal suffering and more happiness. Moreover, this trend does not mean that younger Americans do not feel a sense of obligation toward social institutions, but rather that their sense of obligation is more evanescent, that their obligations are now more often framed as individual choices, to be terminated if the individual does not feel an obligation works for them and/or others involved. These points cohere with the observations of scholars like Richard Merelman (1984) and Robert Wuthnow (1998), who find that contemporary Americans are more “loosely bound,” or “loosely connected” to each other than were Americans in the 1950s and prior. Contemporary Americans, Wolfe indicates, do not consider their moral freedom the freedom to live “unbound by moral rules” but rather “the freedom to choose how to live” (2001: 224).
However, Wolfe, like other sociologists, wonders “whether individuals dedicated to moral freedom can find the resources to stick with the not always pleasurable tasks of raising children and committing oneself to a spouse….Like alcohol, too much moral freedom can be a dangerous thing” (2001: 229). My own interviews suggest that this question is all the more relevant for American democracy since democratic politics typically entails “not always pleasurable tasks,” from talking to strangers, to fundraising, to public speaking, to argument and pressure.
Beyond individually determined obligation, the language of choice which accompanies self-determining individualism often entails two other problematic assertions. The first assertion is that people have different aptitudes and interests, and so some will choose politics and others will not depending on their inclinations, and all this is fine because people are pursuing their individual passions and taking advantage of their personal strengths. As Christian, a single corporate staff recruiter in his late 20s, told me, “I don’t think it’s possible or even should occur where every single person has a say in every decision, it should be the people that are knowledgeable about it and who are, you know, passionate about it, to a certain extent.” It is indeed impossible for all citizens of modern nations to have a direct say in every decision which affects their lives. Political scientist E.E. Schattschneider (1960) argues that just as there exists a division of labor in modern economies, so there exists, and should exist, a division of labor in modern democratic politics. Most people have plenty of other interests and specialized responsibilities in their lives – most notably work, family and friends – that take precedence over attending political meetings. That’s what representatives are for. Let the “political animals” run for public office, and let the duly elected representatives make the political decisions in consultation with interested citizens. So this common reasoning goes.
The second assertion is a corollary to the first: with choice comes responsibility. If I choose not to engage in politics I have no one but myself to blame if the politics of the engaged comes back to haunt me. As Philip said, “Plenty of things get passed that probably shouldn’t because people don’t agree, but if there’s a group of people, say they’re not the smartest, and they want something, and they make something to get it done, then it should get done.” The language of choice thus frees citizens from political engagement even as it blames them for their political disengagement. Moreover, the language of choice frees citizens from political engagement even as it frees the engaged to “go for it,” to pursue their often self-interested passion. Hence, the logical consequence of individual choice is a political status quo bitterly familiar to most Americans: “special interest” advocacy groups, representing mostly self-interested, frequently powerful, and engaged minorities (e.g., oil companies, weapons manufacturers, agribusiness, foreign lobbies, policemen, teachers, lawyers), exercise disproportionate influence on government decision-making, sometimes if not often at the expense of an “apathetic” general public that putatively deserves what it gets.
Bellah, Robert N., et al. 1985. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. New York, NY: Perennial.
Jensen, Lene Arnett. 1995. “Habits of the Heart Revisited: Autonomy, Community, and Divinity in Adults’ Moral Language.” Qualitative Sociology 18: 1: 71-86.
Merelman, Richard. 1984. Making Something of Ourselves: On Culture and Politics in the United States. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Putnam, Robert D. 2000. Bowling Alone. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Schattschneider, E.E. 1960. The Semi-Sovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy in America. Hinsdale, IL: Dryden Press.
Wolfe, Alan. 2001. Moral Freedom. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co.
Wuthnow, Robert. 1998. Loose Connections: Joining Together in America’s Fragmented Communities. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Yankelovich, Daniel. 1982. New Rules: Searching for Self-Fulfillment in a World Turned Upside Down. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
Yankelovich, Daniel. 1998. “How American Individualism Is Evolving.” The Public Perspective (Feb./Mar.).
Zukin, Cliff, Scott Keeter, Molly Andolina, Krista Jenkins and Michael X. Delli Carpini. 2006. A New Engagement: Political Participation, Civic Life and the Changing American Citizen. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.