As an Emerson stan, it’s hard to admit American Individualism may be one of the most counterproductive ideas to have taken root in American public discourse. It is though. It’s the origin of the bootstraps narrative, Ayn Rand, and taking-healthcare-away-from-poor-people-themed keggers. Hot take: “Sef-Reliance” is a treatise on American white supremacy. It became justification for all of America’s greatest sins — slavery, manifest destiny and the eradication of our indigenous people. It birthed the cynical politics of conservatism that turns the support of those with a little (poor and middle-class white people) into policies that simultaneously make the rich richer and further marginalize those with the least (generally, people of color, immigrants, lgbtq folx). Today’s present politics is almost inevitable given that blind adherence to that rugged individualism.
In 2017, maybe more than ever, we need a politics born of community. We can definitively say now evolutionary science supports this. It isn’t antithetical to our individual identities, but rather foundational to them. As the American left, we need to define our policy proposals, our vision for the future, our shared economy as a truly collective endeavor — one that takes care of our most vulnerable and holds those with power (in all its forms) to account. Inclusivity isn’t just A Good Thing To Do; it’s literally embedded in our DNA.
Last thing: rugged individualism is the precursor to American Exceptionalism — an admittedly hella problematic idea. I believe fiercely in the “shining city upon a hill” of Winthrop, Kennedy, and Reagan. I’m an immigrant after all, and to deny that would be to deny the very real and existential risk my parents took in bringing my sister and me to the States. I reject strongly, however, the idea that our exceptionalism must be rooted in a muscular foreign policy that dictates the world order through military strength. We’re beyond globalism at this point, and our path forward must be one of leading a global community. In the 21st century, countries and governments are and should be beholden to the people beyond their borders. That’s the idea behind the Paris Climate agreement. Trade, economic stability, human rights — all of these will only be fixed through that model of coming together to in the spirit of agreement, transparency, and accountability. America is perhaps the only country capable of leading that conversation right now, and for much of the last decade, lots of work was done to shape that. There’s probably a better way to frame American exceptionalism in a new world order other than one modeled after chimp communities, but ya, that’s what I’m talking about.
Great piece, Cass.