Every Man for Himself: How the Ethos of Individualism Sucked the Soul out of America

One of the defining characteristics of American mythology is that of the rugged individual.

Individualism — the idea that the human individual possesses dignity and worth above and beyond communal, political, or religious priorities — had its modern roots in 18th and 19th century Europe, with philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke ascribing to individuals a natural liberty.

These concepts were enthusiastically adopted by America’s founding fathers, who explicitly stated in the Declaration of Independence that individuals have “inalienable rights” including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Alexis de Tocqueville, the French diplomat and political scientist, expressed both admiration and concern for American democracy and its individualistic focus in his 1835 Democracy in America. Generally, Tocqueville saw democracy as an system that balanced freedom of the individual with concern for the community, but he also expressed concern that untrammeled individualism could result in a type of egoism that results in an isolation from community. He wrote:

Egoism springs from a blind instinct; individualism from wrong-headed thinking rather than from depraved feelings. It originates as much from defects of intelligence as from the mistakes of the heart. Egoism blights the seeds of every virtue; individualism at first dries up only the source of public virtue. In the longer term it attacks and destroys all the others and will finally merge with egoism.

Thus, for Tocqueville, individualism, if interpreted as a sort of selfish focus on oneself and one’s own interests (as opposed to a recognition of individual rights and responsibilities) can easily descend into a type of egoism that could destroy civil society — and therefore also the fundamental ability of a democracy to function.

At the time of his writing, Tocqueville believed that Americans had struck a balance against the corrosive social effects of individualism by establishing local-level voluntary and religious associations and other community-based activities that served to unite communities with shared purpose and understanding.

But there is great evidence that in modern America, we have lost or destroyed these countervailing social ties, and are left with an ethos of individualism that more closely resembles the egoism that Tocqueville warned of.

As described by Robert Putnam in his 2000 book Bowling Alone, Americans increasingly pursue narrow individualistic activities instead of participating in traditional civic organizations such as religious groups, parent teacher associations, and volunteer and fraternal organizations. Putnam argued that this loss of social capital was caused in part by the increasing use of technology, which allows individuals to retreat to their own silos.

Putnam was prescient, as it turns out. These trends have only accelerated in the last twenty years, as we increasingly spend more time online than with our families, friends, or neighbors. Americans are far more likely to spend the evening scrolling Facebook and watching Netflix in the hermetically sealed silos of their own living rooms rather than attending a church potluck or a PTA meeting.

The impact of such isolation is not just a matter of social niceties. Putnam noted such trends are incredibly dangerous to democracy, writing:

People divorced from community, occupation, and association are first and foremost among the supporters of extremism.

While some argue that Americans are not becoming more polarized or extremist in the aggregate, it does seem that modern American society has become less cohesive over time, and views that may have been considered extreme in the past — whether on the right or the left side of the political spectrum — have become more mainstream. This may be in part a function of the very technology that has isolated us, as extremist voices, which previously may have been unheard, now have multiple platforms to expound and spread their views.

But it may also be a function of the narratives that we are told. Just as the narrative of the individual above all else may make us less likely to reach out to our communities, the ongoing narrative by mainstream media that we are more polarized than ever before may become a self-fulfilling prophesy, as we tend to focus on evidence that supports what we already believe to be true. The endless discussion of divisions among groups — men and women, blacks and whites, Democrats and Republicans — can make us believe we have less in common than we really do, and may make us even more wary and less likely to engage with each other.

This truly is pernicious for democracy. If we do not view ourselves as fellow citizens engaged in a collective endeavor where we are trying to achieve both freedom and opportunity for all, but instead as “us” versus “them,” then we will never be able to pull together to find solutions for our problems. We will be engaged in an endless loop of infighting as we each try to grab for ourselves crumbs of an ever-shrinking pie.

Thus, maybe the answer is to realize that yes, we are all individuals — but we are also all in this enterprise as a collective group. Maybe if we can spend more time bowling together, we can counteract some of the forces that are tearing us apart by re-establishing the ties to community that make a true democracy work.