The Enemies of Individualism: Conservatism, Collectivism and Tribalism

Conservative David Brooks says the problem with Trump and his tribalism is that he doesn’t embrace traditional conservative values, which place communities, nations and collectives above individual rights and individuals themselves. Yet, Brook’s argument shows the problems with traditional conservatism, even as he is lashing out against Trump — which Trump deserves. The more lashes the better.

Brooks rightfully notes the traditional conservative was a sort of collectivist who emphasized the community, the family, group relationships but NOT individuals. The whole idea of the individual, he says, is wrong.

“Conservatives said … you’ve got human nature wrong. There never was such a thing as an autonomous, free individual who could gather with others to create order. Rather, individuals emerge out of families, communities, faiths, neighborhoods and nations. The order comes first.

What matters to this conservative is the collective that creates individuals, not the individuals themselves. “Conservatives have always placed tremendous emphasis on the sacred space where individuals are formed. This space is populated by institutions like the family, religion, the local community, the local culture, the arts, the schools, literature and the manners that govern everyday life.”

Membership in such groups he says is not rational, we are just born into, and thus “are bonded to them by prerational cords of sympathy and affection. We gratefully inherit these institutions from our ancestors, we steward them and pass them along to our descendants.”

Thus conservatives were bound to values of the past because they were old, not because they were rational, for no other reason they acquiesce to the traditional. Then, he says, conservatism changed in a bad way. It adopted what he insultingly calls “market fundamentalism,” a doctrine held by almost no one and, like so many conservative insults, devoid of objective meaning and merely a slur to be thrown when facts, evidence, or reason are lacking on the part of the user of the term.

He claims the market fundamentalist makes economic growth alone the “prime value” of society and thus “leaves people atomized and unattached.” Doesn’t that sound familiar? It should, you find the same rhetoric among socialists, communists, fascists and other forms of collectivists.

But, most the people branded “market fundamentalists” rarely say the prime value of life is prosperity. Prosperity is important, but it is important not in itself, but because it sustains individuals and allows them to pursue their own happiness. Prosperity undergirds the most important values we have. It allows men and women to marry for love — and not out of economic necessity. It allows couples to spend more and more time together. It allows parents to spend more time with their children.

Abraham Maslow explained human needs with a pyramid. He said not all needs have the same priority. Some needs are so basic that seeking other needs tend to be put off until the basic needs are filed.

He said there were five levels of the pyramid with three sets of needs.

Basic Needs
These are both physiological and safety needs, things such as food, shelter, water, sleep as the core physical needs and security and safety as the safety needs. These are the prime reason people trade and produce. Economic exchange was the means by which people satisfied these needs. The more needs on lower levels that are filled, the more likely the individual is to move up the pyramid and pursue other needs.

Psychological Needs
The first level of psychological needs are human relationships, including friends and intimate companions. This seems to be the entire focus of Brooks and his traditional conservatism.

One level higher, but in the same category are esteem needs, which Maslow said were prestige and feelings of accomplishment. This is similar to what an old friend of mine, Nathaniel Branden said:

“Self-esteem is the disposition to experience oneself as being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and of being worthy of happiness. It is confidence in the efficacy of our mind, in our ability to think. By extension, it is confidence in our ability to learn, make appropriate choices and decisions, and respond effectively to change. It is also the experience that success, achievement, fulfillment — happiness — are right and natural for us. The survival-value of such confidence is obvious; so is the danger when it is missing.”

The two main points of healthy self-esteem, he said are believing one is competent to cope with their own life, and worthy to live it. This is not a collective trait; it doesn’t come from families, churches or communities. It is purely individualistic and it is here we leave the traditional conservatism of David Brooks in the dust. (If you are interested in Dr. Branden’s book visit our sister site Most the Branden books there were from Nathaniel’s personal inventory gifted to us after his death.)

At this point we reach the top of Maslow’s pyramid which self-actualization needs. This is the pinnacle of individualism. It is entirely subjective and part of the personality and character of the individual. Maslow described it as a desire “to become everything one is capable of becoming.” He put his own twist on a statement of Christ; “Man does not live by bread alone.” Maslow said man DOES live by bread alone when there is no bread. Once bread (the basic needs) is plentiful, what does he do? He seeks high levels of happiness.

I suspect what many collectivists despise is this form of individualism, and the slur “atomized individuals” is meant to describe this. But, these people are not atomized. They have relationships, families, friends and they voluntarily incorporated them into their pursuit of happiness. Individuals in a free society are never cut from their “families, communities, faiths, neighborhoods and nations.”

Just as the individual goes through these levels so does the wider culture. The United States, started to enter the modern age in the 1800s but we had the Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, the Great Depression and World War II. But with the end of the Second World War Americans entered into a new age of prosperity. People were buying homes and starting families — leading to the Baby Boom — and with prosperity we saw changes — all of which horrified traditional conservatives like Brooks.

We saw challenges to America’s prudish censorship laws with the publication of Playboy (1953). Women’s rights emerged with works like The Feminine Mystique (1963). The civil rights movement, which had been around in some form since the end of slavery expanded greatly in the 50s and then took off in the 60s. In the 1950s the first LGBT publications were founded and gay rights groups were formed in various cities, exploding onto the scene with the Stonewall Riots of 1969. It horrified traditionalists but at the same time we started to see a change in conservatism, one Brooks didn’t like. Capitalism created the “Culture War”—not hippies, humanists or other demons of the Religious Right.

Rock Hudson with the Reagans

Conservatives, particularly due to the influence of Reagan and Goldwater, started to embrace individualism over the old collectivist preferences of traditional conservatives. They still paid attention to collective entities like family, church, communities, but they also started emphasizing individual rights. Goldwater embraced abortion rights and sat on the board of Planned Parenthood, and Governor Reagan put the final nail in the coffin of an antigay initiative, Proposition Six, in California by writing a newspaper column condemning it. James Duke Mason, in the gay news publication The Advocate, wrote:

Believe it or not, Reagan was one of the first major politicians in history to come out for gay rights. Just a year before he announced his candidacy for president, he came out forcefully against Proposition 6 in California, which would’ve barred gay people from teaching in public schools. Not only did he have no political incentive to do it, but it could’ve been a huge catastrophe. In speaking out against the initiative, Reagan used language that was way ahead of its time; he argued that “prevailing scientific opinion is that an individual’s sexuality is determined at a very early age and that a child’s teachers do not really influence this.” Some dismiss his support as too last-minute to have made a difference.

While neither Goldwater nor Reagan became full-fledged libertarians, both were very familiar with the ideas of individualism, and were largely sympathetic. Goldwater, in his waning years, was also outspoken in defense of equal rights for LGBT individuals and warmly embraced his own gay grandson.

Inexplicably Brooks blames this form of individualism — which means embracing individual rights — for the rise of Trump. He whines:

“Republican voters eventually rejected market fundamentalism and went for the tribalism of Donald Trump because at least he gave them a sense of social belonging. At least he understood that there’s a social order under threat.

The problem is he doesn’t base his belonging on the bonds of affection conservatives hold dear. He doesn’t respect and obey those institutions, traditions and values that form morally decent individuals.”

In the mind of Brooks it was the concept of individualism that brought about tribalism, much the way prosperity creates poverty, light creates darkness, and peace creates war. It’s nonsense, but it’s the best he’s got.

What was responsible was not this nonexistent “market fundamentalism” that perverted the Republican Party. It was the result of a takeover of the G.O.P. by an outside group of Christian fundamentalists.

The Christian fundamentalist movement has had influence in America for generations. Its push for alcohol prohibition, gambling laws and other such morality crusades in the 1800s brought about a series of court cases, which undermined Constitutional restrictions on governmental power. Many of the precedents used by the so-called “Progressives” for their favorite laws were established by fundamentalist morality cases. (See The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution, John W. Compton; Harvard University Press, 2014)

You would be surprised to see how similar the Progressive movement and their Populist allies were to the ranting and raving of the current Trump movement. Thomas Leonard, in Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, & American Economics in the Progressive Era, (Princeton University Press, 2016) noted many of the leading Progressives who pushed racism and state control were “evangelical Protestants.” Leonard notes — and pardon the length of the quote:

“Right progressives, no less than left progressives, were illiberal, glad to subordinate individual rights to their reading of the common good. American conservative thinking was never especially antistatist. On the contrary, its Hamiltonian tradition had long been identified with vigorous national government, which is precisely what Herbert Croly had in mind when he famously defined Progressivism as Hamiltonian means to Jeffersonian ends.

Consider the reform economics’ bêtes noire, William Graham Sumner,
the man whose influence Ely said he had organized the AEA [American Economics Association] to attack. If progressives are understood to be left, then Sumner must be right. But Sumner was no conservative; he was a classical liberal. A one-dimensional analysis elides this vital distinction.

As a [classical] liberal, Sumner believed that individuals constitute and are prior to society. The progressives, who were illiberal, believed that society comprises and is prior to the individual. [What Brooks said.] The progressive conception of society as an evolved organism, to which constituent individuals owe responsibility and deference, was, arguably, the more conservative conception, in the tradition of Edmund Burke.

Sumner defended free markets, which earned him the progressives’ enmity.
A consistent defender of limited government, Sumner also denounced American imperialism and colonialism. He loudly criticized the Spanish-American War of 1898 as a ‘petty three months campaign,’ and served as an officer in the American Anti-Imperialism League, a group organized to oppose US annexation of the Philippines.

Many progressives, most famously Roosevelt, but also Ely, Ross, Commons, and others among the progressive social scientists, were enthusiastic about American empire. If advocacy of American empire was made right, then a one-dimensional analysis must place the progressives on the right, and Sumner on the left.

Sumner styled himself a defender of the forgotten man; condemning socialism and plutocracy as equally bad forms of government. He denounced plutocracy as ‘the most sordid and debasing form of political energy known to us.’ Sumner’s hostility to the influence of money in politics drove him to attack the Republican Party, accusing it in 1909 of ‘a conspiracy to hold power and to use it for plutocratic ends.’

Moreover, Sumner opposed the tariff, a daring position that put him at odds with influential Republican industrialists and nearly cost him his position at Yale. The tariff, Sumner thundered, was an elaborate system by which corporate interests ‘get control of legislation in order to tax their fellow citizens for their own benefit.’

Sumner was an advocate for free markets, not for American business. Business loathed the economic competition of free trade, and lobbied government for protection from it, as it does to this day. When business benefited from trade restriction, such as the tariff, Sumner was their enemy.

Sumner was a leading scholarly voice opposing American imperialism, protectionism, and plutocracy. Yet because he was the bêtes noire of economic reform, and reform is presumed to be left, a one-dimensional analysis required that Sumner be made an archconservative. If as a first approximation we must dichotomize, it is better to say that Sumner was a liberal and the progressives, left and right, were illiberal.”

Prof. Leonard notes evangelicalism or fundamentalism was the incubator for many of the leading Progressives. “More often than not, progressives were the children of Protestant ministers or missionaries, fired with an evangelical urge to redeem America [My note: to make America great again].” The difference from their parents was they preached the salvation of society as a whole and not that of the individual. Individuals didn’t matter, a belief they held in common with Mr. Brooks.

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan

Remember the grand old man of the Progressive movement was William Jennings Bryan, a hard-core Christian fundamentalist and prosecutor in the infamous Scopes Trial on evolution. The fundamentalist movement was strongly progressive. The reason Bryan and Clarence Darrow were close, before they fought over religion in court, was they both shared the same political views to a large extent.

The fundamentalists of the South were Klanners and supporters of the Democrats. FDR carried the old Confederacy and he carefully catered to the racist Democrats in Congress. He refused to take a stand on lynching and set up social security in a way to excluded most black workers of the day — something his Southern allies wanted. He was anti-Semitic, and established internment camps for Japanese-Americans. He also led the first witch-hunt for gays in the U.S. military as Undersecretary of the Navy in 1922.

The epitome of Evangelical authoritarianism was the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union lead by Frances Willard, who worked with the famous fundamentalist revivalist, Dwight L. Moody, of Moody Bible Institute infamy. She was also active in the socialist movement and her slogan was, “Do everything,” by which she meant the government should “do everything.” She proposed a department of entertainment to regulate it in order to keep people moral. She was another racist and had a public dispute with civil rights crusader Ida Wells because Wells called out Willard on her racist comments and pandering to racist mythology. Even when Wells forced her to come out against lynching, Willard still appealed to racist stereotypes in her speeches.

Willard pledged her crusading women to the emancipation of “three sets of slaves.” These were “white slaves” who she imagined to be women entrapped by organized prostitution rings; “whiskey slaves” or those who drank alcohol; and finally “wage slaves” or workers oppressed by the evils of capitalism. Even the whiskey slave was ultimately a victim of the evil machinations of capitalist exploiters. Willard said:

“I charge upon the drink traffic that it keeps the people down, and capitalists and politicians know it. Nothing else could hold wage- workers where they are today except the blight that strong drink puts on all their faculties and powers.”

Oddly, while Willard was quick to use the slavery imagery to make her points against capitalism and immorality, she didn’t seem to have much compassion for actual former slaves. Like many Progressives she was downright racist. She told one reporter, “The grog shop is the Negro’s center of power. Better whiskey and more of it the rallying cry of great dark faced mobs.” She argued allowing the vote to Blacks was a wrong inflicted on the South and the North should not be “pushing the vote onto the Plantation Negro.” The great emancipated slave, Frederick Douglas, was subjected to a letter from Willard saying: “I pity the Southerners… The colored race multiplies like the locusts of Egypt, the safety of women, of childhood, of the home is menaced in a thousand localities at this moment, so that men dare not go beyond the sight of their own roof-free.”

Even a historian sympathetic to Progressives, such as Richard Hofstadter, saw the role of fundamentalism in Progressive politics:

“As practical participants and as ideologists and exhorters the clergy made themselves prominent, and a great deal of the influence of Progressivism as well as some of its facile optimism and naiveté may be charged to their place in its councils. Indeed, Progressivism can be considered from this standpoint as a phase in the history of the Protestant conscience, a latter-day Protestant revival …No other major movement in American political history (unless one classifies abolitionism and prohibitionism as a major movement) had ever received so much clerical sanction. Jeffersonianism had taken the field against powerful clerical opposition; Jacksonianism had won its triumphs without benefit of clergy; but the new-model army of Progressivism had its full complement of chaplains.”

Hofstadter argued: “The Progressive mind, I have said, was pre-eminently a Protestant mind; and even though much of its strength was in the cities, it inherited the moral traditions of rural evangelical Protestantism.”

One of the main Progressive reformers, Frederic C. Howe, wrote an autobiography The Confessions of a Reformer,which backs up Hofstadter. Howe confessed evangelical ideas on good and evil were the “most characteristic influence of my generation. It explains the nature of our reforms, the regulatory legislation in morals and economics, our belief in men rather than in institutions and our messages to other peoples. Missionaries and battleships, anti-saloon leagues and Ku Klux Klans, Wilson and Santo Domingo are all part of that evangelistic psychology….” Rev. Richard Neuhaus notes the author of a book on American revivalism, William McLoughlin,“is among those who contend that 1890–1920 represents ‘The Third Great Awakening’.” Neuhaus said: “Social Gospel proponents such as Walter Rauschenbusch and Washington Gladden were for the most part content to demonstrate the moral power of the churches to ‘Christianize’ the social order, specifically to challenge ‘laissez faire capitalism’ with a ‘social’ or ‘fraternal’ reordering of the economic system.”

The conflict between fundamentalist Christianity and the Left was not over the political direction being taking. As E.J. Dionne, Jr., in his book Why Americans Hate Politics said:

The Christian traditionalists were alarmed by these developments, but not because of their political direction. Indeed, John Dewey, who could not be accused of harboring any sympathy for fundamentalist ideas, credited fundamentalists such as William Jennings Bryan with being ‘the backbone of philanthropic social interest, of social reform through political action, of pacifism, of popular education.” Not political but spiritual concerns animated the fundamentalist revolt against the Social gospel. “What troubled conservatives about the Social Gospel in particular was not the new movement’s endorsement of social concern, but the Social Gospel’s emphasis on social concern to the seeming exclusion of the spiritual dimensions of faith,” Hunter has written. Conservatives, he wrote, ‘feared the growing popularity of the New Christianity as a threat to the apostolic faith.’

Fundamentalists, with their desire to regulate private morality, were quite successful. the idea of regulating morality, the way one regulated the economy, found favor with large numbers of voters since the public mood was decidedly to the Left,

Prof. James Morone, in his history Hellfire Nation wrote:

“Moral panics and dreams of virtue enlarge the American state. Governments seize new forms of authority (controlling interstate commerce, confiscating real estate), enter private lives (banning abortions and contraceptives), organize new agencies (like the FBI), and kindle popular expectations (‘For God’s Sake, Do Something!’). The purity crusaders rolled over formidable barriers — states’ rights, southern discomfort, constitutional scruples, private property, business interests, ad fears of government power. The traditional liberal view protected private lives from political meddling. But back at the end of the nineteenth century, the people’s character seemed like the key to national destiny. Today, a new generation of Victorians still sees it that way.”

Fundamentalists wanted increased state control because they felt without it people would be ungodly. The Progressives wanted the same thing because without it they felt people would be unfair. Both saw individuals as inherently corrupt, either through a sinful nature or greed. Both saw the solution in vastly expanded governmental powers. They worked together because they fed off of one another’s ideology. Theirs was a dysfunctional relationship to say the least; it was a marriage of convenience.

The Prohibitionist Progressives won their battle for Prohibition—but lost the war—largely because of political “reforms” pushed through by the Left. In the age of much smaller government the United States had no income tax at all. Morone writes, “The largest source of internal revenue had been from liquor taxes. Alcohol money brought in one-third of all government receipts and two-thirds of the cash collected at home (that is, excluding customs duties). The national government was hooked on that liquor money.” That government was funded mainly by taxes on alcohol was a significant roadblock for fundamentalist Prohibitionists. But, it was a roadblock Progressives were happy to remove.

In 1913 Progressives proposed the federal income tax. Of course, all the typical canards of the Left were used to placate the people. The Left promised the tax would never be very high and it would only apply to the richest few in America. That line didn’t last long, but it did last long enough to get Prohibition passed and, as the saying goes, the rest is history. Once in place, as Morone says, “Liquor money was finally expendable.” The Progressive’s success on taxing income directly resulted in the Prohibitionist’s success in banning alcohol. And that, as Morone writes:

“… prepared the cultural ground for the active government of the New Deal. In fact, wet conservatives roasted Prohibition as the greatest government grab of private property in American history (excepting emancipation)… we forget how Prohibition poured the institutional foundation for our contemporary war on drugs.”

The Christian fundamentalist Progressive won the war on alcohol, which set them up for their total defeat when Prohibition was repealed as an utter failure. With the loss in the Scopes Trial and the end of Prohibition these Southern Christian fundamentalists largely retired from active politics.

By the 1960s, fundamentalist were ready to come out of hiding. The idea of segregated schools offended their racist heritage. They were dismayed the Supreme Court ruled public schools couldn’t impose prayer on students. They were horrified courses on human sexuality would be offered. Then along came a man they saw as one of their own: Jimmy Carter. This born again Baptist from Georgia raised their hopes, but his politics weren’t their own.

In 1968 Richard Nixon felt the “Solid South,” a term referring to how it voted solidly for Democrats, could be pulled permanently into the Republican camp. George Wallace came along and put a crimp into that plan. Wallace, the most recent candidate to sound an awful lot like Donald Trump, promoted an agenda fundamentalists love. Wallace carried the most fundamentalist states: Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. The Democrats held control of Texas, while the other Bible Belt states moved into the Republican camp. By 1972 Nixon obtained all the Southern States, before Carter got them back in 1976.

Ronald Reagan thought this religious movement could be a sound foundation on which to base Republican victories. His intention was to praise them but not particularly follow their agenda. He saw them as useful idiots for the GOP. What he didn’t count on was them taking control.

Fundamentalists rose in numbers within the GOP and with more of them voting in primaries, mainstream Republicans started losing out to theocratic authoritarian, out of fundamentalist circles. Even though these Christians now saw themselves as “right-wing” their politics were just as authoritarian as they were in the Progressive Era; an authoritarianism that mirrors that which is found within the typical fundamentalist church.

Without any evidence Brooks argues, “It is a radical individualism that leads to vicious tribalism.” He wants to return to the anti-individual, more collectivist conservatism of the 1800s. But, the tribalism of Trump is not the result of individualism, but of religious fundamentalism. The Religious Right brought their authoritarian values into the Republican Party, and year-by-year, they gained more and more control. They purged the GOP of moderates and Goldwaterites and replaced them with authoritarian hate-mongers who turned it into God’s Own Party — a religious movement which is tribalistic and all the things Brooks attributes to Trump. But, it is not a reaction to individualism; it was an authoritarian snake sleeping in it’s revival tents and backwater churches, which had gone into hibernation with the repeal of Prohibition.

It was always festering in the South, which is why authoritarian hate groups, such as the Klan, prospered there. It largely remained a Southern regional movement until the Great Depression forced a great migration from the impoverished South. These fundamentalists started to spread across America and took their backwater religion with them. While they still remained centered in the South, enough fundamentalists had spread into other states for then to invade the GOP nationally and take almost complete control. Mainstream Republicans had to shift their priorities or lose their primary to a theocrat.

Trump is the result of fundamentalist authoritarianism, not of individualism, no matter how much Mr. Brooks wishes otherwise. He is right, the Trump movement is not traditional conservativism, it is authoritarianism. Individualism and classical liberalism are the common enemy of both authoritarianism— of all stripes — and traditional conservatism

Brook’s diatribe once again shows traditional conservatism is not the ally of classical liberalism and never has been.

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