Primal Choices in American Politics: Individualism Vs. Communitarian Approaches

The fundamental divide among Americans is how much individualism and how much sacrifice for the common good or communitarianism should public policy encourage, wrote E.J. Dionne in Our Divided Political Heart (2011). Neither political party champions individualism or communitarianism. They each have selective priorities. Yet the Tea Party, which emerged after Obama’s election, has embraced radical individualism, which has historically been outside the mainstream of either the Democrats or Republicans. Historically, Americans have embraced individualism and a love for community.

Yet you could divide American history since the Civil War into almost pendulum swings between the two approaches.

1870 – 1900. “Guilded Age” of Unbridled Capitalism.

1901-1908. President Teddy Roosevelt embraced both traditions. Personally he was a rugged individualist. Politically, he embraced the federal regulatory regime of the Progressives.

1908-1912. President William Howard Taft resisted the Progressives and promoted individualism. Because he blocked progressive legislation, TR challenged him on the Bull Moose Party, causing the election of Woodrow Wilson.

1913-1920. Wilson embraced communitarian principles.

1920. Election of Harding and Coolidge on a platform that “the business of America is business.” Unregulated business.

1928. Herbert Hoover continued the faith in unregulated capitalism.

1932-2016. In the midst of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt was elected on a platform that the government and communities much join together to fight the economic crises. FDR, with his New Deal, served four terms, followed by Harry Truman who offered a “Square Deal.”  The national consensus of encouraging both individualism and communitarianism has continued until contemporary times, despite occasional threats to dismantle it, by for example, Ronald Reagan.

On Personal Morality, Conservatives believe in Communitarianism: Self-discipline or “suffer the consequences” should be the order of the day on premarital sex, unwanted pregnancies, unwed mothers. Give the baby up for adoption, or if you’re going to be a parent, take responsibility, pray, take your religion seriously, grow up and graduate from the school of hard knocks.

Liberals believe the opposite, in a kind of individualism. Public policy should show compassion, allow people to make personal choices on abortion, public assistance for unwed mothers and their children should be generous.

On Personal Morality, Liberals believe in Individualism. Each person makes up their own mind on abortion, homosexuality, gay marriage, religious practice. Let each person decide what their personal moral code is on abortion, homosexuality, gay marriage, and the state should not interfere.

Conservatives believe the opposite, in a kind of communitarianism. Public policy should not encourage and embrace “sin.” It is bad for society. It undermines traditional family life, underlines traditional marriage. Those who are most tempted to practice non-traditional lifestyles should simply abstain, or seek help to suppress their desires. Otherwise, an “anything goes” culture of decadence will spread throughout the West.

On Gun Control, liberals believe in Communitarianism. Gun owners should be willing to make sacrifices for the sake of the common good, for the safety of the vast majority of Americans. They should be willing to endure stricter laws, inconvenience and reduced access to certain kinds of firearms for the safety of others, so that those with a history of violence or mental problems have less access to firearms.

On Gun Control, conservatives believe in Individualism. Gun owners have an absolute right to bear arms and enjoy the right to access any firearm they choose, for the purposes of recreation, hunting, whatever. For them, this is the very definition of individual freedom. They fear overly broad legislation that will restrict the legitimate rights of individuals to own firearms.

On taxes, conservatives believe in Individualism. Taxes should be as low as possible, so “you can keep as much of your money” to invest in other job-creating business activities or to buy whatever you want — luxuries or necessities, or give a large inheritance to your kids and grandkids. The tax obligations of those who pay the most taxes should be lessened.

On taxes, liberals believe in Communitarianism. Taxes represent the needs of the people, and individuals have a significant obligation to pay their fair share. To those to whom much is given, much is required.

Quotes from Our Divided Political Heart:

“President Calvin Coolidge captured the spirit of the decade when he declared: “After all, the chief business of the American people is business.”

Coolidge’s defenders note that in the same speech, the president also insisted: “The chief ideal of the American people is idealism. I cannot repeat too often that America is a nation of idealists. That is the only motive to which they ever give any strong and lasting reaction.”

Coolidge’s idealism, however, seemed inspired primarily by an almost mystical (and perhaps idolatrous) devotion to the American business system. “The man who builds a factory builds a temple,” Coolidge wrote. “The man who works there worships there.” 
E.J. Dionne Jr., Our Divided Political Heart


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