The history of American politics might be described as a struggle between the individual and the community or, if you like “isms”, individualism and communitarianism. These are both powerful and legitimate human instincts and are not necessarily incompatible. The struggle is between those who turn one or the other instinct into an ideology. Individualists (always “rugged”) think communitarians are closet socialists, and communitarians see the individualists as Darwinistic Ayn Rand advocates. We are all in this together versus every man for himself.
The communitarian instinct prevails in times of peril. Neighbors rally around individuals or families who suffer tragedy. A school bus monitor bullied by uncivilized students received hundreds of thousands in unsolicited donations. Television networks feature stories about those who are “making a difference.” The apparent theory behind “a thousand points of light” was that massive social ills could be solved by private charity. In the Western frontier even distant neighbors collected to care for the widow, repair a fire-damaged cabin, or round up a herd.
Even before the Depression-inspired social safety net, earlier Progressives (mostly young reform-minded Republicans) rallied the nation against predatory corporations and in support of those left out. Since no one has yet devised self-administering health and retirement programs, the size of government increased during and beyond the Franklin Roosevelt era. Predictably, individualist ideologues railed against “big government” but shied away from voting to eliminate the popular and necessary safety net. “Privatization” has been the most recent variation. And after our economy began to plateau following enactment of Great Society programs for the poor, anti-big government arguments found new support among individualists. The Big Government we were against was that part of government concerned with poverty. Both parties now compete for the middle class. There are no Robert Kennedys reminding us of the one-in-five children in poverty. Out of sight; out of mind.
There may be liberal media and political figures advocating socialism. If so, I don’t know who they are. But there are clearly voices and political figures on the right who want to do away with the institutions that make us a civilized society in the interest of rugged individualism. Concern for the poor is not socialism. Nor is the search for a fair health system available to all.
As someone with strong communitarian instincts, and one of a disappearing breed of idealists, I continue to search for the balance of individualism that releases personal initiative and healthy ambition and concern for the greater society, the common good, compassion, and the national interest. It is not only possible it is necessary to reach that balance, to retain our individualism while continuing to create a genuinely civilized national society. An America of every man for himself is not an America I recognize. A nation is more than an arena for raw personal ambition. We either have common interests or we do not. We either care for those left out or we do not. We are more than a capitalist economy; we are a society and a nation.