At the start of the pandemic, the strong hand of government eliminated social and economic freedoms, striking a new balance between individualism and government power.
Today, as social and economic activity restarts, partisan tensions reappear and are growing. This signals a return of individaulism. Can the individualistic spirit thrive in this new enviornment? Can it serve the common good?
I think it can, but let’s first examine survey data on party differences.
Republicans exhibit a relatively strong attachment to individualism. When faced with a choice between a society where government guarantees jobs and a good standard of living for all, or people are free to get ahead on their own, most Republicans prefer freedom.[i] In fact, nearly 65% selected the strongest ‘getting ahead on their own’ options – at 6 or 7 on the scale below.
By contrast, a majority of Democrats placed themselves to the left of the midpoint – 4, prefering government guaranteed jobs and suitable wages.
This data suggests the sweeping measures to contain the virus were consistent with Democrat’s expectations of government’s proper role in society. If a guaranteed job and fair living wage suits Democrat’s sensibilities, protecting citizens well-being from a deadly virus certainly does as well. On the other hand, shelter in place orders assaulted Republican’s individualism – the government orders eliminated the freedoms they prize.
These differences help explain why partisan divisions are growing over the estimated severity of the pandemic and optimism about re-opening and easing restrictions. Republicans and Democrats perceive the risks of the pandemic differently because one group values government protections and the other values self-sufficiency and freedoms.
Likewise, individualism explains why Republican Governors were slower than their Democratic counterparts to shutdown states. And why in certain states Republican Governors applied only limited restrictions. Moreover, of the 24 states reopening early, 17 are led by Republicans.
Demonstrations – though comparatively small – have appeared across several states. Protestors interpreted lockdowns as an attack on personal freedoms and demanded Governors reopen their states faster. One protestor in Pennsylvania carried a sign that read, “Selfish and proud”. Another sign at a rally in Texas said, “My body my choice.”
Predictably, a large proportion of Democrats disapproved of the protests – 79%, while only 42% of Republicans did so.
A wave of legal challenges surfaced as well. Distressed business owners, frustrated church pastors, and angry citizens charge Executive overreach and violations of civil liberties. The targets are often Democratic Governors whose lockdown orders remain in place longer.
Governing is truly a high wire act across a variety issues and ambitions. The balance now favors govenrment power. This is true for most crises.
The virtues of individualism seem incompatible with pandemic politics. Taming the virus demands shared responsibility, a recognition of interdependence and self-sacrifice. The individual must step aside and ignore the impulse to contest restrictions. Failure to comply with government orders could jeopardize the health of others.
Many people may now reconsider the role that circumstances play in realizing success in life. The virus does not care about self-initiative or talent. No one foresaw the epidemic. And no one person can control it. Only the collective efforts of researchers, elected officials, and millions of average Americans exercising self-restraint can solve this puzzle.
Similarly, people may reconsider their opposition to a government that guarantees a reasonable standard of living. With so many displaced from their jobs, out of work, and facing dim prospects, getting ahead with hard work and drive does not resonate – and will be increasingly difficult to do.
Finally, some will be eager to declare individualism dead and assail those that defy authority and question government orders.
This would be a mistake.
Americans admire the maverick that has the courage to reject the system, take charge, stand out, and succeed. A healthy and vibrant America needs individualism.
Robert Bellah’s genius was to recognize this. Using the quintessential symbol of American individualism – the cowboy – Bellah observers,
The cowboy has a special talent – he can shoot straighter and faster than other men – His destiny is to defend society without ever really joining it. But the cowboy’s importance is not that he is isolated or antisocial. Rather, his significance lies in his unique, individual virtue and special skill and it is because of those qualities that society needs and welcomes him.
[i] This is one of several individualism questions asked on the American National Election Studies. Question: “Some people feel the government in Washington should see to it that every person has a job and a good standard of living. Suppose these people are at one end of a scale, at point 1. Others think the government should just let each person get ahead on their own. Suppose these people are at the other end, at point 7.”