TIME society

America Is More of a Club Than a Family

American Flag and Neighborhood
Ryan Lane—Getty Images

Claude S. Fischer is professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, author of Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character, and a regular columnist for the Boston Review

We're used to choosing to join together for a goal—or not—whenever we want to

Over the course of the last 15 years or so, there’s been an explosion in the number of charter schools around the country. According to the latest figures (from 2012), some 2.1 million students are enrolled in schools run by private groups awarded public money. The schools bear optimistic names like “YES Prep North Central” (in Houston) and “Animo Leadership High” (in Inglewood, California). Beyond the specific concerns about education, the charter school movement is powered by a particularly American world-view, one rooted in the ethos of the dissident Protestant churches that were the foundation of early American culture: Citizens opting out of a hierarchical system to pursue personal goals by joining together in a local, voluntary society.

This ideological impulse – which I and others call “voluntarism” – is a cultural trait that helps explain why the United States remains different from comparable wealthy, western nations. Broadly speaking, voluntarism is not another term for American individualism, although it entails individualism. Voluntarism is the way Americans reconcile individualism and community. And we can feel the weight of American voluntarism in our approaches to public issues, not only in charter schools, but in debates about issues like Obamacare and gay marriage as well.

Other western nations, by contrast, consider health care a civil right of citizens and a moral obligation of government. American tradition, however, treats health care as an individual’s personal responsibility, or at least as a personal responsibility exercised through voluntary association, as in workplace health insurance. When the debate around gay marriage shifted from a discussion of God, gender, sex, and propriety to a debate over individual rights, tolerance, and the personal freedom of Americans to choose their partners, the struggle for marriage equality became easier.

American voluntarism makes it hard for social-democratic reformers to persuade their fellow citizens to accept the types of ambitious state-run initiatives common in most western democracies, such as universal healthcare, free pre-schools and guaranteed labor rights. Conversely, the spirit of American voluntarism makes it harder for non-Americans to understand our public policies, which are often caricatured as being nakedly Darwinian.

That American society was notably different — exceptional was the term — from other western societies was a staple for much of twentieth-century social science. Researchers have offered up lists of hows and whys, trying to distill the difference. I joined the enterprise when I started researching my 2010 book, Made in America, and the evidence spoke to the centrality of voluntarism in understanding American culture and its so-called exceptionalism.

Observers have for generations described Americans as deeply individualistic. But, as I argued in Made in America, individualism is too simple a description. Certainly, deeply instilled in American culture is the assumption that we are each a “sovereign” individual–the belief that each person is, deep down, a unique character, distinct and separate from everyone else, that ultimately each person determines his or his own fate, and that individuals ought to be self-reliant.

From the perspective of world history, this notion of the sovereign individual is odd. Most cultures most times treated individuals as organic parts of their family, lineage, and tribe. That is why, for example, collective punishment – you took our goat, so my family will take your cousin’s sheep – is widely accepted around the globe, even today, after centuries of westernization. An example I like to use in teaching is marriage: In most places, in most times, marriage has been in principle primarily about connecting families and lineages. Parents sensibly married off youths to appropriate partners. My students, many of them only a generation or two from that Old World, instead take it for granted that marriage is about two young, not fully-mature individuals freely choosing one another based on their individual emotions – a weird notion, indeed. Individual sovereignty is a broadly western assumption, and Americans are the most western of westerners.

Individualism, however, is a severely incomplete description of the American character, ignoring America’s strong communal dimension. Just as Alexis de Toqueville and other observers wrote in the 19th century of Americans’ individualism, they also described intensive community activity – neighborly assistance like barn raising; joint endeavors like militias and tending of commons; and clubs from sewing circles to lecture societies. In contrast to churches that were outposts of a central ecclesiastical authority such as Roman Catholicism and the established Protestant denominations (for examples, the Church of England and the Lutheran Church of Norway), the dominant American form was a grass-roots Protestant church. This was a voluntary association of individuals who found others with common religious yearnings, pooled their resources, and hired a minister.

The many secular versions of this communalism in America – Rotary clubs, blood drives, online Kickstarter-type philanthropy projects, walks against diseases, beach clean-up weekends, you name it – belie the caricature of Americans as selfish individualists. Critically, such associations are ones individuals have voluntarily chosen; they are not tribes, castes, clans, manors, or ethnicities into which people are born and in which they die. Nor are these distinctively American types of associations sponsored or organized by the state.

American voluntarism is the merging of our individualistic and communal strains, the world-view that individuals forge their distinct fates with like-minded people in groups that they have individually, freely chosen to join and are individually free to leave. People attain their personal ends through community, but through voluntary community. And thus they are both sovereign individuals and community citizens.

My favorite expression of this view is a statement from 1905 by Alma A. Rogers, a local writer in Portland, Oregon, who celebrated simultaneously women’s individuation and women’s community activity: “Woman has at last made the fateful discovery that she is an individual, not an adjunct. Therefore, she thrills to the pulse of organization; and lo! The woman’s club is born.” Another revealing expression is the 1960s-era slogan, “America: Love it or Leave It.” It captured the idea that people are not forced to be American, but as long as they choose to be, they are expected to be committed to the voluntary association that is America. The key to the American community, in other words, are the acts of opting in and every day choosing to stay in. That is why collective action through the state is anathema to so many Americans – it seems to usurp individual agency and responsibility, alone or in community.

Over the years, of course, Americans often compromised this voluntarism for practical reasons. Social Security is a paternalistic government mandate that people accepted during a great crisis, although it was cloaked in the language of “insurance” rather than welfare. But for the most part, such policies remain tough sells. Many observers on the left hoped that the Great Recession would trigger social-democratic breakthroughs. But Obamacare is, in historical perspective, a small step in that direction, a complex and limited extension of government subsidies for private health insurance rather than a full-on establishment of a universal entitlement. Some research suggests that Americans have actually moved against government initiatives in the wake of the financial crisis.

Americans will continue to argue about the proper boundary between our individual spheres and the sphere of our government. But, even in these disagreements, there is a common mind-set, shared by right and left, that Americans should get to choose the nature of their participation in the nation. Thirty years ago this month, New York Governor Mario Cuomo delivered a speech at the Democratic National Convention that tried to replace or moderate that voluntaristic motif with another kind of imagery,

the idea of family, mutuality, the sharing of benefits and burdens for the good of all, feeling one another’s pain, sharing one another’s blessings . . . . We believe we must be the family of America, recognizing that at the heart of the matter we are bound one to another . . . .

It was a rhetorically powerful moment, but a losing political strategy. Today, perhaps more than ever, Americans don’t tend to think of the nation as a “family” to which we are “bound,” but rather as a club which we have joined.

Claude S. Fischer originally wrote this piece for What It Means to Be American, a project of the Smithsonian Institution and Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: September 22

1. A global transformation from a carbon-based economy to a cleaner, more sustainable energy future will create jobs and add wealth.

By Christiana Figueres and Guy Ryder in Project Syndicate

2. Antibiotic resistance causes 23,000 deaths and two million illnesses every year. Concerted government action is necessary to fight the crisis.

By the Editorial Board of the Washington Post

3. China can improve its global standing and U.S. relations by joining the fight against Islamic State.

By Dingding Chen in the Diplomat

4. The economic future of manufacturing is to be an incubator of innovation: “where new ideas become new products.”

By Nanette Byrnes in MIT Technology Review

5. In the future, a book could be a living thing.

By Wendy Smith in Publisher’s Weekly

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: September 17

1. Islamic State’s sexual violence is a war crime and U.S. leaders should call it out, seek ways to track it, and hold the terrorists to account. Instead, policymakers are ignoring it.

By Aki Peritz and Tara Maller in Foreign Policy

2. When the rich get richer, states get poorer. Income inequality is eating away at state tax revenue.

By Gabriel J. Petek at Standard and Poor’s Ratings Service

3. Does big philanthropy have too much power over policy?

By Gara LaMarche in Democracy

4. An innovative program is connecting high-performing low-income students with scholarship dollars and guiding them through the daunting financial aid process.

By David Leonhardt in the Upshot

5. Can a major redesign transform Union Station into the commercial and cultural heart of Washington?

By Steven Pearlstein in the Washington Post

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: September 16

1. America can offset China’s rising power and Russia’s influence in Asia by strengthening its relationship with India.

By Paul J. Leaf in the National Interest

2. MIT moms challenge engineers and students to pitch ways to improve breast pumps in a ‘hackathon.’

By Katie Levingston in Boston.com

3. College is disproportionately off limits to poor and minority students. Here are some critical steps to close that gap.

By Antoinette Flores at the Center for American Progress

4. State governments should stop paying off businesses to ‘create jobs.’ The tax incentives and other giveaways are a waste.

By Richard Florida in the Los Angeles Times

5. One way the NFL can address the mishandling of domestic violence by its players: paying to rebuild our nation’s depleted support system for survivors of abuse.

By Jonathan Cohn in the New Republic

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME

Join Joe Klein’s 2014 Road Trip

TIME's political columnist plans Southern swing ahead of midterm elections

I’m heading south this year, starting on September 19th–in search of fun, insight and American stuff. As always, if you’d like to meet with me and talk politics, let me know… Also, I’d love to hear about any debates, barbecues, picnics, festivals or rituals coming up in your states. We start 9/19 in North Carolina…9/22 in Georgia, 9/24 in Alabama, 9/26-28 in Tennessee, 9/29-30 Mississippi, 10/1-3 Louisiana, 10/4-5 in Arkansas, 10/6-7 in Kentucky.

The schedule is subject to change, depending on political events…and you. If you’d like to get together, please contact me at Joe_Klein@timemagazine.com…or trip wrangler Tessa.Berenson@Timeinc.com.

I’m looking forward to several weeks of politics from the ground up, good music and great food.

 

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: September 8

1. To calculate the value of vaccines, we must imagine the economic cost of a world without them.

By Michael White in Pacific Standard

2. Apple may change everything again, this time by finally killing the credit card.

By Marcus Wohlsen in Wired

3. Local government – often heralded as the best kind of government – is actually America’s most broken and oppressive.

By Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine

4. “Instagram for doctors” can help solve medical mysteries.

By Sarah Kliff in Vox

5. A policy of realism, tempered with humanity, is good for people and nations.

By Walter Isaacson in Time

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Government

Even Ralph Nader and Grover Norquist Agree D.C. Needs More Compromise

“There’s nothing else to do in this town,” Norquist said

Grover Norquist and Ralph Nader spoke at a National Press Club luncheon in Washington on Thursday in a bid to promote cross-aisle government cooperation.

Nader, a left-wing consumer advocate and five-time presidential candidate, is a champion of regulation and Norquist, who founded the conservative advocacy group Americans for Tax Reform, famously wants government to be small enough to “drown it in the bathtub.” But the odd couple argued there is a broader area of agreement between liberals and conservatives than people are led to believe.

“This is not something that might happen. This is not an interesting theory. This has already happened,” Norquist said. Areas where both sides can — and have — worked together, he said, include lowering mandatory sentencing minimums, defending civil liberties and strengthening national defense while reducing cost.

Nader produced a similar list. “You don’t engage in wars of aggression. You don’t interfere with international law and constitutional law and federal law and go all over the world building up empires. You don’t allow the Pentagon to automatically get huge budgets through Congress,” he said, also mentioning cooperation on prison reform. “That’s a very important area. And that’s where there’s a very, very solid basis here.”

Both men recognized the difficulties of reaching across the aisle in the current political climate and promoted establishing civic groups whose sole purpose would be “left-right alliance advocacy,” Nader said. “We need this kind of singular focus.”

Norquist, who once referred to bipartisanship as “date rape,” was quick to distance this cooperation from political negotiation. “Right-left coalitions are areas of principled agreement on perhaps procedure, or even goals,” he said, “not a compromise where someone walks in and gives up part of his soul in order to get something.”

So why do these two men — at opposite ideological poles, one a stalwart believer in government and the other a perennial skeptic — want to promote their similarities rather than differences?

“There’s nothing else to do in this town,” Norquist said. “As long as Obama is president and there’s a Republican House… on the mega issues… nothing moves. It’s like two sumo wrestlers for the next two years that are absolutely equally matched,” he added. “Nobody is getting knocked out of the ring… for the next two years, the next 20 years, [left-right coalitions are] an area where we can make real progress.”

“We can win on things we agree on,” Nader admitted. “It’s very simple.” But he did acknowledge an obstacle to this rosy future of cooperation: Personal distaste, which he called the “yuck factor.”

And money, that is. “I’m looking for some very rich person to start funding a number of these nonprofit civic advocacy groups,” Nader said.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: August 28

1. New Orleans is at the heart of a new HIV epidemic, and only massive health system reform can remedy the situation.

By Jessica Wapner in Aeon

2. From dismantling Syria’s chemical arsenal to hunting down Joseph Kony, America’s military missions abroad far outlast the public’s attention span.

By Kate Brannen in Foreign Policy

3. To look beyond stereotypes and understand the programs and interventions that improve life for young men of color, the U.S. Department of Education invited them to a “Data Jam.”

By Charley Locke in EdSurge

4. Taking a page from silicon valley, incubators for restaurateurs can help get new ideas on the plate.

By Allison Aubrey at National Public Radio

5. So the homeless can work, worship, and transition to normal life, cities should offer safe, flexible storage options.

By Kriston Capps in Citylab

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: August 25

1. Slavery’s long shadow is inextricably linked to modern income inequality in the south.

By Stephen Mihm in the Boston Globe

2. Superdistricts in the House of Representatives could end the tyranny of incumbency in Congress.

By Katrina vanden Heuvel in the Washington Post

3. Yelp the Police: Georgia teens build an app to rate law enforcement interactions.

By Rebecca Borison in Business Insider

4. The new Egyptian government’s policies of repression and exclusion could push citizens into the arms of extremist groups.

By Michele Dunn and Scott Williamson at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

5. Transforming oil and gas rigs into artificial reefs could save the delicate ecosystems formed around the structures.

By Amber Jackson in Huffington Post

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Money

Bank of America Reported Close To Record DOJ Settlement

Paying up for their role in the housing crisis

Bank of America may pay $16 billion to $17 billion to the Department of Justice as a settlement for their role in the housing crisis, according to media reports.

That would be the highest payment to the DOJ for mortgage securities fraud to date, exceeding the $13 billion settlement that J.P. Morgan Chase negotiated in November.

Bank of America issued the most mortgage securities of any large bank on Wall Street in the years leading up to the financial crisis. According to the Wall Street Journal, of the $965 billion in mortgage securities that the bank issued between 2004 and 2008, $245 billion in securities have defaulted or become delinquent.

 

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser