TIME France

France Says Conditions Not Right to Deliver Warships to Russia

A Mistral-class amphibious assault ship is docked in the shipyard of Saint-Nazaire, Aug. 20, 2014, Saint-Nazaire, France.
A Mistral-class amphibious assault ship is docked in the shipyard of Saint-Nazaire, Aug. 20, 2014, Saint-Nazaire, France. Mehdi Chebil—Polaris

Minister says decision surrounds Russia's involvement in Ukraine's civil war

France said Thursday that it would not deliver either of the warships Russia has ordered because its conditions had not yet been met.

Russia ordered two Mistral class amphibious warfare ships in 2010. The first was due to be delivered this year, but President Francois Hollande said it would not happen because of Russia’s involvement in the civil war in Ukraine, Reuters reports.

“The conditions today are not met to deliver the Mistral,” French Finance Minister Michel Sapin told RTL radio. “What are these conditions? It is that in Ukraine we are in a situation that is becoming more normal, that allows for things to cool down.”

On Wednesday, Russian news agency RIA quoted Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin as saying that Russia had been invited to take delivery of the first ship on Nov. 14. He also said the second ship would be floated on the same day.

[Reuters]

Read next: Russians Re-write History to Slur Ukraine Over War

TIME 2014 Election

Democrat vs. Democrat Down To Wire in Silicon Valley House Race

Barack Obama, Mike Honda
President Barack Obama is greeted by Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., as the president arrives in Los Altos Hills, Calif., where he will attend a fundraising event Wednesday, July 23, 2014, during his three-day West Coast trip to Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. AP

California hopes the non-partisan, open system will lead to a more functional Congress

Don’t look now, but a moderate might get elected to Congress next month from California.

In California’s 17th congressional district, which encompasses much of Silicon Valley, two Democrats are on the ballot on Nov. 4. One is seven-term incumbent Rep. Mike Honda, 73, and the other 38-year-old former Obama Administration official Ro Khanna, who is trying to unseat his fellow Democrat.

Why wasn’t this battle decided in California’s June 3 primary? Honda and Khanna both “won” that primary: they both gained enough votes to advance to the general election and under California’s new rules—this is the second cycle the system has been in place—it doesn’t matter that they are both Democrats. In fact, seven out of California’s 53 congressional districts have two candidates from the same party competing in the General Election.

More than 30 years ago, California led the country in closing its primaries. But that, coupled with redistricting that gerrymandered safe seats, led to increasingly partisan politicians more afraid of a primary challenge than of losing to the other party. In other words: politicians more likely to blow up the government than make deals across the aisle.

So in 2010, Californians voted to take the parties out of redistricting and opened up its primary process in the hopes of electing people who didn’t think compromise is a dirty word, or at least seek to work with their opponents instead of vanquishing them.

Whether this political experiment has worked remains to be seen. But if any place in the country understands disruption and reinvention, it’s Silicon Valley. And the Honda/Khanna race, while troubling fratricide to most of the party, carries undertones of California’s intent: moderation.

Khanna spent a whopping $3 million to come in a distant second in the primary, which Honda won by 20 points. Honda has the endorsement of much of the establishment, including President Obama, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and the California Democratic Party. Khanna enjoys the backing of some deep-pocketed Silicon Valley tycoons, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and a campaign team drawn from Obama’s presidential bids.

Khanna burned through another $1 million post primary and by the end of September had just $218,000 cash on hand compared to Honda’s $965,000. “We were always the underdog going into this thing,” Khanna tells TIME. “But we will have enough money to compete on Election Day. We’ve built a strong campaign on a lot of retail politics.”

Khanna has been attacking Honda as ineffectual and unwilling the reach across the aisle to get things done. During the debate Khanna mocked Honda’s “bipartisanship.” Honda has been attacking Khanna as a Republican in Democratic clothing. “He sent out a mailer labeling me a liberal,” Honda tells TIME. “I am a Democrat. He is?” Honda has also been promoting his seniority and his ability to deliver for the district, including helping to secure a BART train extension to the area. And, yes, he has touted his “bipartisan” credentials working with Republicans on legislation and initiatives.

Polls show the race in a dead heat with just three weeks to go until Election Day. But just the fact that the race is a debate over which candidate would be more functional, pragmatic and less dogmatic is already a victory for state reformers.

MONEY Autos

How to Tell If You’re Safe From Auto Recalls

An airbag igniter is built into a steering wheel for a car at the Takata Ignition Systems Gmbh factory in Schoenebeck, Germany, 17 April 2014.
An airbag igniter being installed at a Takata factory in Schoenebeck, Germany Jens Wolf—picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

It seems like every other day, news breaks about a recall on millions of cars that, if left unaddressed, could prove deadly. Here's what consumers can do to ensure their safety.

There are two months left in the year, but 2014 has already broken the record for most auto recalls ever. As of October, automakers had issued recalls for an estimated all-time-high of 56 million vehicles in the U.S. “To put that in perspective, automakers have now recalled more than three times the number of new cars and trucks Americans will buy this year,” the Detroit Free Press noted.

The flurry of recalls has come fast and furiously in 2014. This week, Toyota issued a recall on roughly 250,000 vehicles in the U.S. related to faulty airbags, on top of a global recall of 1.7 million Toyotas for a wide range of safety defects that circulated last week. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) lists 29 separate auto manufacturer recalls thus far in the month of October, and the agency released a special consumer advisory this week, alerting the owners of 7.8 million vehicles that they should take “immediate action” to replace dangerously defective airbags.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. General Motors recalled 2.7 million vehicles last May, less than one month after the automaker announced it had spent $1.3 billion to recall 7 million vehicles worldwide, including 2.6 million for faulty ignition switches linked to 13 deaths. Ford recalled 700,000 vehicles last spring because of concerns the airbags wouldn’t deploy quickly enough, while some 16 million vehicles from 10 automakers have been recalled because the airbags, made by the Japanese company Takata, could inflate with explosive force strong enough to hurt or even kill the riders the devices are designed to save in the case of an accident. And on and on.

The numbers are so big, and the recalls pop up with such frequency, that you might be inclined to tune them out—not unlike the hacks and data breaches that occur with astonishing regularity at major retailers. But then, you know … there’s death and catastrophic injury. The potential of anything so dire affecting you and your loved ones should make you snap to attention and take action. Here are steps to take to stay safe:

For a Car You Own
When a car is subject to a safety recall, the automaker is required to notify vehicle owners via mail. The letter will feature the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) emblem and include the words “SAFETY RECALL NOTICE” in large typeset. Hopefully that’s enough to alert recipients that this isn’t junk mail. The notification will include instructions, typically consisting of the need to bring the vehicle into a local dealership and have the recalled issue fixed. The service should be provided free of charge to the owner.

You might assume that service departments would drag their feet on handling such recalls—customers aren’t paying money out of pocket after all—but a Reuters story from this past summer pointed out that the recalls represent opportunity for car dealerships. Recalls bring in new customers, or bring back customers that haven’t been at the dealership since they bought the car, and when they bring the recalled vehicle in to be serviced, they may be inclined to get the oil changed or have some other work done. Heck, many have been known to browse showrooms while waiting for their old cars to be fixed, where they wind up getting talked into buying new cars. The takeaway for consumers is: Don’t allow yourself to be upsold into a costly service job when you’re at the dealership getting a recall issue addressed, and don’t buy a new car unless it’s truly the model you want, at the price you want.

To make sure that your car is safe, the NHTSA offers a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) search feature online. Enter your VIN—which is displayed on the dashboard of the driver’s side is most easily seen looking through the windshield from outside—and you can find out if your car has been recalled anytime over the past 15 years, as well as whether or not the recall has been repaired on your specific vehicle. Unfortunately, the government site can be glitchy (the VIN search function has been listed as “temporarily unavailable” lately). If it’s not working—or even if it is and you want to be doubly careful—head to Carfax.com, which also allows people to look up recall issues for specific cars using VINs at no charge. For yet another option, the NHTSA allows you to sign up for email alerts for recalls on up to five vehicles, as well as alerts regarding any recalls of car seats and tires.

For a Car You Might Buy
Before buying a used car, do some due diligence on recalls. Carfax estimates that 3.5 million used cars were listed for sale last year with unfixed safety recalls. Get the VIN of the specific used car you’re interested in, and follow the steps above to make sure that any recall has been addressed. If it hasn’t, make the owner fix it before you buy—or use the fact that the repair hasn’t been made as a reason to cut the asking price. If you wind up closing the deal, don’t forget to bring the car into a local dealership to get the recall fixed asap.

For a Car You Might Rent
A bill currently under consideration in Congress called the Raechel and Jacqueline Houck Safe Rental Car Act of 2013 would allow agencies to rent cars that have been subject to recalls only if the defects have been fixed. In other words, as of now, it’s vaguely legal for the Hertzes and Enterprises of the world to rent recalled cars even if the recall hasn’t been addressed. In fact, in recent years, some major agencies have tried to make the case that it’s OK to continue to rent recalled vehicles to customers because some recalls are unimportant, as they don’t qualify as serious safety risks.

USA Today columnist Bill McGee investigated the murky world of recalls and rental cars this past summer. What he found is that agencies generally proactively remove vehicles from their fleets or have them fixed pronto if they’ve been subject to dangerous, high-profile recalls—failure to do so could expose them to millions in lawsuits if an accident occurred due to an unfixed recall. Hertz and Avis, among others, have said that coping with recalls has cost their companies millions of dollars this year, because when recalled vehicles are being fixed at dealerships they obviously can’t be rented out to customers.

But again, until the Safe Rental Car Act—named for two sisters who died in 2004 in a rental car with power steering fluid recall that hadn’t been fixed—is passed into law (hardly a done deal), agencies aren’t obligated to have all car recalls addressed before renting them out. “Currently, there is no prohibition on rental car companies renting vehicles that are under a recall, but have not yet been remedied,” a former NHTSA administrator named David Strickland testified to Congress last year.

What can a renter do to stay safe? Start by clarifying your agency’s policy. Alamo, for instance, states plainly, “We do not rent recalled vehicles until the recall has been remedied.” But information regarding recalls can be vague or hard to find with some other rental operators. If the policy is remotely unclear, call and ask questions.

You can also use the NHTSA’s database to see if the vehicle model you have reserved has been recalled, but this strategy comes with complications. For one thing, rental agencies generally don’t guarantee a specific model with a reservation—you reserve a “mid-size” category of vehicle, not a Toyota Camry or whatever. What’s more, it’s impossible to know a car’s specific VIN until you pick the vehicle up, and therefore it’s impossible to check if the model’s recall problems have been fixed. In light of these problems, you might want to make another call—to your local representative in Congress, to urge support of the Safe Rental Car Act.

Read next: Toyota Announces a U.S. Recall Over Faulty Passenger-Side Airbags

MONEY Tourism

Price Hikes Up to 150% Are Planned for Your Favorite National Parks

Entrance sign near Big Oak Flat Entrance Station, Yosemite National Park.
Entrance sign near Big Oak Flat Entrance Station, Yosemite National Park. Fred van Wijk—Alamy

A proposal is on the table to hike prices of admission, annual passes, campsite reservations, and more at roughly 130 national parks and recreation areas.

A broad proposal from the National Parks Service (NPS) first exposed by the Denver Post could make visiting some of the country’s biggest and best national parks significantly more expensive as early as next summer. Admissions to popular national parks such as Yosemite, Mount Rainier, and Crater Lake are likely to see price hikes of 50%, while prices at some lesser-known gems like Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park might rise upwards of 150%. Price increases are also being proposed for annual passes, campsites, boating permits, and other services at dozens of park and recreations areas.

Before storming the parks service in protest, bear in mind that even if the price increases are accepted, our national parks would remain one of the world’s great vacation bargains. The current price of a seven-day pass for a vehicle and all of its occupants at Yosemite is $20, rising to $30 if the proposal is approved. To make its case that the increases are necessary and appropriate, the NPS noted:

The current park entrance fees have been in place since 1997, when a seven day pass was increased from $5 to $20 per vehicle. According to the U.S. Bureau of labor and Statistics, $20 in 1997 is equivalent to $29.64 in 2014. This fee change will allow Yosemite to maintain consistent revenue while adjusting accordingly for inflation.

Likewise, the price of admission at Great Sand Dunes would rise to $10 per person up from the current rate of just $3 (there’s no flat vehicle rate offered), while the cost of an annual pass would increase from $15 to $40.

Park visitors could start to see the price increases as early as next summer, and/or fees might be incrementally hiked over the next couple of years. One of the reasons cited for the proposed increases is that the NPS is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2016, and it wants to commemorate the centennial with parks and recreation areas looking their finest.

None of this is a done deal, however. The parks service is allowing the public to weigh in with comments over the next couple of weeks, and at least in theory the response could have an impact on how the proposed price increases play out. What’s especially complicated about the matter is that the average Joe is being asked to submit comments related to each park’s price hike individually; there is no central spot where people can respond to the general idea of raising prices across the board. There’s one spot where you can offer your opinion on price increases at Yosemite, for instance, another for the price increases at Washington’s Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area, and so on. (The nightly cost of an individual campsite at the latter would go from $10 to $18, by the way.) The dates for open commenting and public meetings at each park are different as well. The commenting session at Yosemite began on Monday and stretches through November 20, and there’s a two-hour meeting open to the public on November 12, while comments for Lake Roosevelt can be made through October 31, and three meetings are being held in nearby state-owned facilities this week.

The superintendents of each park also have some authority to decide if and how price hikes go into effect, though a broad range of parks—including Mount Rainier and Olympic in Washington state, Rocky Mountain in Colorado, and Glacier in Montana—are expected to follow through on some if not all of the proposed increases. Jon Jarvis, the NPS director, noted in a memo that there will always be “significant public controversy” about any price increases for use of lands that we as a nation own. Yet he stated that the increases “will allow us to invest in the improvements necessary to provide the best possible park experience to our visitors.”

Surely, many park goers will be upset by the proposed increases, and it would be surprising if a majority—or even a significant minority—of those commenting on the proposals were voicing their approval of higher fees. For some perspective, Kurt Repanshek, who runs the National Parks Traveler blog, points out that admission to Yosemite cost $10 a century ago, so we are more than due for a price hike:

When you think of how inflation has treated park entrance fees — that $10 fee charged in 1915 equates to $230.74 in 2014 dollars — entrance to the parks under the existing pricing structure might literally be described as a steal.

TIME Iraq

Report: U.S. Kept Mum After Finding Old Chemical Weapons in Iraq

US Army soldiers wearing their full chemical protection suits walk inside the courtyard of an industrial complex they secured which they thought was a possible site for weapons of mass destruction in the central Iraqi town of Baquba in May 2003.
US Army soldiers wearing their full chemical protection suits walk inside the courtyard of an industrial complex they secured which they thought was a possible site for weapons of mass destruction in the central Iraqi town of Baquba in May 2003. Roberto Schmidt—AFP/Getty Images

Based on 17 U.S. service members and seven Iraqi police officers who claimed they were exposed to mustard or nerve agents after 2003

American and Iraqi troops came across and, in some cases, were wounded by aged or abandoned chemical weapons between 2004 and 2011, according to a New York Times investigation published late Tuesday.

The report, which is based on redacted intelligence records and dozens of interviews with American and Iraqi officials — and, notably, 17 U.S. service members and seven Iraqi police officers who claimed they were exposed to mustard or nerve agents — analyzes how the U.S. apparently suppressed information about the discoveries and barred the injured from receiving proper recognition and medical care.

The investigation also notes that militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, which has seized large swaths of Iraq and Syria over the past year, controls a former production site that Iraq told the United Nations over the summer still held about 2,500 corroded munitions.

[New York Times]

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: October 14

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

1. Fix the system, don’t fight individual diseases: Why Ebola may change how aid dollars are spent on healthcare in Africa.

By Lesley Wroughton at Reuters

2. Plan for a global body to regulate the great promise of genetics — balancing unfettered innovation with sensible rules to prevent abuse.

By Jamie F. Metzl in Foreign Affairs

3. Because it increases disease and exacerbates resource scarcity, the Pentagon sees climate change as a threat multiplier.

By Laura Barron-Lopez in the Hill

4. The U.S. should call out Egypt’s rising authoritarian leadership and the plight of repressed people there.

By the Editorial Board of the Washington Post

5. Successful community collaborations build civic confidence for increasingly audacious projects that can improve lives.

By Monique Miles in the Collective Impact Forum blog

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

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: October 6

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

1. Diversity in recruitment – not residency restrictions – is the best way to build a police force that reflects the community where it works.

By Batya Ungar-Sargon and Andrew Flowers in FiveThirtyEight

2. To save Libya, western powers need to abandon the ‘war on terror’ framework and convince factions there to negotiate.

By Mattia Toaldo in the European Council on Foreign Relations

3. Cricket protein requires 20% fewer resources than beef protein. Are bugs the next big thing?

By Katie Van Syckle in Bloomberg Businessweek

4. China’s fluid definition of terrorism – often changing at the convenience of the country’s leaders – keeps the nation from being an effective partner against ISIS.

By Richard Bernstein, Ely Ratner, Jeffrey Payne, James Palmer, and Fu Hualing in ChinaFile

5. Modern pro sports commissioners are CEOs, not stewards of a public good. Split the commissioner job in two.

By Will Leitch in New York Magazine

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

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 ebola

Why the Government Has Legal Authority to Quarantine

Ebola
Getty Images

It's in the Constitution.

Texas officials placed at least four people under quarantine Wednesday night after they had contact with Thomas Eric Duncan, the Texas hospital patient with Ebola. About 100 others are being monitored for the disease. Reports Thursday morning also say a man is being held in isolation in Hawaii for a potential case of Ebola.

But where does the government get its legal authority to restrict the liberty of citizens by quarantining them, restricting their movement and supervising their contact?

The answer, when it comes to the federal government: the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. Under section 361 of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S. Code § 264), the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services is authorized to take measures to prevent the spread of communicable diseases into the United States and between states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which holds the authority for carrying out these functions.

Measures may include isolation, which divides people with communicable diseases from those who are healthy, or quarantine, which segregates people who may have been exposed to a communicable disease to see if they become ill. The most infamous example of isolation is Typhoid Mary, a cook in New York in the early 1900s who was exiled for life against her will for carrying a pathogen associated with typhoid fever.

Isolation and quarantine can be imposed by states under their police power functions, which give them the right to protect the health and safety of people within their borders. The four people currently quarantined in Texas are Duncan’s close family members. They received orders Wednesday from Texas and Dallas County officials “not to leave the apartment or to receive visitors without approval” until October 19, TIME’s Alex Altman reports.

But if states’ powers are not enough to stem the spread of a disease, the federal government can also institute isolation and quarantine. The last time this was used on a large scale was during the “Spanish Flu” pandemic in 1918-1919, according to the CDC.

TIME Hong Kong

What’s at Stake in Hong Kong

Voting restrictions and an ever-tightening Chinese policies are causing unrest amongst Hong Kongers

(HONG KONG) — Hong Kong’s leader refused to meet with pro-democracy demonstrators by their midnight deadline Tuesday, despite their threats to expand the protests that have clogged the streets with tens of thousands of people in the stiffest challenge to Beijing’s authority since China took control of the former British colony in 1997.

Protesters counted down to midnight and cheered as the deadline passed, but took no immediate action.

Britain’s deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, meanwhile, said Tuesday that he had summoned the Chinese ambassador to discuss the dispute, saying it was essential that Hong Kong’s people have a genuine right to choose their top leader.

“I am extremely concerned about the recent events in Hong Kong. Britain and China have solemn obligations to the people of Hong Kong to preserve their rights and freedoms,” Clegg said in a statement.

China took control of Hong Kong under a “one country, two systems” arrangement that guaranteed the 7 million residents of the city semi-autonomy, Western-style civil liberties and eventual democratic freedoms that are denied to Chinese living on the communist-ruled mainland.

The protesters want a reversal of a decision by China’s government to screen all candidates in the territory’s first direct elections, scheduled for 2017 — a move they view as reneging on a promise that the chief executive will be chosen through “universal suffrage.”

Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s rejection of the student demands dashed hopes for a quick resolution of the five-day standoff that has blocked city streets and forced some schools and offices to close.

It was unclear what action the demonstrators would take next. There were no immediate speeches or official statements from the protesters, who chanted “Jiayou! Jiayou!” — or “Keep it up!” — while waving their cellphones with the LED flashlights sparkling in the dark.

Earlier Tuesday, Alex Chow, secretary general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, the organizer of the university class boycotts that led to the street protests, said the students were considering various options if their demands were not met, including widening the protests, pushing for a labor strike and occupying a government building.

As concern mounted over how the standoff might eventually end, Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has taken a hard line against any perceived threat to the Communist Party’s hold on power, vowed in a National Day speech to “steadfastly safeguard” Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability.

China’s government has condemned the student-led protests as illegal, though so far it has not overtly intervened, leaving Hong Kong authorities to handle the crisis.

Despite the hardening rhetoric from both sides, the mood Tuesday night was festive. Few police were evident, and those who were present appeared relaxed. The crowds were expected to grow, with most people off work both Wednesday and Thursday for public holidays.

Both sides appeared to be waiting out the standoff, as police continued the light-handed approach to the protests they adopted after their use of tear gas and pepper spray over the weekend failed to drive out tens of thousands of people occupying streets near the government headquarters. The sit-ins instead spread to the financial district and other areas.

“We are not afraid of riot police, we are not afraid of tear gas, we are not afraid of pepper spray. We will not leave until Leung Chun-ying resigns. We will not give up! We will persevere until the end!” Lester Shum, another student leader, shouted to a crowd at Admiralty, near Hong Kong’s waterfront.

Leung’s blunt rejection of the demands from the students was not surprising. China’s Communist leadership is wary of any conciliatory moves that might embolden dissidents and separatists on the mainland.

Occupy Central, a wider civil disobedience movement, said in a tweet that the pro-democracy protesters were demanding genuine democracy and Leung’s resignation. It said it would “announce new civil disobedience plans” on Wednesday.

Hong Kong’s free press and social media give the protesters exposure that may help prevent China from cracking down in the same way it has on restive minorities and dissidents living in the mainland, where public dissent is often harshly punished.

The protests have been dubbed the “Umbrella Revolution” by some because the crowds have used umbrellas to block the sun and to deflect police pepper spray.

“We are really basically just calling for the government to speak with us but they’ve been mute,” Peter Chin, a 22-year-old student at Hong Kong University. “We’ll keep staying here until they’re ready to consult with us.”

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.

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