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We Have Put Individualism Ahead of the Common Good for Too Long

10 minute read
Weissbourd is a Senior Lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Kennedy School of Government. He directs the Making Caring Common Project.
Murphy is a United States Senator representing Connecticut.

As he toured America in the early 1800s, Alexis de Tocqueville observed the new world’s fascination with individualism and entrepreneurship with a combination of wonder and worry. He recognized that America’s future greatness and power likely lay in its citizens’ obsession with individual advancement. But he also questioned whether a society could hold together when existence becomes atomized and individual success crowds out the common good. America, he worried, would descend into a morass of avarice, self-interest and envy without a means through which Americans could prioritize virtue, character, and common good over personal interest and individual achievement.

In a way, the story of America’s success in the two hundred years since de Tocqueville’s tour is our ability to properly balance this tension between individualism and collectivism. America’s genius lies not just in our spirit of entrepreneurship and pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps individualism, but also in our decision to make sure that this value on personal responsibility and success is never absolute. To varying degrees over the course of our history, it has been matched by a concern for the community and the collective. We measured success both by how well we were doing and how well the communities and the country we belonged to were doing, and we tended to view our individual and collective well-being as powerfully entwined.

But something has changed. We all feel this. In America today, far too many of us are disconnected from each other, lonely, self-protective, or at each other’s throats. Sacrifice for the common good feels anachronistic. Everything not nailed down has been commoditized or turned into a source of personal enrichment. The daily “shout” shows and nonstop social media hostility push us into corners and reward balkanization. Sacrificing personal gain for the common good or treating people with different views respectfully or prioritizing collective success over individual success—it’s all for the suckers.

Much has been written about why we tipped toward ourselves over the last several decades. The villains in this story include declines in religious participation and social outings and clubs, fueled in part by television, which keeps us at home. Workplaces also became more focused on profit than on employee well-being and solidarity, and we started lionizing those who stepped over others to get ahead. While those people always existed in society, they were usually identified and treated as outliers that needed to be constrained, not as examples of American greatness.

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In 1985, Habits of the Heart, an extensive study of values in American life, reported that Americans speak a “first language” of personal ambitions and only a “second language” of commitments to others and the collective. Perhaps more than any country in the West, we also became immersed in the 1970s in psychological talk and a self-help culture that, for all of its benefits, occupied many Americans with their inner lives and caused them to wade into themselves —not their communities—to find meaning and vitality. More recently, researchers and social observers have decried how social media betrayed its promise to connect us, instead deepening our sense of isolation and anomie. Making matters worse, we now consume different news sources that convey different facts, undermining the shared reality that is the glue of any healthy society.

Read More: What Americans Can Do to Bridge the Political Divide

This change in our priorities is reflected in how we raise our kids. Research indicates that American teenagers are more likely to prioritize aspects of their success—happiness and achievement—over caring for others, and they’re more likely to view their parents as prioritizing these aspects of success in raising them.

Alexis de Tocqueville’s warning was not wrong. It no longer feels like America can hold together when we all exist in silos, with little concern for collective health. Our country’s survival may rest on our ability to restore the prior balance between individualism and the common good. As a social scientist who has long studied Americans’ retreat into ourselves and as a U.S. Senator raising children amidst this new national reality, we believe the question of how we restore in Americans a stronger sense of responsibility for others and their communities is one of the central cultural and civic concerns of the moment.

We see this as two critical, distinct challenges. One is to restore community at the local level. Put simply, one cannot have a sense of community if the community doesn’t exist. Healthy, inclusive communities have all sorts of benefits, including increased safety; a greater sense of belonging, identity and pride; and a buffer in times of crisis. They’re also a vital antidote to pervasive loneliness in this country, which takes a large physical and emotional toll and is distressingly common among the young. Soon-to-be published results from a recent Making Caring Common national survey indicate that 34% of adults aged 18-25 suffer serious loneliness. But today, our towns, neighborhoods, and local communities are suffering. The industries that defined places have disappeared or been gobbled up by faceless global conglomerates that have no stake in building strong communities around their facilities. Local business districts have vanished, as the economy has gradually been Amazonified. Local newspapers that connected neighbors together through common storytelling have been swallowed by national news outlets that erase our local identity and insist on bunching us all together in one loud, messy, conflict-obsessed national conversation.

The other, perhaps more important challenge, is to expand Americans’ circles of care and obligation. For too many Americans, their community is tightly drawn – kin, religious or ethnic group or political party. Republicans view Democrats as the enemy, and vice versa. Rural and urban Americans feel like they are living on different planets. Black and white people often lead segregated, culturally separate existences. We must convince Americans that there is reason for them to care about those outside their immediate community.

Government can—and must—meet these critical challenges. To address the first challenge—the loss of connection to, and identification with, community – there is no shortage of government solutions, most of which do not fall along traditional right/left divides. First, why continue to pretend that the consequences of technology’s unstinting advance are value-neutral? It is entirely clear today that our retreat into online life is not a substitute for in-person connection. Why not use policy to steer technology companies toward products that breed connection and happiness, not loneliness and anxiety? Government could require social media companies to restrict access for minors to a short period of time each day (akin to the recent Tiktok announcement), or require these companies to disclose their algorithms so as to create downward pressure on the prioritization of unhealthy or prurient content. America doesn’t need to pretend that these platforms are outside our control. We could choose to pressure these companies to act more responsibly and to disincentivize individuals, especially children, from disappearing into their phones.

Government should also play a central role in revitalizing the health of local communities and institutions. Before small town business districts and churches and social clubs began to dry up, these were the places where strangers met, relationships were formed, and identities were constructed. Healthy, vibrant places and social institutions also provide opportunities for non-political, non-sectarian identities that are likely healthier than ideology-based identity. This effort would involve thoughtful industrial policy, designed to bring good paying industrial and high-tech jobs back to small communities, but also deliberate support for places of worship and clubs and local newspapers—institutions where local identity is formed.

There is much else that government can do to create a social infrastructure. We might take cues from the United Kingdom and Japan, which have both created purposeful national strategies to combat loneliness. Primary care physicians, for example, might routinely ask about loneliness at annual physicals and provide “social prescriptions,” connecting patients to, say, relevant religious organizations, or reading groups or non-profits. Political leaders might task housing and urban planning departments with developing more concrete strategies for promoting connections and community. Government can support the growing trend to reimagine public libraries as vibrant, cross-generational community hubs that provide, for example, classes, civic events, collaborative workspaces and story-telling.

Expanding national service programs would help address the second challenge, bringing young people together from various backgrounds to work on common causes, creating ties across the usual divides and strengthening young people’s commitment to their country. Yet government could think well beyond these programs in bringing diverse Americans together to solve problems and to address the harm caused by the pandemic. Policymakers might support the expansion of programs like CoGenerate’s Generations Serving Together, which unites older and younger generations in solving “problems that no generation can solve alone” and that curbs loneliness, which especially afflicts not only the young but senior citizens. Policymakers might organize diverse volunteers to tutor children and to assist teachers in redressing the brutal learning losses students suffered during the pandemic. Parents are often isolated, with high costs to themselves and their children, and government can expand the wide array of family support programs that enable parents and other caregivers to connect with and strengthen each other.

All of this work ought to be placed within an ethical narrative. Americans need leaders who can convey that while we all have different stories, we are also part of the same story, a “story of us”—a story about what it means to be an American that resonates with diverse people across the country. Woven into this narrative should be more thoughtful and consistent talk about the civic values that undergird a healthy democratic society and political community. Americans seem to be longing for moral leadership. Seventy-one percent (71%) of respondents in an online survey Making Caring Common conducted in October 2020 agreed or completely agreed with the statement, “I’m very troubled by the moral state of our country,” and only 13% disagreed. Despite our diverse religious backgrounds (or lack thereof) and ideological differences, there is wide agreement among many Americans on crucial values, including fairness, decency, caring, respect, honesty, loyalty and hard work. Elevating these values and talking about what they concretely mean in our daily lives can mitigate the worn out perpetual conflict between left and right on hot button political topics.

This all may feel like a herculean task, but there are good reasons for hope. Post-pandemic, Americans’ motivation to live outside themselves and invest in the common good may be at an all-time high. While survey data reveals strong partisan animosities, this data also indicates that Americans have not given up on each other and do not want a divorce. Two-thirds of respondents in a 2021 national survey reported that they cared for all Americans regardless of their political views, and a similar percent preferred to live in politically diverse neighborhoods.

But there is no time to waste. Government needs to put front and center the challenge of restoring Americans’ commitment to their communities and our collective life. Individualism will always be a hallmark of American identity. But it is time that we took deliberate steps to raise up concern for the common good. When our community does better, we should feel as much satisfaction as when our own personal lot improves. It is upon this work that our brave, beautiful experiment in democracy may depend.

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