I versus We
Progressives have long claimed that American individualism has caused many of the problems that confront our country; poverty, inequality, racism, sexism and you name it. They claim that the self-interest that Alexis de Tocqueville noted in eighteen thirty-one as being rightly considered, has devolved into plain old, unfettered self-interest unsoftened by Christian virtues such as temperance and charity. They can (and do) point out the enormous earnings of the one-percenters, the wage gap between men and women, the incarceration rate of black men in America as proof of the damage caused by individualism. They say that the one-percenters need to share more of their wealth, that women need pay equal to men, and that black addicts need counseling instead of jail time. Progressives say that we need less “I” and more “we” in our country.
President Joe Biden emphasized unity in his inaugural address and made sure his senior appointments and cabinet members were suitably diverse. But what kind of unity are we talking about? We all look back to the idyllic time after the Second World War, when America was the envy of the world. The country basked in the warm glow of family friendly television shows like Donna Reed and My Three Sons that proclaimed that life was great in suburban America. We eagerly watched Superman declare that he stood for Truth, Justice and the American Way. Back then, one might assume that Americans were united by a shared understanding of the founding principles of America, a shared devotion to Christian ideals and a shared history of struggle.
A recent book by Robert Putnam, the Upswing, How America Came together a Century Ago and How We can Do It Again, says, no, that wonderful spirit of American unity was created by the Progressive Era that began as a reaction to the excesses of the Gilded Age, a period of rapid economic growth that nevertheless also suffered from poverty and discrimination. Dr. Putnam, a Harvard professor (along with Shaylyn Romney Garrett) use some obscure mathematical calculations (the dyad ratio algorithm method and the Expectation-Maximization method) to estimate public opinion by measuring how often certain words are used in publications and they have the charts and graphs to prove it.
Using this methodology, they determined that the Gilded Age was afflicted with excessive individualism by comparing how often words like “I” appeared compared to words like “We” in the publications of the time. The excessive individualism was shown to have abated after the beginning of the Progressive Era of the early twentieth century and reached a peak of communitarian bonhomie in the 1950s. This united “We” was the result of progressive policies put in place by reformers such as Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Many of those reforms that were considered so progressive back then are standard operating procedures now. The reforms included trust busting (breaking up of large monopolies), free high school education, workers’ rights to organize and voting rights for women among many others.
But Putnam and Garrett go on to say that this great convergence of “We” ran aground in the 1960s and the charts and graphs clearly show the downward drift. The sixties were a decade of momentous upheaval; assassinations (JFK, MLK, RFK), the Vietnam War, Civil Rights marches, urban riots, the pill and the sexual revolution, the counterculture and the drug epidemic, and more. The authors believe the upheaval of the sixties led to an atomized individualism in the seventies, dubbed the Me Decade by writer Tom Wolfe. The authors assert that this increasing individualism has led to the current parlous state of our democracy.
But the progressives of the twentieth century were very different from today’s twenty-first century progressives. The old progressivism wasn’t all that political. Teddy Roosevelt was a Republican while Woodrow Wilson was a Democrat. And there was a broad general consensus for many of the reforms. Many of the reform movements (such as the temperance movement) were led by churches. Churches also founded many hospitals and charitable organizations during this period. And many of the reforms were intended to help make the American social contract work better and adhere more closely to our founding principles and ideals. Trust busting wasn’t anti-business. Monopolistic trusts colluded to control markets in order to increase prices and profits. This is the antithesis of the competition on which the free market economic system relies to provide Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.”
And the American community spirit in the 1959s didn’t include many of the groups that Joe Biden has included in his very diverse cabinet. Blacks still had to endure segregation and Jim Crow laws in the fifties (and were called colored people back then). Women had the vote but little else. Homosexual marriage was unheard of. That’s right, the communitarian “we” of the fifties was white – and mostly men.
The authors, Putnam and Garrett, contend that the values of liberty and equality are not inherently in competition with one another. That communitarian values, especially the progressive icons of equality and inclusion, are “conceptually and empirically distinct from the more familiar left-right spectrum.” But twenty-first century progressives are very different, everything is political and ideological. They don’t want to reform America; they want to tear it down and build something new. Identity politics is a lot of little “Wes” not a big American “We.” And systemic racism means that the system is racist, so the system (America) has to go.
There is another way to look at the “I”/”We” continuum. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks described in a recent book, Morality, Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, a cultural climate change throughout the West that was the result of the move from “We” to “I.” Like Dr. Putnam, whom he quotes extensively in his book, he believes that this cultural shift has occurred over the last fifty or so years. But he has a different perspective that he articulates through the power of his words instead of incomprehensible charts and graphs.
Rabbi Sacks explains that countries and cultures have three basic institutions: the economy (the creation and distribution of wealth), the state (the legitimization and distribution of power) and a moral system (the voice of society). Some call this moral system the common good, some call it a conscience, some call it custom and tradition, some call it religion or the will of God.
You can pay a person to do the right thing (that’s economics). You can force a person to do the right thing (that’s politics). But to get a person to want to do the right thing, that’s morality. The right thing can be different in different countries or cultures. But people living in a society need to feel that the other people in their society understand the right thing the same way they do. As Friedrich Hayek stated, “members of our civilization conform to unconscious patterns of conduct.” In the US driving of the right side of the road is the right thing. In the UK it is the wrong thing. But as long as you know the conventions of the culture you are in you can avoid a serious accident.
Rabbi Sacks states that the dysfunction and division that we experience today arises from a fateful experiment in the 1960s based on the idea that you can have a society without a shared moral code. Society is the “We.” “It is where people are mindful of and acted for the common good.” He explained that with “no substantive society to link us to our fellow citizens in bonds of collective responsibility, trust and truth erode, economics becomes inequitable, and politics becomes unbearable.”
Rabbi Sacks laments the erosion of civility and shared morality that has been the unintended consequences of the pervasiveness of the Internet and the anonymity of social media. Sitting at our desks we lose the interaction with others in our society. As the scope of government has expanded, the scope of civil society has been crowded out, as Dr. Putnam noted in his book, Bowling Alone, and also as Niall Ferguson noted in his book, the Great Degeneration.
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his book, Democracy in America, that Americans exhibited self-interest rightly understood and that this understanding was that of the common good. But Rabbi Sacks writes that self-interest generates contracts and contracts are transactions. He recommends covenants because covenants are relationships between people. He quotes John Schaar as saying, “We are a nation formed by a covenant, by dedication to a set of principles and by an exchange of promises to uphold and advance certain commitments among ourselves and throughout the world. Those principles and commitments are the core of American identity…they make the American nation unique.”
This is a much more fulfilling sense of “we” than the government enforced “we” that the far-left progressives propose. In order to solve a problem, we must understand the cause. If the loss of American culture (our common morality) has led to the increase in individualism instead of the other way around as Putnam and Garrett assert, then greater moral equivalency and identity-based inclusiveness will only make matter worse. Remember, there was another factor that the 1960s were known for. It was also the time of a great increase in the progressive welfare state.