I Have a Dream Part 6: U.S. Spells Us, Not Me

Written by Robert Warden

As we approach the highly anticipated midterm elections, I think it is fair to say that a common sentiment among progressives is that we need a sense of unity; we need mass action in order to achieve our political goals, which a large turnout by progressives for the midterms would signify. This in fact appears to be happening, based on voter enthusiasm and early voting numbers. However, the opposition appears to be fairly motivated too, and they are accustomed to voting in unison with each other. Fortunately, there are more of us than there are of them.

Meanwhile, as we contemplate this election, I wish to turn some attention to cultural issues which I believe are negatively impacting our politics and thus need to be changed. For several years, I have been aware of an international scale which measures the individualism versus collectivism of various nations around the world, and that the United States, as expected, ranks very high on individualism. I recently revisited this data (which I think have been updated), and found that indeed, the United States ranks the most individualistic of all nations. Frankly, this is another #1 that I wish the United States would not be credited with. Interestingly, one of my good Facebook friends is the daughter of Guatemalan immigrants, and it turns out that Guatemala ranks highest in collectivism — that is, lowest in individualism. It must seem rather odd to grow up among one subculture that is such a polar opposite of the dominant, surrounding culture. As Brenda said, Americans take individualism too far. Here is the post showing how different nations rank on Individualism versus Collectivism (http://clearlycultural.com/geert-hofstede-cultural-dimensions/individualism/). The United States has an individualism score of 91, while that of Guatemala is only 6. In fact, most nations on the list have a score considerably below that of the United States. Another interesting observation, is that English speaking nations tend to have very high individualism scores. I speculate that being at the forefront of the industrial revolution and colonizing far-flung parts of the world may play a role in that, but I do not know of any evidence to support that idea.

Having established the rather unique position of the United States as the world leader in individualism, my next question is this: How does individualism affect a nation’s — particularly the United States’ — politics? I came to this topic with a working hypothesis regarding the answer to that question. Subsequently, I searched the internet fairly extensively to find evidence regarding this matter. What I found primarily was that the articles on Individualism versus Collectivism are generally from individualistic societies and themselves have an individualistic bias. What I mean by that, is that they usually focus on the effects of the culture on the individual, rather than the effects of this cultural variable on cultural outcomes themselves. Of course it is well and good to examine that, but it seems vitally important to examine the effects of individualism versus collectivism on larger social issues such as politics, as well. Another bias might be toward individualism itself, although the articles were conscientious about including positives and negatives of both cultural styles. The articles typically pointed out that individualistic cultures produce a greater amount of innovation, for instance, while noting that collectivistic cultures produce greater cooperation among citizens, but also greater conformity.

The Dots in My Mind

Thus, before proceeding further, here is my thinking in brief. Individualism encourages people to put their own welfare first, while collectivistic cultures encourage people to place the most emphasis on the welfare of the larger group to which they belong. Thus, individualistic societies are highly competitive “Me First” societies, while collectivistic cultures are more cooperative, “We Societies.” At this point, anybody who is familiar with U.S. politics can probably connect the dots with me pretty easily. The “Me First” attitude of Americans tends to lead to narcissism and various selfish behaviors. In fact, there is evidence that narcissism has been on the increase in the United States. It also appears that our presidents have been increasingly narcissistic in general throughout U.S. history. (I can cover this evidence specifically in another, related post.). “Me First” people generally are motivated by “what is in it for me?” They are not motivated so much by a desire to serve the public good. Consider how many of our public officials do not live up to the ideal of being public servants, as a failure resulting from the dominance of a “Me First” attitude in this culture. People who vote in ways that are narrow minded and reflect their often mistaken ideas of what serves their own self-interests, typifies the behavior of Republicans, and more generally, tends to push the culture toward a conservative bias in politics. Individualist cultures also favor humongous wealth inequality and personally owned businesses, leading to certain ultra-wealthy individuals having enormous social and political influence. Thus, policies which favor the rich such as low taxes and lack of economic or political regulation, are more likely to be enacted than policies which favor the poor or middle class, because money speaks, and the more money one has, the more it speaks. Meanwhile, narrow-minded, bigoted policies can take root and grow, especially among the conservative sects of society.

And that’s not all. Another logical consequence of the hyper-individualism that we see in the United States, is I think, political gridlock. It has often been commented that we in the United States seem afraid to do “anything big” politically. (Contrast the political gridlock in the United States, for instance, with the huge projects which Chinese governments in mainland China or Taiwan — Chinese being a rather prototypically collectivistic culture — have no problem undertaking in recent years and into the foreseeable future.) In fact I think that is true, and very unfortunate as we really need to do “big things” of a progressive nature. However, “rugged individualist” Republicans act in maximally obstructive ways to any progress that Democrats try to make, while progressives, meanwhile, act like members of a cat sanctuary who refuse to move spontaneously in one direction. After all, you can’t herd cats — or probably even get them to follow a leader. But exactly what we need to do at this point is move in one direction, and the message needs to be not just anti-Trump or anti-Republican, although I am fine with that as a part of the message. In addition to highlighting what we are against, we need to make clear what we are for, to show the world a worthy vision and goals. That’s essentially why I am writing these “I Have a Dream” posts. We need to coalesce around some policy goal or goals. A good place to start would be Medicare Part E, for instance — Medicare for Everyone — which polls show is supported by a majority of U.S. citizens. In fact, a majority of U.S. citizens support virtually every progressive, democratic socialist policy. To me that means that we have the power to make this happen, but we need to coalesce as a movement and act as a “We Society” rather than the current predominant theme of a “Me Society” as typified by the current administration.

Eventually, I did find an article which more or less supported my thesis. It was a conceptual article, not a research article, and it had a section about expected political differences between individualistic and collectivistic cultures (with conclusions that I only partially agree with). Anyway, here is perhaps the most relevant quote from that article: “Individualist culture is more likely to suffer from collective action problems than collectivist culture. Only individual incentives will lead individualists to engage in collective action whereas in a collectivist culture people will more easily volunteer” (https://eml.berkeley.edu/~groland/pubs/IEA%20papervf.pdf).

It’s Time to Start a Blue Wave

Let us all resolve to vote in these midterms and make sure our votes count, and furthermore, bring as many people along with us as we can. We will need all the help that we can get. Let’s start a big, beautiful, brilliant blue wave now together as a team. But whatever electoral progress we make in the midterm elections, we cannot afford to let up. Once the “We Society” movement starts, it will be up to us to make it grow even stronger, and keep the momentum on our side. This means endorsing and voting for progressives in primaries, then voting for Democrats and voting out Republicans in general elections. It also means contacting politicians. working on campaigns, being active politically online, or in whatever ways suit us — Next stop: The 2020 elections.

P.S. As an example, my school is offering extra credit to students who attend a city hall meeting and write a report on it.