How American individualism sets us apart from other nations. For better or for worse.
An American, above all else, is an individual. This is something that has always been present in our beliefs, even from the founding of our nation. Americans have always had a huge emphasis on the idea that one should have the ability to achieve anything if they posses the drive or ambition. Does this fact make our country unique? Sure. But is it healthy for our country?
American individualism is at the core of everything we do. The ability to pick out what school you want, spend your money how you want, buy firearms, say what you want, and achieve what you want makes us special. In so many other countries, things like these that we take for granted are decided not by the people, but instead by the government. For example . This is what makes our nation so appealing to immigrants. No matter where you come from, no matter your racial or religious background, in America, you have the right to express yourself in both personal and government life. You can make your own decisions, and decide on what is best for you. Come to think of it, this idea also plays into our government. If you want a policy change, or have an idea, our governments are built to try and give the individual and local levels the ability to make they changes that they want to see, as they would know best what they need. This social and political structure can breed greatness, like what we see with stories of “self-made men” who use the freedom to create empires from nothing and follow their dreams. Ideally, an American is one who can live their best life, unimpeded by the government, and free to make their own choices and follow their own path.
This is the ideal outcome of individualism. To give anyone the opportunity to achieve. However, individualism can devolve into egoism, and egoism into division. One challenge that America faces is having so many individuals work together. When everyone has different beliefs and experiences that define them, how can we as a nation hope to come together on anything? It seems like more now than even in the early 2000’s, our nation disagrees on issues more and more. Gun control, education, same sex marriage, and global warming, people have and will always disagree on issues such as these, but when it comes to how we go about discussing them, it seems that the conversations in America are filled with more spite and vitriol than almost anywhere else. With the prevalence of individualism, and so many diverse groups and interests, finding a common idea or belief that unifies our nation is near impossible.
Take a nation like Sweden, which has a deep seeded belief in collectivist ideologies, as an example. Swedish culture puts a high emphasis on the group being more important than the individual, and this is embodied in the idea of the “Law of Jante”. This is basically a set of rules in a famous Swedish novel, which has been adopted by communities as a summary of Swedish values and principles. They discuss how an individual should always work with the collective for the betterment of the group, and how acting out and trying to be an individual achiever at the detriment of the group is unhealthy. Like individualism is with America, Swedish collectivism has become ingrained in the culture, and as a result, has made Swedish politics more supportive of socialism and similar ideas.
What do we have in America to bind us all? Some may argue that this is the purpose of the American Creed, but I don’t think even Jefferson's ideas that the nation was built upon still hold us together. Instead of coming together around these Lockean/Jeffersonian principles, our radically different interpretations of what the rights of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” mean seem to only create anger and more disagreement. Again, when you have so many diverse backgrounds and ideas in play, how do you reconcile on issues such as same sex marriage and abortion, that have so many different emotional and historical factors in play. This division also isn’t helped by the media. Just by the fact that the ideas of “fake news” and “alternative facts” are things that we have to deal with on a day to day basis serves as an example about how the way that we receive information deepens these divides. The media, with figures like Walter Cronkite, seemed to have a level of trust and respect from the American people on reporting the facts, and fostering conversations about important topics. Now, with ratings being increasingly more important, television news with stations like Fox and CNN actively seek to highlight these divisions, and pander to the political beliefs of core audiences so they can have more profitable ad space.
Individualism is a double edged sword. On one hand, it allows exceptional and hardworking people to achieve and push the envelope, and attracts those with drive, talent, and ambition to our country in hopes of a better life. On the other hand, it divides us as a nation. When people have so much autonomy and freedom, it becomes difficult to agree on a myriad of issues, because of all the diverse viewpoints and backgrounds that everyone wants to have represented. We stray away from the principles that untied our nation, because we all have individual ideas of what those should be. Our greatest asset is also a great danger.