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Opinion Columns

January 18, 2014

THOMAS STEIGER: Political philosophies produce unpure ideologies

TERRE HAUTE — Last month I wrote an essay on the increasing individualist culture in the U.S. and how it helps to explain why Americans are unconcerned about the growing economic inequality. That essay prompted several civil discussions with a couple of readers that prompts this essay.

Despite all the rhetoric from pundits and politicians about culture wars and red state blue state, U.S. culture is broad, messy and dynamic. At this particular stage in history, the individualist tendencies in U.S. culture (which have always been there, just as the collectivist tendencies have) are in ascendance. Think of it as a pendulum and the pendulum is swinging toward the individualist orientation. As far as this translating to our political culture, yes, Republicans tend to lean toward the individualist orientation, but not in all things. On economic matters, quite definitely; on social matters, not so much. Democrats are generally the opposite.  

Four current issues, I think, reflect the sway of individualist values over collectivist values. Two are generally supported by liberals and Democrats and the other two generally supported by conservatives and Republicans.

The sweeping success of marriage equality, most recently in such conservative states as Utah and Oklahoma, reflect individualist values over collective ones. There is little doubt in my mind that if given the vote, residents of Oklahoma, Utah and Indiana would ban the notion of marriage equality. But the state constitutions demand equality before the law and it’s difficult to argue against equality, a quintessential individualist value.

On the other side of the aisle are gun rights. All attempts by the public to regulate guns are being swept away with the idea of an individual right to bear arms. Despite the clear reading of the Second Amendment, the Supreme Court read out of “a well-regulated militia” an individual right to arms. Even attempts to regulate what kind of guns and who can obtain them are well pushed back with the powerful idea of the individual protecting oneself and loved ones with a gun. Why rely on the “state,” the police, when you can do it yourself. The sweeping “stand your ground” laws almost require one to shoot when threatened rather than flee danger. Public opinion has soured against “gun control” as well. The idea of “individual” security concealed in one’s pocket is a very strong allure in an individualist culture.

Insurance is a collectivist approach to coping with risk. A group of people pool their money with the understanding that if they get sick or in an accident or their house burns down, that the pool will pay for it. This is also the idea of Social Security, one of the most successful anti-poverty programs in our history. Republicans and conservatives, however, want to privatize Social Security, to turn it into an investment program. The benefits are not pooled, there is no broad buy-in for the success. Losses are just individual losses. There is no sense of “shared fate.” An important appeal to individualist sentiment is “choice.” The individual should make the choice about how their funds are being invested and used.  That “my” money can be given to my heirs is also an appeal to individualist values.

Abortion rights are my last example. Appeals by liberals to choice, that complex moral issues are best left to individuals and not to the state, helped make abortion legal in the United States. Since 1973, conservatives have appealed to more collectivist values, to deny women “choice,” that each of us have an interest in every pregnancy, that women cannot be left to make such a weighty decision alone, that they must be informed of certain things, that they must wait a certain time, even concern for the woman that the clinics in which the abortions occur must be regulated to ensure the woman’s safety. The persuasive and legal arguments made to curb legal abortion appeal to collectivist values, those values that conservatives and Republicans sometimes mock with the label of “nanny state.”

Both parties utilize both ends of the individualist-collectivist continuum when they need to. Conservatives and Republicans appeal to individualist values when they wish to sweep away environmental regulations but appeal to collective ones when they clamor for more support for security measures. Liberals and Democrats appeal to collectivist values when they call for social programs or extensions to unemployment benefits and to individualist values when they push for laws so individuals can sue in court for workplace discrimination, in the name of equality.

Thomas L. Steiger is a professor of sociology and is director of the Center for Student Research and Creativity at Indiana State University. Email thomas.steiger@indstate.edu.

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