Individualism in America

Writing in the The New York Times back in May, David Brooks writes:

So the story I’d like to tell is this: Over the past half-century, society has become more individualistic. As it has become more individualistic, it has also become less morally aware, because social and moral fabrics are inextricably linked. The atomization and demoralization of society have led to certain forms of social breakdown, which government has tried to address, sometimes successfully and often impotently.

As this relates to my forthcoming book The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth, Brooks managed to pique my interest. He is basing his conclusion on a study of word usage by George Mason University’s Daniel Klein; another by Jean M. Twenge, W. Keith Campbell and Brittany Gentile; and a third by Pelin Kesebir and Selin Kesebir. Together, according to Brooks, they show that word use in books changes over time. In particular, he says that words associated with individualism have grown in usage while words associated with commonality have dropped.

These findings are interesting, certainly, but I am not sure they point irrevocably to his conclusions. Brooks himself agrees (sort of):

Evidence from crude data sets like these are prone to confirmation bias. People see patterns they already believe in. Maybe I’ve done that here. But these gradual shifts in language reflect tectonic shifts in culture. We write less about community bonds and obligations because they’re less central to our lives.

What Brooks doesn’t understand–and this is one of the central tenets of my book–is that we haven’t one culture in America. Yes, shifts in language can reflect shifts in culture… but they can also reflect changes in the relative strengths of cultures sharing the same language. I would argue that is what we are seeing.

There have been two major white American cultures in North America since the middle of the 18th century. They both grow from cultures on the British Isles, the one from English roots, the other from Scots-Irish (coming to America through Ulster Plantation from the borderland between Scotland and England). This last group was the biggest white immigrant body of the 18th century. Coming from one of the poorest areas of Europe at the time, they were not welcome among the coastal colonies and made their way to the backwoods of the time, the wild west of the foothills of the Appalachians and Alleghenies. Pushing and pushed further west during the 19th century, they were often the first white settlers as the new nation established itself across the continent.

These people did not write books. Coming from poverty in a land that had seen no more than 50 years of peace at a time for a millennium, they were not idealistic. Their hopes lay in their families and in their friends, not in any great vision for mankind.

Some of them could read, but mostly they read the Bible. Some of them could write, but that was not yet considered a necessity. What was published in book form in America came from the other culture, not this one, from a culture growing, in part, from Puritans and Quakers who had come to the New World with specific communal goals in mind. Their ideals and visions were quite distinct from those of the Scots-Irish Borderers.

Over the last century, the power of the Borderers has grown. They are better educated now (in their own light) than they ever were and are competing with the established “East Coast Liberals” for dominance in the American conversation. They now have their own publishing houses, newspapers, and magazines, their voices finally being heard in print loudly enough for the rest of the country to pay attention (even if the rest doesn’t like it).

“Individualism” itself is a relatively new word, one of its first major uses in print coming in the 1830s, in de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. It has had two uses in America since, one for each culture. To that stemming from New England, “individualism” arises from a communal base, is part of the success of community and democracy. To the Borderers, “individualism” is closely tied to friends and family and creates a divide between the self and authority.

It should be no surprise that the use of words associated with “individualism” have shown an increase as Borderer culture has, as well. On the other hand, I suspect that use of terms associated with “community” have not decreased among writers in the other culture. The perceived decrease is only relative, resulting not from a decline in numbers but in the huge increase of output by Borderers.

Anyway, I am glad Brooks is addressing this, for we may finally be able to really understand that our current political split has a cultural base going back centuries.

My book will be out at the end of August.


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