The American political culture is multi-faceted and isn’t one made up of a single school of thought; however, its roots definitely borrow massively from liberalism and individualism, as one might expect from a nation coming to being in the 1700s. Authors like Thomas Jefferson, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Montesquieu influenced much of the world, or at least the entire West, with their ideas of individual agency, authenticity, dignity, and protection from tyranny, and in the context of the US, the US constitution proves that one can start a government by first limiting its power, instead of fully granting the monopoly of force, in order to keep its citizens safe not just from outside threats but the threats of the elite. Questioning and limiting the systems of power has been very successful in changing social consciousness. Johann Herder was one who developed the “authentic” ideas of Rousseau by embracing the individual and destroying popular ideas of honor and dignity, which at the time were strictly tied to one’s social class. Ideas of self-fulfillment and staying “true” to one’s convictions can be very empowering to the individual, but the classical libertarian school of thought that writers like Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek so passionately defend isn’t an end all solution to a harmonious society where individuals are so free to pursue themselves, but instead, it was just a reaction to the hegemony on the Enlightenment era. In reality, a society of individuals who actively pursue their own goals as if their accomplishments are a “natural right” doesn’t produce the greatest good, and it actively ignores something so essential to a successful society where both the citizens and the government aren’t oppressing each other: solidarity.
In Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson writes extensively on how individuals should follow their own convictions, as it is in their rebellion to conformity that they are no longer a slave to the hegemony. He says that “Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it.” Which this seems like a good idea when it comes to maybe philosophical discussion or the morality of some laws, but to live this way is in no way a good investment for the individual or for a society. Just because Emerson isn’t wrong is pointing out how our ideas of morality are essentially abstract, that doesn’t mean that our actions and their consequences are abstract. Emerson seems to use this basis of self-defining morality to justify all of his views throughout his works, but the flaw in that logic is that one can use that sentiment to justify anything. In writing about taxes and the poor, Emerson writes “are they my poor?” in his questioning of taxes and disdain for forced charity. Ironically, he answers his own question just a few pages later. He says, “when the ignorant and the poor are aroused, when the unintelligent brute force that lies at the bottom of society is made to growl and mow, it needs the habit of magnanimity and religion to treat it godlike as a trifle of no concernment.” Yes, these are your poor, no matter how you look at our systems of taxing. The state doesn’t necessarily have to care about feeding the lowest class, but the state does have to fear the reactions of the lower class. As a rich man, it may seem unjust to have the fruit of hard earned labor taken away for those “less deserving,” but if one gives it enough time, the reaction of the lower class could very well come back to the elite all at one time.
This isn’t to say that rich people don’t deserve their wealth or even to say that poor people are deserve anything, but a more harmonious society is beneficial on all classes. In her study, “The Struggle for Village Public Goods Provisions: Informal Institutions of Accountability in Rural China,” Lily Tsai finds that those communities with institutions like religion and family lineage that are all inclusive have higher level of happiness and content, regardless of their wealth, system of government, or even level of corruption in power. These findings aren’t new. Even in the US, small towns with high levels of church attendance and overall solidarity were just happy in general. Just like the villages of China, wealth and power become something that common people will be less concerned with, as some form of solidarity extends to all people. This idea is in direct conflict with the classical ideas of American political thought. The constitution in rooted in rebellion, and many Americans would even say that the right to dislike America is in fact part of the American identity. I’m not saying that Americans should all become part of the same religion or blindly conform to the same ideals, as Emerson states, “For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure.” What I’m saying is that in a politically divided society, and a society that encourages one to question conformity, it’s completely possible to go too far in the individualist direction. Friedrich Hegel writes about history not being a linear path where we as humans once were horrible, misguided, and uncivilized, but more of a pendulum where popular social sentiments come about as a reaction to the wrong doings of the hegemony. He also talks about how ideas, like socialism vs capitalism, are usually balanced out after society runs to the left then to the right then to the best answer in the middle. The liberal ideas that broke the wrong doings of the extreme hierarchical societies of the middle ages might be showing their faults, and instead of embracing the idea of man vs a limiting society further, which really was the case in the middle ages, it might be time to embrace community again or possibly feel the reactions of those most disenfranchised.