The American hyper-focus on individualism makes us poorer, sicker, and sadder

The American hyper-focus on individualism makes us poorer, sicker, and sadder
woman in brown sweater covering her face with her hand
Photo by Dev Asangbam on Unsplash

It is rather easy to lament the state of our country right now.

We are not wealthy. The US economy, despite the pandemic, has been doing reasonably well overall. However, income inequality is at its highest in 50 years. We are richer in the aggregate, but most of the gains have gone to upper-class families. The wealth gap is even starker, with upper-income families possessing 75 times as much wealth as lower-income families. In 1983, that ratio stood at 28.

We are not healthy. Around 42 percent of our country is obese. The Obama administration passed legislation to fight the opioid epidemic. It has only gotten worse, with New York needing to open overdose prevention centers. Before the pandemic, the life expectancy for white males was declining, with what has been termed “deaths of despair.”

We are not happy. We’re still in the middle of a national referendum on racism. Racial minorities are urging us to atone for historical injustices and address contemporary forms of racism. Trans persons have quickly gained visibility, and many people are unsettled. Some are downright fearful. Powered by disinformation and conspiracy theories, large portions of the right are convinced white students are being taught to hate themselves by teachers, Donald Trump won the election, and COVID was created in a lab for biological warfare.

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What can be done?

A popular argument is to fault the left. In particular, that the progressive, social justice-oriented “woke” wing of the left is to blame for many of our nation’s ills. Because of this group, we are discarding our commitment to reason and rationality, individual responsibility and equal rights. Because of this group, we are putting emotional “lived experiences” and group identity politics in their place.

A shift back to focusing on individual choice and personal responsibility will be the remedy, we’re told. Instead of Americans asking a nanny state for assistance, they should commit to personal changes in culture and character. Moreover, the purpose of government is to ensure individual equality under the law, not identify groups that may have been discriminated against, and then compound this mistake by discriminating against another group. A government that attempts to correct for vague “systemic” causes of racial or gender inequality will only interfere with meritocracy. This is unfair to people who had nothing to do with whatever phantom process scholars and activists have supposedly identified.

If we make this change, away from social justice “wokism” and towards the classical liberal values that made America a great country, the logic goes, we will be wealthier, healthier and happier.

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Personal troubles and public issues
I agree with the diagnosis. I do not agree with the remedy. To be sure, we need liberal values for our democratic, capitalist society to function. But I do not detect any real decline in those values. If anything, social justice movements are trying to extend rights to more individuals. And even if we had strayed away from those values, strengthening them would not address the issues I outlined above.

Instead, these social problems continue to plague us because of a lack of imagination – a sociological imagination. If anyone has taken a sociology class in the last several decades and remembered it, you may have heard this idea tossed about. It originated with one of the most influential sociologists of the 20th century, C. Wright Mills.

For Mills, the sociological imagination begins with distinguishing between the “the personal troubles of milieu” and “the public issues of social structure.” An example is unemployment. If only one woman is unemployed, we must look at that woman’s character or skills.

However, “when in a nation of 50 million employees, 15 million men are unemployed, that is an issue, and we may not hope to find its solution within the range of opportunities open to any one individual. The very structure of opportunities has collapsed. Both the correct statement of the problem and the range of possible solutions require us to consider the economic and political institutions of the society, and not merely the personal situation and character of a scatter of individuals.”

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Mills’ sociological imagination is about properly identifying the social problem – that our institutions, laws and policies are at fault – and suggesting appropriate, evidence-based solutions.

Our wealth, health and happiness problems are not individual personal troubles that can be resolved by exhorting people to think or act differently. People’s thoughts and actions occur within a given context, and we need to have more conversations about how we can change that context. This is what we are missing as a nation.

This is the remedy.

A New Year’s resolution for progressives
Many Americans see the problems we have in society as being about the individual and character. If you don’t have money, you didn’t work hard enough. If you are unhealthy or addicted to drugs, put the needle down, put on a pair of sweats and go for a run. If you are queer or Black, stop worrying about your group identity and focus more on personal achievement. What is this “herd immunity” these folks on CNN speak about? If you think you will get sick from the covid, take personal responsibility, and stay in your house.

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This hyper-focus on the individual makes us poorer, sicker and sadder.

We should pay attention to how institutions, laws and policies create problems. We should look at our tax structure and minimum wage laws to understand wealth and income inequality. Drug and alcohol abuse are symptoms of a society failing to meet the needs of its citizens, not personal moral failings. We need to lean into discussions about systemic racism and institutional discrimination. Instead of looking at individual Trump supporters as somehow being uniquely misinformed or prone to manipulation, we need to take stock of our fragmented media environment and citizens’ lack of trust in journalists.

Let’s resolve to use our sociological imaginations more in 2022.

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