The Intriguing Question

Ultimately, all societies must debate and answer a fundamental question: how should humans live together? What should–and shouldn’t– governments do? What are governments for?

Yesterday, I marveled at the bilge being produced–and consumed–by the GOP. The ability to peddle and sell it comes back to the growing differences among Americans when they answer that foundational question. Michael Flynn thinks government should impose religious conformity; a number of Republican officeholders think government should favor White Christian heterosexual males ,and they all appear to believe government has an obligation to abet GOP lawbreakers.

The current mess that those prejudices have made of American governance is one thing. A more existential issue is whether the various countries on planet Earth can come together to avert the worst consequences of climate change. According to a fascinating research paper from Yale, it turns out that the answer to that (seemingly unrelated) question also comes back to the philosophical one: what do citizens of a country think an ideal society should look like? What–and how much– do they want their governments to do?

The researchers concluded that the answer to that question is in the process of change. Here’s the lede to their report (I’ve omitted the citations.)

Individuals’ attitudes toward climate change risks and solutions are shaped by personal and social factors other than knowledge of climate change alone. One such factor is differing cultural worldviews, or values regarding how society should be structured and the role of government in addressing problems.

Two important types of cultural worldviews are egalitarianism and individualism. People with a more egalitarian worldview tend to believe that society should promote equality, social justice, participatory democracy, and diversity, and are generally more concerned about environmental hazards including climate change. They also tend to favor government actions to solve societal problems, including increased environmental regulations. In contrast, people with a more individualistic worldview are more likely to believe that society should promote individual liberty, autonomy, and opportunity. They tend to be less concerned about environmental hazards and favor greater freedom for industry. As a result, they generally oppose government intervention and environmental regulations.

Our Climate Change in the American Mind surveys have repeatedly included questions over the past 12 years that measure these worldviews among the American public. Here we report on how several key measures of these worldviews have changed among registered voters over time.

Not surprisingly, the study found that Democrats and Republicans these days have very different cultural world-views, with Democrats tending to be more egalitarian and Republicans tending to be more individualistic. The researchers report that, while their data suggests that Democrats have become more egalitarian since 2008– Republicans have remained “highly individualistic.”

Democrats are more likely to support social programs, to be concerned about the wealth gap (both domestically and between rich and poor countries), and to support various government regulations. Large majorities of Democrats think that discrimination against minorities is a very serious problem, while only 4 in 10 Republicans agree.

The Yale researchers were focused on the consequences of those very different world-views on government efforts to combat climate change, and that concern is certainly appropriate. However, I was intrigued by other questions raised by the research.

The most obvious of those questions is: what happens when political identity reflects an individual’s moral commitments? As a number of political scientists have noted, the days when both parties sought votes from the moderate middle and thus erected bigger “tents”–the days when there were a number of philosophical overlaps– are long gone. Political identity has taken on the aspects–and fervor– of religion. You can compromise on tax rates when the issue is how to raise revenue without stifling economic growth; that compromise is out of reach when one party sees taxation through a social justice lens and the other sees it as theft.

Less obvious–and arguably more consequential–is a question of language, of definition of terms. I consider myself a strong proponent of individualism and individual rights, but I see those rights in the context of America’s constitutional system. I find myself increasingly appalled by positions asserted by self-described “defenders of individual rights”: the “right” to refuse vaccination (really, the right to endanger others); the “right” to access public services without paying one’s fair share/dues; the “right” to ignore laws with which one disagrees, or that are seen as an inconvenience; the “right” to deny other Americans their equal rights….

We need to draw a line between the actual human rights that a free society must respect, and selfishness masquerading as individualism.


  1. The question that needs to be asked is who benefits from the division in America today. Some deep plant from Putin’s Russia could not have been more successful in bringing America to it’s knees than those like Steve Bannon, Tucker Carlson, Rush L., etc.
    And when I think about the kind of effort that will be necessary to restore the environment and prepare for the effects of a changing climate I am not optimistic about the future. After all, we can’t even agree to wear a mask in order to protect each other from a virus.

  2. People on this blog have been addressing these basic differences for the years I’ve been a participant. They key to our success or failure as a democracy, a nation and a people depends on how many self-centered, self-absorbed, selfish “individuals” come to realize that their individualism is dependent on their neighbors too. If the number is too low, we will fail…utterly.

  3. Creating problems and solving them is the product of the egoic brain. Period.

    The notion that we are separated from the planet and each other is false. Both science and religion agree on this issue.

    Seeing that we are pure energy and consciousness with a physical mass or body, we are therefore both consciousness and matter/energy.

    I would suggest that the people who’d I want to see create a society for global beings are physicists and Taoists each representing energy and matter.

    The last profession we should invite to the gathering is the ones leading the Western World today – the financiers and economists. They have commodified life which ends in disaster. See the Roman Empire.

  4. If our right to VOTE is not adequately protected on the federal level, the rest of these issues are lost. First and foremost, is the right to free and fair elections. I do NOT see a big push to pass the voting rights act in Washington and that scares the hell out of me.

  5. It seems they’ve omitted a group that might have been around for a long time on the fringe but are now as formidable as any: People who are driven by rage.

    Drug store chain CVS announced yesterday that they will be closing 900 stores over the next two years. I cannot imagine that the lone drug store in our county seat will be spared – it is poorly maintained and staffed and its inventory on the shelves is minimal. And if it does close, the citizenry will be outraged, they will blame President Biden for it, and they will demand that the government force the chain to keep their store open. They only support an individualistic world-view when there is no chance it can adversely affect them. Same goes for Farmers, who decry every government program except those of the USDA (over 1,000 of them) geared to ensure that they make money.

    Rage. It’s the new world-view.

  6. I don’t think you are an individualist, Sheila. Individualists need to come to the realization, that even the individual is better off, when all are better off. You arrived at that conclusion long ago.

  7. Sheila makes a solid point by asking what is the right question(s). When we argue our case (especially earth care) among each other, think about carrying that same argument to a large assembly of fifth graders with your grand children in the audience … then answer their questions.

  8. I would amend Sheila’s comment about the need for individualism being centered in our constitutional system. That is too abstract for the people raising the roof these day. It would be better to use the word Community. Communities are made up of individuals, who share rights. And the word “share” is the important concept.

    Another distinction that seems important to me is that between political ideology and ideological politics. The first, we all have, in the form of preferences. The second is what people use to erect barriers between them and “others.”

  9. A very good analysis, but I disagree by a shade on the question. It should be:
    What do we do when one party has devolved into extreme individualism, while the other is still a big tent?

    Remember, with Clinton, the “liberals” were told to shut up. Obama said that “progressives” mean well, but are too unrealistic to have a seat at the table. Only since the new influx of progressives in congress, along with Biden’s new positions, has the FDR wing returned to the Democratic Party, but they are not the only wing. We still have the low tax, small government, balanced budget wing. Manchin isn’t a “moderate”; he is a conservative Democrat, of which there have been many. Obama embraced them on economics.

    If the Democrats were actually the egalitarian, FDR/progressive party, much legislation would have been passed, the mid-terms would become a Democratic blow-out, and the Republican Party would be forced to rid themselves of the crazies and return to their big tent, center-right past.

    If I recall, (I was a philosophy major, but that was half a century ago), Aristotle spoke of forms of government and the degenerate forms. As I see it, American “individualism”, the myth of the lone cowboy, or Daniel Boone pioneer, degenerates into extreme selfishness, a kind of moral solipsism, if you will. Refusal to wear a mask is a perfect example of this in practice.
    Just repeat the mantra: MeMeMeMeMe MineMineMineMineMine

    Of course, even the moral solipsists cry out “Keep your government hands off of my Medicare.”
    I wish that rather than “refine” the question, I had an answer.

  10. Repeating myself: we are each born with and into what facilitates all of our experiences that determine who we become. As an example, I was born male and nothing that I have ever experienced since does not reflect that fact. My memory contains only memories colored by all of my earlier memories. Memories are additive, taken collectively not individually.

    It’s easy for me to collaborate. My memories tell me that is normally effective. That is what most humans do most of the time, but not all of the time. Sometimes we stand against others knowing that there will be winners and losers as an outcome. I can do that too but must move to those memories from my natural cultural self. There has to be motivation to switch gears for me to compete.

    If I was in the Foxhole much of the time, the memory of collaboration could be moved to my emotional trigger to compete. That’s what entertainment does. If it’s compelling it becomes a memory that’s incorporated with all of our real-world memories. It makes us happy or sad or angry or surprised or fearful.

    I don’t find the Foxhole compelling to watch or even interesting. It’s noise to me and a reminder of those things that rarely work for me. I watch CNN, and participate here, instead because they inform me of the world that is normal to me. I would have to be forced to live in the Foxhole but enjoy watching CNN and being here.

    The fact that both steam into our existence continuously, and with every experience we choose, the wedge gets pounded in further, reinforcing two Americas. Would I like anything that takes CNN away from me? Absolutely not.

    Does that mean that two civilizations occupying the same country is a feature that is immutable here and now? So far, yes.

  11. We’ve already reached the inflection point and bypassed it. The divisiveness and the inability to cooperate has driven the downward concave past the point of recovery. This happened to the Romans , to the Greeks, and Medo-Persia, as an example! Here we have one group that’s afraid to govern and another that’s incapable of governing a civil society that’s made up of many many movable parts. I hate to say it, but I brought this out when I first came on this website several years back. It doesn’t take a genius, the die has been cast throughout history, unfortunately, Humanity refuses to learn from its mistakes, probably because of mortality and the inability to project into the future. Lessons learned from previous civilizations and Powers, definitely show what happens when Society collapses and the inability to get ahead of the curve so to speak, thereby dooming their governments and their society.

    There is a point when the downward concave actually speeds up, we are in that right now although many have refused to see it. Society on this planet is going to look drastically different than it does today. More than likely, there’s going to be a unified hybrid of all societies that will be more controlling and rigid. what type of society would it be? More than likely a secularist society without any religious Dogma involved. Because they realize or will realize that great divisions come from the religious aspect of society. This will cause great great angst hence unbendable and rigid hegemonic control over the population. The connectivity of this planet makes sure that this is a global issue, a global change and not Regional! what will emerge from this pea soup? Nothing good I would venture to say.

  12. Both the pandemic and global warming force us to collaborate instead of competing. The GOP labels collaboration as socialist and Democrats label extreme individualism as Fascist. Such extreme labels do not allow us to meet in the middle and compromise. Individualist societies will have much more difficulty addressing threats to the society and the global community because they believe that competition rather than cooperation will produce better solutions.

    There is a balance between the rights of an individual and the needs of the collective society. i.e. intersections. Some people run red lights because they are in a rush. This often leads to car accidents. Everyone needs to stop at red lights to ensure the safety of one’s self and others.
    People who refuse to wear a mask and get the COVID vaccine are like those who run a red light. Their refusal has made it impossible for us to contain the pandemic. This is nothing but childish self-centeredness. Obviously they have not become mature enough to give up the childish idea of omnipotence( like the kids who think they can fly and then jump off a roof.) As a result the latest COVID surge has shown that the unvaccinated are at far greater risk of landing in an ICU and/or dying of the virus.

    What we need to address global warming and the pandemic are servant leaders from the local to federal levels who know how to motivate and inspire people to come together so that the pandemic can be contained. We need leaders that can inspire each person, each corporation to becpme willing to make some sacrifices to ensure the health and well being of the global community. We have to act locally and think globally.

    The leaders of faith traditions need to get on board with the Buddhist understanding of interdependence. They need to interpret their sacred texts in such a way that people are motivated to do what they can as individuals to promote the containment of the pandemic and the cooling of the planet.

    I predict another COVID surge which will impact the unvaccinated more than those of us who have taken the vaccine and the booster shots. I also predict that many in 3rd world nations will lose their country(island nations), their lives, and/or their livelihoods due to the inaction of first world nations to limit carbon emissions. Even first world nations must get over their national individualism and move towards global collaboration.

    I hope that none of us on this blog feel so hopeless that we are not doing what we can as individuals to stop the pandemic and global warming.

  13. When you have to push a big rock, it makes sense to get lots of help. We are all in this together!

  14. These are three of your most memorable comments ever about individualism:

    * to refuse vaccination (really, the right to endanger others);

    * the “right” to deny other Americans their equal rights….

    * selfishness masquerading as individualism.

    Wow – so powerful and so on target.

  15. When is the right to personal ignorance of the necessity for governmental duties swamp the liberal democratic ideal? Health, working conditions, theft and violence, among others, all can die by foolish adherence to “democracy”?
    I have always maintained that the right to vote should be earned, not given at birth.
    Treat everyone like we treat immigrants: learn the rules or have no say.

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