In Part 1 of this series of posts to answer the above question, I began with individualism as one of three core values that are embedded in the American character. The others are equal opportunity and community. These values originated before and after the colonies became the United States of America. Buried within these values are notions of “success” and “failure” that have evolved over the past two centuries. They are with us today. And, most important, they are in conflict with one another. In this post, I describe the latter two values.
The value of equal opportunity
To Americans each individual deserves an equal shot at success. Running a race to win prizes has to place everyone at the same starting line ready to run. Sure, the world is competitive and there will be winners and losers but the abiding belief is that each individual can make it, i.e., succeed, if he or she sticks to their goals, put in the hours, have the freedom to choose and are treated fairly.
In 1940, Ralph Bunche, a political scientist and subsequently the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Prize, wrote:
Every man in the street, white, black, red, or yellow, knows that this ‘the land of the free,’ the ‘land of opportunity,’ the ‘cradle of liberty,’ the ‘home of democracy,’ that the American flag symbolizes the ‘equality of all men’ and guarantees to us all ‘the protection of life, liberty and prosperity,’ freedom of speech, freedom of religion and racial tolerance.
For much of the nation’s history, however, this value was meant for white men. Ethnic and racial groups and women were considered unfit to run in that equal opportunity race and were banned until the Civil War and social and political movements in the late-19th and 20th centuries slowly allowed the excluded to join the starting line.
Disregarded individuals and groups believed in the American Creed to the point of protesting again and again when they could not fully participate in political and economic opportunities extended to white men. The women’s suffrage movement in the 19th century culminated in the passage of the 19th amendment (1920) to the U.S. Constitution allowing women to vote. The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s led to U.S. Supreme Court decisions banning segregated schools, federal laws extending civil rights to blacks in public accommodations, and the end of restrictions on who can and cannot vote. Expanded civil rights spread to Latinos and other ethnic groups, people with disabilities, and within the past decade to gay individuals.
Although much less than in earlier decades, protests continue into the 21st century (e.g., Black Lives Matter; discrimination and violence against transgender individuals). Yet the belief that individual choice and freedom entails the right to discriminate against (and do violence to) those with different skin color, ethnicity, gender, disability, and sexual orientation underscores that tension that straddles American values of equal opportunity and individualism.
Yet individuals who value equal opportunity belong to communities. No amount of self-reliance can add up to a full life. Americans look out for family, compete in a market-based economy, and need others to look out for them when they stumble and need help. Solidarity with others gives meaning to how individuals live and what they live for.
Family, religious, workplace, neighborhood and freely chosen communities create networks of interdependence that give individual lives social and emotional meaning beyond the paycheck and 4-bedroom, 3-bathroom, two garage house. That meaning derived from belonging to a community requires some degree of conformity to group wishes and that, of course, means rubbing against individual choice and self-interest.
From family clubs and religious congregations to Rotary clubs to parent/teacher associations, to sandlot sports and quilt-knitting groups, Americans have created networks of associations in their communities. Without interdependence and involvement in one or more communities, individuals fail to gain a sense of belonging to something greater than me-me-me or paychecks or vacation cottages. Communities mean a “we-ness.” The tradeoff is, of course, conforming to the values of the groups one joins and making compromises with the individualism each American relishes.
Reducing the constant tension in the culture between the value of individual action and the value of conforming in ideas and behavior to what the group or community desires. has often meant that Americans, past and present, shuttle back-and-forth between pride in acting individually and complying with desires of community in which they live.
Over the past two centuries, each of these values have risen to the surface and been enshrined as a public good. Before the Great Depression of the 1930s, it was “rugged individualism.” During the 1960s with the Civil Rights Movement and the birth of collectives, it was joining a movement seeking social justice, belonging to groups protesting war and racism, and, yes, forming communes. And now libertarians who seek deregulation and cherishing individual rights have become a political force. Keeping both individualism and community in sight, while attending to the fairness of equal opportunity continues to challenge a nation split between all stripes of political conservatives and liberals.
Core values of individualism, community, and equal opportunity form the DNA of the American character spreading its genes throughout the culture since the colonial era. But exactly how do these values spread across a society and become the glue that holds the American character together?
Part 3 answers that question.