Yesterday, I argued that the American mythos of the “rugged individual” who pulled himself up by his bootstraps to become a success was a fiction.
In actuality, the so-called rugged individuals were profoundly social entities, concerned with promoting the well-being of their families, their communities, and the smaller community organizations to which they belonged. I now wish to examine the difference between this concern for society and liberal collectivism, and an entity that is arising along with Generation Y: the unrugged individual.
Subsidiarity and Community
What is the difference, then, between this lived experience of Americans as individuals focused on their families and societies, and the leftist conception of community that conservatives so despise? I believe the answer can be found in the Catholic concept of subsidiarity.
The great success stories of American life had social connections that were primarily based in the family, then their churches, then private civic organizations, then in local governments, then in state governments, and then lastly in the federal government. This roughly follows the order of subsidiarity as laid out in another context by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Quadragesimo anno. The Christian should certainly have concern for all mankind, but it is natural that he is most inclined towards striving for the common good within social and political communities proper to himself, beginning with the foundational “society” of the family.
The modern left, on the other hand, promotes an agenda that is destructive of the family, and promotes a reliance on the federal government. We have seen how the Great Society programs of Lyndon Johnson have led to the complete dissolution of the African American (or really, any lower socioeconomic/inner city) family. Many of the women and children of inner-city areas are utterly reliant on government programs and handouts for their survival, rather than on husbands and fathers (who are all but vanishing) or even upon local charitable organizations. The modern mania for same-sex marriage, which promotes a vision of sexuality based entirely on self-gratification rather than on child- and family-raising, only furthers this trend.
Furthermore, in the collectivist hell of the inner cities, you don’t see thriving private civic associations. People on welfare aren’t exactly lining up to join book clubs or volunteer for charitable organizations. The churches are losing their influence and strength, as more and more individuals in the inner cities cease going to churches and cease identifying as Christian.
The lack of social bonds can even be seen in bourgeois, middle-class America. The smaller, private civic entities that used to thrive in our country are dying out. Most Rotary and Knights of Columbus chapters are populated overwhelmingly by elderly men, and are no longer the hubs of community life they were 30 or 40 years ago. The average American, perhaps thanks to television and the internet, is seemingly withdrawing more and more within himself, his own home, his own individual setting. Smaller, neighborhood churches with high congregational participation in church life are dying; enormous mega-churches, where individuals are anonymous and participation is low, are the norm.
The Unrugged Individualist: Generation Y
The climax of this trend can be seen in a new, invidious form of genuine Rousseau-esque individualism that is creeping its way into American culture through Generation Y. Thanks to the complete penetration of the internet and television into our homes, the economic downturn, a lack of appreciation for marriage (a result of 50 years of contraception and no-fault divorce), the average 25-year-old is perhaps a more radically “individual” entity than any we’ve ever seen.
Because he views human sexuality as primarily focused on pleasure, he engages in a series of impermanent sexual relationships that are necessarily self-centered. Because of his student loan debt, he cannot get married; because of his destroyed sense of the value of marriage, he wonders whether he ever should. The idea of joining a local civic organization seems completely bizarre to him; why do that when you can watch another movie on Netflix or go to a bar? His TV is dotted with heroes and anti-heroes who typify this kind of Rousseau-like individualism: Tony Soprano, Jimmy McNulty, Walter White, Don Draper, etc. Is it any shock that these people support the selfishness of abortion or the self-centeredness of gay marriage?
And yet, many Gen Y’ers (myself included) are radically dependent people. We have lived off the largesse of our Baby Boomer parents; we have grown up knowing nothing of need, want, strife, war (with actual soldiers or their families and friends excepted), or poverty. So to whom do we turn for our assistance once we are on our own and times are tough? Well, in 2008 and 2012, my generation turned to the man who promised us the most hope and change, the man who offers the most in handouts and bailouts—he is the one who gets our vote, because maybe the federal government can solve our problems for us.
What Conservatives Should Fear
I don’t think the rugged individual really exists, nor that he is what helped to build up this country. Social contract theory may have had a decisive role in the political theory underlying our founding, but a Thomist sense of man’s relationship to society was what animated the best and brightest who helped make America great. Conservatives should wake up to the true danger: the unrugged individualist, who despises the basic fabric of communal life and yet looks to the federal government for salvation.
To close, I wanted to compare the recommendations that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have given to college graduates. Obama has encouraged young people to join Americorps or the Peace Corps, federal government-funded projects for community service (wherein young people tend to serve communities other than their own). Mitt Romney, in his 2013 commencement address to the graduates of Southern Virginia University, encouraged young people to get married and start having kids. Romney isn’t perfect by any stretch, but his vision of what would be best for young people and for America was far more perceptive in this regard.
This essay first appeared on Gerardi's blog, Christifidelis Laicus, on September 3 and is posted with permission.