RETREAT FROM SOCIETY: The End of Our Republic

What is the logical outcome of accepting Ronald Reagan’s dictum: “Government is the problem”? The outcome must be to avoid attending to and participating in government functions and programs, lest you yourself become part of the problem.

Following this logic has been difficult for faithful Republicans, because there is much that they want government to do: for example, suppress the votes of minorities, limit if not abrogate the reproductive rights of women, gerrymander congressional districts to assure Republican victories, protect guns, and curb immigration.

Republicans also have to stay active politically, because if they don’t, then Democrats can gain control. For Republicans, the results would be catastrophic. Democrats want to fight climate change and to do so through massive government programs. Democrats want to mitigate injustice by ending private prisons, ending mass incarceration, and fighting voter suppression. Democrats seek controls on gun use and ownership. They oppose income inequality, fight against misogyny, and want to restore public education. They want to use legislation and enforcement to help with all of that. Both require government.

The ideal world for Republicans is one where they can honor Saint Reagan and shrink government as much as possible, while still using that limited government to provide a strong military, continue cutting taxes, seat retrograde judges who define a zygote as a baby, and protect the nation against minorities, immigrants, and Democrats. The heart of that ideal world is found for Republicans in rural America.

Monica Potts was raised in rural Van Buren County, Arkansas. After 20 years on the East Coast, she returned to write a book about the town where she grew up—Clinton, Arkansas. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/12/opinion/letters/trump-rural-america.html

People in Clinton, she reports, “think life has taken a turn for the worse.” We have some sense why. Cable news and the Internet connect us to much of the country and the world that we didn’t know about before. Though we love keeping in touch with our kin and with like-minded people, we are disgusted when hearing about and seeing the lives and values of those with divergent views, even if they live down the street or next door.  As a result, observes Potts of the people in Van Buren County, they “retreat from community life and concentrate on taking care of themselves and their own families.”

This attitude might strike these citizens as sensible in a period of national turmoil and strife, when Democrats conspire against the president and seek to remove him from office. Meanwhile Democrats themselves get away with awful crimes, such as using private email servers or using their last names to secure cushy jobs.

But a retreat from community necessarily heralds the demise of community. As Potts also observes: “It’s an attitude that is against taxes, immigrants and government, but also against helping your neighbor.”

Against helping your neighbor? It’s one thing to oppose government, even at the local level. But turning your back on your neighbor is to lose some portion of your humanity. It’s a selfish attitude and reflects perhaps the zenith or nadir, depending on your perspective, of American individualism—that myth of the rugged, go-it-alone solitary figure carving out a life on his own.  This selfish attitude, however, is not just individualism. It’s hyper-individualism.

Over 180 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville coined the term “individualism.” A foreigner who spent less than a year in America, Tocqueville may be our democracy’s greatest expositor. He used the term “individualism” to describe a phenomenon he found prevalent in 19th-century America: Persons in society deserted our democracy by isolating themselves from the mass of fellow citizens. They withdrew into a small circle of family and close friends. Such circles became each person’s society, as the larger society was left to look after itself.

This individualism seems to be what Potts herself observed happening in rural Arkansas today. But what she observed is worse. Tocqueville went on to differentiate “individuals” from “egoists.” Where individuals think about their entire circle, egoists think only in terms of their individual selves. Individualism, wrote Tocqueville, can slide into egoism or selfishness, into what I’ve called “hyper-individualism.” That is what Potts observed happening in Arkansas, and it seems to be a product of increasing conservatism.

Potts describes this hyper-individualistic attitude: “The people left in rural areas are more and more conservative, and convinced that the only way to get things done is to do them yourself.” As she says, they resent and resist paying taxes, supporting public programs and projects, and helping one another. They are even resentful of paying for public services that their families and they themselves want to use.

When hyper-individualism like this prevails, then public life is dead. Hyper-individualism spins a death spiral for our nation. Democratic candidates for president roll out programs and policies to use federal taxes for the benefit of all Americans. But when conservative rural America doesn’t care about those benefits and, indeed, as Potts reports, views with disdain “anyone who is trying to increase government spending, especially to help other people,” then the situation seems hopeless, and the spinning spiral will only pick up speed.

Hyper-individualism is now the air we breathe. That air permeates two separate realities. If you think that the idea of “two separate realities” is an exaggeration, just listen, for example, to Republicans deny human-generated climate change as the seas continue to rise and as super-charged fires, floods, rainstorms, and hurricanes devastate the planet; just listen to Republicans throughout the red states spin fantasies about voter fraud occurring throughout the country, when no facts exist to support their assertions; just watch as the Republican-led Department of Justice undertakes an investigation fueled by unfounded right-wing media conspiracies into whether it was Russia who interfered in the 2016 election, when all U.S. intelligence agencies, the Senate Intelligence Committee, and the intelligence agencies of several allies have concluded beyond doubt that it was Russia; just watch Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani star in a Republican phantasmagoria in which Ukraine’s anti-corruption personnel and organizations are transformed into enemies of justice and of President Trump; or just listen to Trump himself deny that the phone call he made to Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky—for which we have a partial transcript, released by the White House—is the phone call he made.

The election of Donald Trump has stripped away the veneer that hid the Republican Party’s deep cynicism about government, its deep objection to cultural change, its venality in the ruthless pursuit of wealth and power, and its frequent cruelty toward immigrants, the poor, females, and people of color.

Certainly rural voters with hyper-individualistic attitudes like the residents of Clinton, Arkansas, are not going to stop supporting Trump, no matter how scandalous his actions and lawless his administration. Democrats can’t and won’t reach them, regardless of the policies. The issue, then, is whether in reaching our hands out to rural and Republican America, their grip will pull us into hyper-individualism as well.

Of course, Democrats have a version of individualism. Many of them, like most Republicans, believe the myth of the rugged individual pulling himself up by his bootstraps. Except, nobody alone makes the straps, the boots, the socks that go into the boots, or the pants that go over them. Nobody alone carves out and finishes the road the rugged individual is walking down.

But the Democrats’ version of individualism saves itself from hyper-individualism by making room beyond the sub-society of family and friends for an active government to help fulfill the needs of others, even the needs of strangers. The rural Republican conservative response, as Potts documents, is, instead, to preserve individual freedom by retreating from society and finding respite only in oneself.

Self-Interest Rightly Understood

Tocqueville offered an antidote to individualism in the form of something he called “self-interest rightly understood.” Because of their version of individualism that avoids hyper-individualism, only Democrats seem able to benefit from the antidote.

Tocqueville observed in America that accomplishing anything, even personal ambitions, requires the aid of others.  In short, it is in one’s own interest to enlist the help of others; self-interests are often tied not just to others’ interests, but to public interests as well.

“Self-interest rightly understood” is the insight that to get what I want requires cooperating and participating with others. That is civic engagement, and it necessarily brings us out of ourselves, out of our individualism.

Democracy is the hothouse for activating Tocqueville’s self-interest rightly understood. John Dewey, America’s great philosopher, thought of democracy as more than a form of government. It was, for him, “a mode of associated living…the extension in space of the number of individuals who participate in an interest so that each has to refer his own action to that of others to give point and direction to his own…” [Democracy and Education, 1916, p. 101].

When citizens manage their own affairs with clear eyes, as Tocqueville and Dewey noted, then they develop an interest in the public welfare.  They see that cooperating with and enlisting others is the only way to move forward and succeed with one’s own enterprises. Cooperation then becomes an essential part of their self-interest.

Of course, the hyper-individualism attitude displayed by Potts’s rural residents is not one conducive to democratic participation, since those residents reject even the public programs that help them. For them, for Trump, and for his Republicans the focus is not on self-interest rightly understood, which, if followed, would actually help them achieve what they think they can only do in isolation.  No. Their focus is on selfish interests, which will result only in further isolation.

Trump’s pursuit of interests is always on his terms and his alone. His actions don’t lift all boats. Trump’s actions are simply to give or get him what he wants, consequences for others be damned. Want a bigger hotel in Istanbul? Then sell out our allies the Kurds. Perhaps this selfishness is even something that rural Republican hyper-individualists admire.

But this kind of selfishness will drag the rest of us down, too. Following Saint Reagan’s dictum leads inexorably to the end of shared civic ideals and democratic values. It leads inexorably to the end of the republic.

You can’t bring along people who refuse to adapt or come along. Why would you want to? It is patronizing to suggest that they don’t know what is good for them or what values they truly hold. So let’s honor those rural Republicans in the red states by leaving them to those deeply held and proudly worn values that they think are good.  Let us honor their desire for retreat, isolation, and hyper-individualism for which there appears no ready antidote.

It’s time to ordain and establish a blue-state constitution, either through a convention or secession.

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