Introduction: I originally intended to devote the better part of 2012 to this thought piece. But the entry of Paul Ryan into the election cycle has added some urgency. Perhaps the Democratic Party pundits are correct that Ryan’s positions on, say, Medicare and contraception are too extreme to help elect Republicans. Even if they are correct about this election cycle, we would be wrong to underestimate the importance and power of Ryan’s ideological agenda. Even in defeat, the right may take solace, if Ryan succeeds in promoting his ultra-free market agenda. If his ideas are not taken on directly, if they are temporized with, they will continue to haunt us.
It is also curious, if not ironic, that the proclaimers of individualism are better organized than the community-minded. The right does well at bringing good numbers together for a focused, discipline campaign — whether against ‘Obama-care’ or to vote in primaries; while the left functions in a much more individualistic manner — dwelling on what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences” — operating in isolated silos, hard pressed to organize a state-wide campaign, much less a national one. There is a difference between unthinking conformism and the conscious action of those struggling for authentic change in the structure of power. We can respect and support individual difference and still find ways to act collectively. This becomes possible if we think through which differences are matters of principle, which can be navigated, and which are not of immediate import.
Ryan’s politics, while extreme and mean-spirited, have a long pedigree in American politics and culture. His combination of extreme individualism and a sometime implicit, sometime explicit, appeal to white/male supremacy runs deep in our culture, and not only among the elite. The influence of individualist ideology on the thinking of many Americans has kept the left on the defensive throughout our history. It is at our peril if we depict Ryan as merely a right wing crazy, though he is surely that, if in a ‘nice-guy’ pose. For, as I will try to show, his politics resonate with American political traditions and with average Americans (mainly, but not only whites). The deterioration of the economy will not automatically lead to progressive action or politics. If we want our nation to become a more decent and more democratic society, we need to respond with an alternative vision of equal resonance. This will include an attractive evocation of the communal and social, an analysis of the structural, but also a recognition of parts of the individualist tradition that are not only compatible with, but essential to, progressive politics.
I propose a sober confrontation with the actual obstacles that we encounter in our day-to-day work so as to develop a more solid basis for our work. I am trying to turn my frustration with the current state of my country –and its left alternative — into an overall framework which both seriously takes account of and challenges the tenacity of American individualism. Otherwise I believe there will be a continuing disconnect between the left and its presumed constituency.
I have spent my adult life as an activist of the left, trying to convince others that fundamental change is necessary and possible, that the ‘people united can never be defeated’, and that grassroots activity not only reinvigorates democracy, but is the energy that drives substantive, progressive change. The movement in the streets helped end the devastating and inhumane war in Viet Nam. The actions of hundreds of thousands of ‘ordinary people’ ended Jim Crow. Countless women’s groups undermined patriarchy and placed the rights and status of women on the national agenda. Gay activists stood up against police harassment at Stonewall and beyond. The powers that be were forced to move because of the pressure of the grassroots. New political identities were created and innovative political forms developed. The pressure of the masses was the best — and often the only — way to make significant and positive change.