Balancing Individualism and Societal Independence

Balancing Individualism and Societal Independence November 18, 2012

Almost two weeks ago, I stayed up late to hear Obama’s victory speech. I was tired and Bobby had just woken up so I didn’t listen as well as I might have, but something right at the beginning made an impression on me.

Tonight, more than 200 years after a former colony won the right to determine its own destiny, the task of perfecting our union moves forward.

It moves forward because of you. It moves forward because you reaffirmed the spirit that has triumphed over war and depression, the spirit that has lifted this country from the depths of despair to the great heights of hope, the belief that while each of us will pursue our own individual dreams, we are an American family and we rise or fall together as one nation and as one people.

When I heard these lines, I got warm fuzzies inside. “The belief that while each of us will pursue our own individual dreams, we are an American family and we rise or fall together as one nation and as one people.” This line encapsulates what I see as the key difference between the Democrats and the Republicans.

We have two traditions in this country, a tradition of individualism and a tradition of societal interdependence. Throughout our history the two traditions have danced in tandem, one greater, one lesser, and then the reverse. Today, Republicans embrace the former at the expense of the latter while Democrats attempt to balance the two.

I recently put a counterfactual to a friend: If giving up our right to own guns would result in the end of all gun violence, would you be okay with that? I personally would give up my right to own guns in a heartbeat if it meant the end of gun violence. I’m not sure, though, that the Republican party would be okay with that. In fact, I think they wouldn’t. The Republicans I know tend to see individual rights as more important than basically anything else. This is part of what goes into their opposition to things like universal healthcare.

Of course, there is also a much larger discussion regarding what “individual rights” entail and the influence of the Christian Right on the Republican party. It’s hard to square opposition to women’s reproductive rights or opposition to the rights of gay people to marry or adopt with the Republican party’s emphasis on “individual rights.” There is also a heavy emphasis on blind patriotism and unquestioning loyalty in the Republican party that the Democratic party generally avoids. But the point I’m trying to make here has to do with the Republican party’s rhetoric of individual rights and its refusal to acknowledge even the existence of things like a social contract.

Against this background, I honestly think that what I appreciate most about the Democratic party is the willingness to see the importance of both individual rights and greater societal good, and it’s desire to find a way to balance the two. And Obama’s speech served as a reminder of that.

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