America is perceived as the land of hope, a platform of equal opportunity for the pursuit of happiness, with its amalgamation of several shaping ideologies and cultures. I perceive Americans as souls with ignited individualism, with an enchanting spark of solidarity.
Individualism is the key ideology shaping American politics, economy, and society. As explained by Morone and Kersh in “By The People,” “Individualism is the idea that individuals, not the society or the community or the government, are responsible for their own well-being.” Individualism is embedded in the heart of the United States. Citizens fought a challenging battle for years to win the Family and Medical Leave Act. The act, established after years of struggle by its advocates, directed employers with more than fifty employees to grant up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave for pregnancy, adoption, illness, or military service. However, that is only a fragment of the ideology. The perception of society diverges in two ways. Society could be perceived as a single community, or an assemblage of individuals.
Every nation includes both, however government policies and politics lay one perception as their foundation for their governing apparatus. According to the World Values Survey, compared to other nations such as Japan, China, Germany and Sweden, Americans have an exceptionally strong belief that people should take more responsibility for themselves. They focus on maintaining their individual freedom with more passion, rather than compassion for the poor. Other countries that emphasize community well-being are called “social democrats.” They perceive the government as an integral resource of mutual assistance through insurance, retirement benefits, unemployment packages and beyond. However, in exchange, every benefit comes with a cost.
Citizens of these countries pay extensive taxes to their government. This results as an obstacle for citizens and corporations to accumulate too much wealth, and a boon as a welfare state, reducing the likelihood of individuals suffering the poison of poverty. Social democracies are consolidated in solidarity. Scholars’ research displays that homogeneous societies exhibit deeper and higher rates of solidarity than diverse societies like the United States. Americans value limited government (less government regulation and control in political, economic and social aspects, which upholds their pillar of individualism) where each person is responsible for propagating their own interest and welfare, not the community or even government. Americans value individualism in politics and governing apparatus more than any other nation.
Individualism is deeply rooted in America’s economy as well. It is fueled by individuals pursuing their own interests. It propagates for lower taxes to incentivize private entrepreneurship, rather than higher taxes being distributed to aid the poor. This facilitates the growth of high net worth American individuals and contributes towards the nation’s GDP. Accumulating and growing wealth further weighs more than eliminating the economic inequality that exists in society.
Individualism reflects upon the American contemporary society, with the current COVID-19 crisis serving as evidence. Despite its detrimental impacts targeting the elderly and individuals with underlying health conditions, there is a colossal debate around wearing masks in public. Although masks have been strongly encouraged and is a verified measure by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), multiple Americans view it as a threat challenging their freedom and ideologies of individualism. Richardson highlights this negligence towards society, using the president, Donald Trump, as her tool in the “Letters From An American,” October 3rd issue: “He has ridiculed the idea of wearing masks, and refused to follow the safety protocols health experts recommended.” Due to his negligence, his wife and innumerable members of the White House tested positive for the coronavirus and suffered physical and mental impacts. In addition, his strategy of downplaying the coronavirus to pursue his own political interests and agenda directly impacted the loss of several lives across the nation. However, every deep-rooted ideology has a history to navigate. The diverging paths of golden opportunity and social conflict sowed the seed for the individualism ignited within America and its citizens today.
America was perceived as the “golden opportunity.” For centuries, Asians and Europeans spent their lives working as peasants and serfs diligently on land controlled by their rulers. Prospects of getting ahead through immense hard work and perseverance were very bleak. Contrastingly, America beamed rays of hope. Hard work combined with a hint of luck could serve an individual a pathway to success in America. Early settlers set their image and stories of robust, rugged individuals on the western frontier echoing across the globe. A pathway could be paved through hard work, not the government. However, there are subtle myths hidden in the stories. Brave individualism was not the nucleus of frontier life; communities were. Settlers could not construct barns or churches without the help of their benevolent neighbors. However, the image of toughened individuals on the frontier echoes through American culture and politics. There was a foundational truth embedded to it as well—scarcely has any society offered the ray of hope and platform of opportunity to gain success the way America has.
The second divergent root of individualism leads to social conflict. America is an amalgamation of infinite diverse cultures and ethnicities. In addition, America’s history by the 1860s was tainted by slavery, housing over four million black slaves. America developed a deep divide running through its core. By the 1830s, another divide was ingrained in America’s core immigrants. They fled their nations, but carried along their diverse cultures, languages and traditions.
Each generation of immigrants contributed towards the discordance. The arrival of Irish Catholic immigrants by the 1830s and 1840s was perceived as absurd by the English Protestants as they had immigrated a century earlier. They were perceived as illegitimate due to their allegiance to a foreign pope and their lack of capacity to uphold American values. New immigrants flooded in 50 years later—Italians, Poles, and Chinese. Similarly, they too were perceived as a threat by the Irish who had just settled in. Every few years more immigrants flooded in to bask in America’s beam of hope that was shadowed in their homelands. However, this came at the cost of America’s solidarity. The deep divisions running through America’s core made solidarity an arduous feeling to harbor among its diverse people. Unmatched opportunity for economic success and social discord are the deep divergent roots of American individualism persistent today.
Despite American souls being ignited with individualism, there is a strong spark of solidarity glittering within. America is a melting pot of different cultures. However, this only adds flavor and spice, preparing an exquisite gourmet delicacy—that only America could serve! The United States takes care of its neighbors and offers several government programs: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Housing Assistance, Social Security, and even stimulus checks amid the COVID-19 crisis and its severe economic impacts. All these benefits offered by government programs aid the lives of people they do not know and do not have any relational obligations towards them. The United States may have profound divisions running through its heart, but time certainly helps fade this tainted divide. Today, America is home to innumerable children, and grandchildren of immigrants who fled their nations several years ago, and will serve as a glistering beam of hope to their future children as well.
As an Indian citizen and Permanent Resident of the United States, the amalgamation of several cultures prevalent in America captivated me in a myriad of ways. I was enthralled to dive into the vibrant diversity and pave my way through hard work and perseverance—which is often undervalued in my home country. America has bestowed me with educational opportunities such as scholarships and grants, and the most important of all—the spark of solidarity within these American souls of professors and peers who graciously embrace me as a part of their community.
As we navigate through the labyrinth of American history, the ignited individualism in American souls often prevails over the spark of solidarity that flickers erratically. Individualism is a robust ideology supported by its pillars of limited government, faith in economic markets, and liberty, ingrained in America’s political, economic, and social systems. However, no one can put out the everlasting spark of solidarity that exists within Americans and America. Martin Luther King aptly embodies this spark, “I am inevitably my brother’s keeper because I am my brother’s brother.” I believe our generation has the capacity to make America’s spark of solidarity shine brighter, serving as a beacon of hope across the nation.