As Americans shift from communitarianism to individualism, can democracy survive?

Stephen Colbert opened his post-Orlando show with a painful truth: we will all follow a script in the aftermath of the massacre. Gun control advocates will demand an end to easy access. Gun rights people will counter with their Second Amendment wheeze. The President will ask us what kind of nation we want to be. Facebook profiles will go rainbow for a moment. It’s a script we know too well and roles we already know how to play. Hit our marks, say our lines and quickly move on to campaign coverage.

Mass shootings were front-page news last week but this week something else has already caught our attention (more Trump of course). That’s the nature of our American temperament in these unholy times. We get bored and change channels. We are too busy to read emails so we use texts and we are too busy to read whole words so we substitute shorthand symbols. We spend 16 minutes a day reading magazines and (among hard-core “gamers”) 22 hours a week playing video games.

We go to the polls (half of us) when it’s a Presidential election, maybe 40 percent of us when it’s a mid-term. The youth vote lags behind – maybe 20 percent of 18-24 year olds make it to the voting booth.

But here’s where the story gives rise to my headline question: however shaky our grip on the machinery of self-government, we are responsible for the conduct of our own affairs. We get the government we deserve and that government gives us the social structures we seem to want.

Here are some markers of the American experiment in democracy as of this post-Orlando week:

  • The U.S. ranks close to the bottom of major nations on measures of childhood poverty, childhood safety and education and housing
  • The U.S. ranks no. 1 in food security – we feed ourselves well, at least most of us
  • The U.S. ranks at or near the top of gun deaths among most nations of the world
  • We are 45th in literacy (well behind North Korea, Cuba and the Ukraine)
  • We rank 65th in terms of the pay gap between men and women
  • Our average ratio of CEO pay to lowest-paid worker is 204-to-one
  • The health of our people ranks at the bottom of 15 major nations
  • Our spending on health care outpaces every other major nation
  • We have had 43 Presidents of the U.S. and have assassinated four of them
  • We spend more on defense than the next seven countries combined

There are two things about our experiment that trouble me and deserve some attention. The first, the underlying root of this malaise, is how much less we care for and care about each other than we used to. There’s been a marked decline in empathy among college students (documented by many studies over the past decade).

In 1985, Bellah identified the shift to individualism and away from communitarianism in “Habits of the Heart.” The internet and mobile devices play a part in this, but so too does the emergence of the “gig economy” and the popular notion of individual autonomy. We aren’t like our founders, we don’t barter and share and look out for our neighbors. Instead we turn to the charitable sector to “take care of people.”

Which gives rise to the second worry. This turning away from inter-dependence allows us to elect public officials who have been consistently unwilling or unable to move the government in a more caring, more humane direction.

It’s not that we don’t have the money, it’s that we don’t want to spend enough of it on food, shelter, clean water, public safety and the like. The lion’s share of our Federal budget is mandatory spending, including Social Security, Medicare, food stamps and unemployment – the main strands of the safety net but not spending that elevates and nourishes people.

The rest of our budget is discretionary spending, decided by our Congress. The defense establishment gets more than half of that budget. Defense spending is 7-9 times larger than education… 9-10 times larger than housing and community development… 50 times larger than food and nutrition.

If public spending truly reflects public priorities, then we are much more supportive of billion-dollar weapons systems than we are lead-free drinking water. And we express our priorities through the people we elect to make our decisions.

Churchill said “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” I’m not ready to argue against our foundational system, but I am ready to remind us of what Charlie Chaplin said:

“Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical; our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.”

This is written in the hope that we can find our way back to kindness.


  1. I would think that the Word is more correctly > “Apathy”… a lack of interest in anything that does not impact on our personal comfort…. until it does!!! Very astute article.

  2. The word is “anomie”. We lack a shared commitment to make things different as in better. There is a lack of internal moral leadership. Hard to quantify any of this.

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