The American Hyper-Focus on Individualism Makes Us Poorer, Sicker, and Sadder

Lambert: I agree that “the sociological imagination” should be cultivated. I am so tired of narratives focused on individuals!

By Rod Graham, Associate Professor of Sociology at Old Dominion University, and a writer and podcaster. Originally published at Alternet.

It is rather easy to lament the state of our country right now.

We are not wealthy. The US economy, despite the pandemic, has been doing reasonably well overall. However, income inequality is at its highest in 50 years. We are richer in the aggregate, but most of the gains have gone to upper-class families. The wealth gap is even starker, with upper-income families possessing 75 times as much wealth as lower-income families. In 1983, that ratio stood at 28.

We are not healthy. Around 42 percent of our country is obese. The Obama administration passed legislation to fight the opioid epidemic. It has only gotten worse, with New York needing to open overdose prevention centers. Before the pandemic, the life expectancy for white males was declining, with what has been termed “deaths of despair.”

We are not happy. We’re still in the middle of a national referendum on racism. Racial minorities are urging us to atone for historical injustices and address contemporary forms of racism. Trans persons have quickly gained visibility, and many people are unsettled. Some are downright fearful. Powered by disinformation and conspiracy theories, large portions of the right are convinced white students are being taught to hate themselves by teachers, Donald Trump won the election, and COVID was created in a lab for biological warfare.

What can be done?

A popular argument is to fault the left. In particular, that the progressive, social justice-oriented “woke” wing of the left is to blame for many of our nation’s ills. Because of this group, we are discarding our commitment to reason and rationality, individual responsibility and equal rights. Because of this group, we are putting emotional “lived experiences” and group identity politics in their place.

A shift back to focusing on individual choice and personal responsibility will be the remedy, we’re told. Instead of Americans asking a nanny state for assistance, they should commit to personal changes in culture and character. Moreover, the purpose of government is to ensure individual equality under the law, not identify groups that may have been discriminated against, and then compound this mistake by discriminating against another group. A government that attempts to correct for vague “systemic” causes of racial or gender inequality will only interfere with meritocracy. This is unfair to people who had nothing to do with whatever phantom process scholars and activists have supposedly identified.

If we make this change, away from social justice “wokism” and towards the classical liberal values that made America a great country, the logic goes, we will be wealthier, healthier and happier.

Personal Troubles and Public Issues

I agree with the diagnosis. I do not agree with the remedy. To be sure, we need liberal values for our democratic, capitalist society to function. But I do not detect any real decline in those values. If anything, social justice movements are trying to extend rights to more individuals. And even if we had strayed away from those values, strengthening them would not address the issues I outlined above.

Instead, these social problems continue to plague us because of a lack of imagination – a sociological imagination. If anyone has taken a sociology class in the last several decades and remembered it, you may have heard this idea tossed about. It originated with one of the most influential sociologists of the 20th century, C. Wright Mills.

For Mills, the sociological imagination begins with distinguishing between the “the personal troubles of milieu” and “the public issues of social structure.” An example is unemployment. If only one woman is unemployed, we must look at that woman’s character or skills.

However, “when in a nation of 50 million employees, 15 million men are unemployed, that is an issue, and we may not hope to find its solution within the range of opportunities open to any one individual. The very structure of opportunities has collapsed. Both the correct statement of the problem and the range of possible solutions require us to consider the economic and political institutions of the society, and not merely the personal situation and character of a scatter of individuals.”

Mills’ sociological imagination is about properly identifying the social problem – that our institutions, laws and policies are at fault – and suggesting appropriate, evidence-based solutions.

Our wealth, health and happiness problems are not individual personal troubles that can be resolved by exhorting people to think or act differently. People’s thoughts and actions occur within a given context, and we need to have more conversations about how we can change that context. This is what we are missing as a nation.

This is the remedy.

A New Year’s Resolution for Progressives

Many Americans see the problems we have in society as being about the individual and character. If you don’t have money, you didn’t work hard enough. If you are unhealthy or addicted to drugs, put the needle down, put on a pair of sweats and go for a run. If you are queer or Black, stop worrying about your group identity and focus more on personal achievement. What is this “herd immunity” these folks on CNN speak about? If you think you will get sick from the covid, take personal responsibility, and stay in your house.

This hyper-focus on the individual makes us poorer, sicker and sadder.

We should pay attention to how institutions, laws and policies create problems. We should look at our tax structure and minimum wage laws to understand wealth and income inequality. Drug and alcohol abuse are symptoms of a society failing to meet the needs of its citizens, not personal moral failings. We need to lean into discussions about systemic racism and institutional discrimination. Instead of looking at individual Trump supporters as somehow being uniquely misinformed or prone to manipulation, we need to take stock of our fragmented media environment and citizens’ lack of trust in journalists.

Let’s resolve to use our sociological imaginations more in 2022.

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This entry was posted in Free markets and their discontents, Guest Post, Income disparity, Politics, Social values, The destruction of the middle class on by .

About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. KD

    The author would be more persuasive if there was even a minimal attempt to connect racial protests over policing, backlash over CRT and the trans movement to effective efforts to fight income inequality and drug abuse. Its almost like wealthy donors and corporations prefer symbolic hand-outs to boutique identity groups over actually doing something about the economy, and perhaps know more than the author about how politics works in the real world.

    1. Burke

      “We’re still in the middle of a national referendum on racism”

      Who is “We” Kemosabe?
      Most white people, and many black people, don’t give a shit about a tiny shrieking minority creating this civic division which just distracts from the real injustice: Tens of trillions of ill gotten gains and a near complete takeover of our economy.

      Overheard a conversation between a white SJW college age and mature man in a Starbucks:
      “What about redlining and injustices that African Americans have suffered for generations!?”

      “Not my problem. I don’t give a shit.” Damn, that was refreshing honesty.

      If you want to ride on the freeway with someone only looking in the rear view mirror, you go ahead, and keep focusing on the distant past.

  2. DJG, Reality Czar

    I keep this quote around to remind me of what the “liberal values” are:

    “Hope is a theological virtue. When Kant states that one of the three great problems of philosophy is “What must I hope for?,” he engages the problem of religion with that question. Yet secular society holds to other virtues: rigor in our criticism, a methodical doubt, moderation, not engaging in abuse of power, tolerance, respect for the ideas of other people, in short, worldly and civic virtues.” (from De Senectute, Einaudi, Turin 1996)

    I’m not sure that we should even be worried about happiness or the “pursuit of happiness.” That strikes me as hope as a theological virtue. But I think that the shriveled secular society in the U S of A, hemmed in by decadent American religion and short-sighted U.S. capitalism, has to be renewed. Without much concern for happiness or hope. The commonweal matters more.

    1. KT

      As you must know, the original philosophical roots during the enlightenment of the phrase “pursuit of happiness” was the “pursuit of property”. There was even an earlier draft of the Declaration of Independence that included this original formulation. This was because the “rights of man” were seen in opposition to the arbitrary “rights of Kings”. One’s happiness was seen as bound up with one’s private ownership of property, in opposition to the hereditary rights of Kings whose ownership came through god. That is what the capitalists revolutions were about. That’s where the obsession over individual rights and freedoms came from. Of course the rights of individual ownership of property and happiness came to include slavery, and even after the elimination of chattel slavery, the form of wage slavery we suffer under today, among other things. It brings a different perspective to our use of words like “freedom” and “happiness”, grounds it in actual history, as opposed to the usual idealization of such concepts.

  3. Clark Landwehr

    Americans are taught happiness = pleasure. From cradle to grave. In reality happiness is the opposite of pleasure.

    1. Hemanth Kumar

      Agree Americans equate happiness with pleasure. IMHO, the goal of “pursuit of happiness” is vague, subjective and not an ideal goal. Aim to live a well-balanced life as a member of family and a member of community and not as an individual (“I, Me, Mine”), and you will be happy. Happiness is a by-product, not the main goal.

      As a well-wisher of America, I knew Americans were not like this in earlier generations. They began changing only from 1970s. Sad, very sad, to see today’s America.

      1. Bruno

        “IMHO, the goal of “pursuit of happiness” is vague, subjective and not an ideal goal.”

        “Ja renn nur nach dem Gluck
        doch renne nicht zu sehr!
        Denn alle rennen nach dem Gluck
        das Gluck rennt…hinterher.”

        [Yeah, pursue happiness, but don’t pursue it too zealously. While everyone is running after happiness, its just running along behind them]

    2. Susan the other

      “…happiness is the opposite of pleasure.” Mmmm, I’m having a hard time fitting this into my lexicon.

      1. Susan the other

        But on the other hand I can grok how “individualism” is the opposite of “opportunity.”

  4. Burritonomics

    A bit of an aside – near the end of the article, the author says “We need to lean into discussions…”

    I see this “lean into” phrase constantly…I do not recall seeing it pre-pandemic. I wonder where/when this usage took hold.

    1. Jokerstein

      It’s not a product of the pandemic – it’s been used in the companies I have worked at since at least 2015, typically in conversations about diversity/equity/inclusivity/unconscious bias, etc.

      I **THINK** it means to lean in to a discussion circle, rather than remain aloof on the boundaries.

      1. Carla

        I believe Sheryl Sandburg and Facebook either coined or at least “ubiquitized” the “lean in” phrase. She wrote a book and started a web site with that unfortunate title.

    2. LaRuse

      I think “lean in” roughly translates to “be engaged.” My boss’s boss uses the phrase all the time (high up corporate inhouse counsel) and she expects her legal department to “lean in” with our business partners. I mentally translate it as “get engaged and active” but also recognize it as corporate ladder speak. It’s a signal that you’re reading the “right” books.

    3. dkallem

      FWIW, this began for us as a bit of ad hoc ski instruction, because leaning forward into a ski turn puts your body into the correct position to make the turn, where the perhaps more natural inclination to “sit back” can prevent you from being in control and mastering the situation (fearfully reacting to the steepness, the neophyte skier pulls back, moving the weight on the edges from the center arc of the ski back to the much stiffer tails).

      Then, over the years, we cheaply analogized that into other life situations. Lean into your work, for instance. Sort of a don’t let your fears keep you from doing your best bit of rah-rah.

  5. steve

    “We should pay attention to how institutions, laws and policies create problems.”

    May I suggest Bill Clinton’s Telecommunications Act of 1996.

    Until something is done to the narrative machine, the mouthpieces of the powerful, man will continue being driven insane and distracted to confusion to serve the interest of a select group of societies’ most sociopathic. Its hard to imagine much progress in any direction but down when confronted with the immensity of their reach and effectiveness.

    1. responseTwo

      Yeah, uncle Bill also repealed the ‘Glass–Steagall’ act and shafted a lot of people by promoting Nafta. He stabbed his own generation in the back.

  6. Mikel

    Violence and trauma of various sorts destroys trust and makes individualism an easier sell.
    Also, people give community a shot, but if it’s unforgiving or never rewarding/fulfulling…the individualism is an easy sell.

    1. AndrewJ

      I’ve tried to prioritize people and groups in the past that used words like “community” often. What I found was that “community” meant was people paying attention to them, to the extent that they needed attention and assistance. There was never a quid pro quo, and never any active, ongoing, intentional attempts to grow social bonds among the people attracted to this rhetoric. After searching for community and not finding it in my twenties and half my thirties, I’m feeling like it’s a lie, like so many others in America. The truth is that I’m on my own.

      1. John Zelnicker

        AndrewJ – I take it from your comment that you are under 40 years old.

        If I’m right then you are not wrong. For the past 40 years or so neoliberalism has insisted that we are indeed on our own and owe nothing to those around us, except perhaps family. Rugged Individualism.

        Before the early 1980’s it wasn’t all that hard to find a community of people who worked together and cared for each other. Neoliberalism has destroyed that, and we are all emotionally, psychologically, and financially impoverished because of it.

  7. meadows

    Exhortations on the individual to buck up, be just terrific and awesome is a burden too great when social historical forces actually dominate all of us to the point of suffocation. This pressure on the individual to be perfect and also save the world causes deep suffering. The reaction is to save one’s self, to be “selfish.” Hence individualism. But I think our natural state is interconnectedness, as in “…no man is an island…”

  8. Watt4Bob

    America’s fixation on ‘rugged individualism’ was manufactured as a way for capitalists to combat collective action, by labor especially.

    We’ve been marinated in a propaganda stew of BS so long that we have no idea where these ideas come from, and it appears that half of us believe that it’s God that mandated that we stand alone, and that collective action to better our living conditions = communism = devil worship.

    1. meadows

      I love that cliche’… rugged individualism. How about an opposite one, “enlightened collectivism.” Great comment Watt4Bob.

      Communism pretended to elevate the group above the individual to an extreme when really it was just another way to shut up dissent or individual initiative.

      Toxic monopolistic capitalism or toxic monopolistic communism, so long as the rulers can control the narrative, keep the power and shut us all up… I do notice that socialism is being less conflated with communism as time goes by.

      1. Soredemos

        “I do notice that socialism is being less conflated with communism as time goes by.”

        It shouldn’t be. To Marx the terms were interchangeable. Socialism = the means of production are socially owned.

        ‘Becoming less conflated’ just means that actual fundamental change in how things are owned is being pushed out of the way as an option, and the most we can aspire to is ‘government does stuff’, ie social democracy (Bernie Sander’s style ‘socialism’).

      2. Susan the other

        I had a very strange dream last night. I was moving into a new house with less room so I was renting a storage unit. In the midst of the confusion of moving I somehow adopted an alpaca. A very nice animal, but quite large compared to a dog. And it needed to be fed and brushed and taken to the vet. Getting food and bales of straw delivered to the alpaca, to the storage unit, was complicated. So was getting the alpaca in my car – the back seat – to go to the vet. But I was managing OK with all the details and for some reason I was happy to have this animal. Then I woke up wondering where on earth this dream had come from. I started thinking about how strange it is that we humans do movies about humans. We are so obsessed with ourselves. And then I thought how refreshing it might be if we did movies about the emotional exploits of animals. Characterized fictitiously like we do humans, rugged individuals, con artists, sex bombs, the decent upstanding guy who hit hard times, maybe a story about good government. And then I realized how odd it was that we had no such mythology as stories about good government.

    2. Carla

      “We’ve been marinated in a propaganda stew of BS so long that we have no idea where these ideas come from”

      I call it the colonization of our minds by corporate entities. Empire did this for several hundred years with corporations organized by monarchs to conquer and colonize new continents. Having run out of continents, today’s corporations have colonized our brains.

      We are not wealthy, we are not healthy, we are not happy, we are not wise.

      1. Susan the other

        I think we are still wise but we have no options. The essay speaks about the “structure” of the pursuit of happiness. There are probably some good things about a monopolistic corporatism, if used in the interest of society and the environment, but there’s such a contradiction with Individualism, freedom and the fantasy of enlightenment it’s impossible to resolve. Especially when happiness depends on profits. Institutions, laws and policies “are at fault” he says – but it looks to me like they are the very structure we deal with. How much of it do we have to dismantle? And to make us all even sicker, the hypocrisy of our can-do-freedom has completely neglected not just society but it has polluted the planet beyond belief. And it’s all for money. Not a speck of enlightened happiness involved. We are no longer even enlightened enough to have a “Social Imagination.” But wisdom is another thing. We are definitely wise enough to see the bullshit being pushed to get us into another war. And the lame excuses put forward to avoid greening the planet. Maybe wisdom is just modulated anger.

        1. aletheia33

          thank you susan t.o.

          here’s a question: did MLKing, an ordained minister in an african american church, have wisdom in him? or was he just extraordinarily good at political strategy? if he was around now, what would he be doing?

          MLK is a kind of touchstone for me when trying to think through what is to be done. his ideas were based in decades of prior work by african american thinkers on the dilemma of white racism in US society.

          one single leader cannot save us, however gifted. but is it too late to draw power from MLK’s work? i don’t think his ministry was accidental to his mission, in fact i think he conceived of his mission of action, perhaps, rather simply, as the work required to realize his ministry to the fullest.

          as conditions worsen for more and more, i have no doubt of one devopment that is coming: people will return to their churches and form new ones. churches are centers of community. how is that going to play out? i wonder.

    3. outsidethelines

      The issue is not “sociological imagination”. The appeal of rugged individualism, to me, seems to have particular to resonate with those individuals with strong senses of superiority, in the psychologic sense. There is a lot of chicken or the egg to made of which came first, but I would say that rugged individualism was not manufactured but exploited by the richest among us because, well, who would know better than them. It was as easy as them looking in the mirror.

      The big lie works because Republicans really do believe they are superior. The “real Americans”, the real Christians, the true patriots, the master race, and on and on. Psychologically, superiority begets those who are inferior to them. This is what has been being exploited for decades. Those wired for superiority have been had their complex fed by so many well funded and targeted efforts: hate radio, Fox, dominantly evangelical churches, think tanks, paid talkers and columnists, and so the called “balance” of corporate media. Within this massive, coordinated messaging are two primary fixtures: blowing some up the ass of those who believe themselves superior, and giving them reasons to hate other people not like them.

      It is the message of superiority that binds them. Not real issues. It is why the Republican Party does not need a platform or agenda; they are no longer needed as they have constant messaging 24/7. The alternative information universe patronized by the vast majority of self identified Republicans can be distilled down to stroking the superiority of the base and hating on the libs.

      Magicians all use distraction to create their magic. Some provably false distractions, like tax cuts paying for themselves or the big lie, need only reach the ears of those wanting to hear that message.
      saying out loud that it is the richest against the rest has long been crazy talk. But then so has been the wondering of why Republicans keep voting against their own interests, rather than recognizing their support follows those who message their superiority and hate on those inferior to them.

      There is no sociologic fix for this problem.

  9. Arizona Slim

    May I suggest a three-letter word that begins with F? (Uh-oh! Is Slim misspelling the eff word?)

    Not to worry, people, the word I’m suggesting is FUN. That’s right, FUN!

    Permit me to explain. Yesterday afternoon, I got a phone call from the president of my neighborhood association. Poor fellow had a panic attack after getting worrisome news from his cardiologist. And he’s still having panic attacks.

    I’m no health care professional, but this sounds like it has a strong psychosomatic element. But we’ll leave our president to address that problem with his health care people.

    Any-hoo, Mr. President was calling to ask me, the association vice president, if I’d be willing to step into the role of president. Well, if you put it that way …

    … Okay, I’ll do it.

    Since yesterday afternoon, I’ve been thinking about running on the More Parties Platform.

    If you’ve ever been involved in neighborhood associations or homeowners associations, you’ve experienced their over-emphasis on meetings. How dreary.

    So, here’s what I’m proposing instead:

    1. Making our next association meeting a potluck in our neighborhood park. This Thursday’s annual meeting is already scheduled for Zoom.

    2. Having a neighborhood cleanup with the after party on my porch. Not meaning to brag, but my porch parties are not to be missed!

    3. A July 4th fireworks watching party in the aforementioned neighborhood park.

    See where I’m going with this? Doesn’t it sound a lot more enjoyable than endless meetings?

    I’ll keep everyone posted.

    1. Thistlebreath

      Potlucks rule. Totally agree w/your plan.
      You never know who’s a BBQ savant or casserole diva w/undiscovered mad skills.

      Our homeowners assoc. in a solid red ‘hood was never quite the same after our infamous patio potluck a decade ago.

      Drink du jour: “The Re Animator” (see IMDB for some background details):

      Everclear, clear Tequila, Triple Sec and Midori melon liqueur for that radioactive glow. Things got lively.

    2. Tom Pfotzer

      I’m liking the idea of parties. You’re onto something good, Arizona, run with it.

      Also, to Thistlebreath…with the radioactive drinks… :) Ya, I bet things did get lively.

      The other day, I read a piece by an environmentalist-musician in England, and his idea was “we just need to have a better party, and people will come over…”

      NC people rock. Take that to your next party.

  10. meadows

    “..endless meetings..” Boy Howdy I know what yer talkin’ about… 50 years ago I went to an alternative high school called The Meeting School!
    Meetings, the bane of us all.

  11. Anthony G Stegman

    I think many Americans are inherently selfish, and “rugged individualism” suits them. This explains means testing, tax avoidance, gated communities, private jets, private islands, fancy offices, and the like. Americans are hoarders. They are easy to bribe with trinkets. How dare you step on my lawn!!!!

  12. Daniil Adamov

    Hang on. Isn’t “using our sociological imagination” just another form of exhortation to think and/or act differently? And ultimately, who is supposed to do this – if not individuals?

    To me, this thing says very little, although I agree that expecting social problems to be fixed as a result of changes in individual attitude is not a viable solution in most cases. Or rather, because I agree with that… It may fix some things on its own eventually if enough people adjust their lives over time, but it’s too slow and often not that predictable.

  13. Gil Schaeffer

    Two comments: the US is not a democracy and the Poor People’s Campaign is against all oppression and combines economic demands with denunciations of racism. In addition to sociological imagination, we need enough political imagination to recognize the undemocratic nature of the Senate, Supreme Court, and Electoral College.

  14. eg

    But we’re still marinating in the habits and institutions that Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society” and Reagan’s “government isn’t the solution, it’s the problem” brought us more than 40 years ago. It’s difficult for most people to imagine any other arrangement, let alone fight to win it.

    Those who benefit from the current arrangement at our expense are not going to go without a fight …

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