Individualism and Collectivism


In his January 2015 op-ed, “How Did Politics Get So Personal,” the invaluable Thomas Edsall examines many factors that have contributed to increased political polarization. In that piece, he refers to a paper, “Liberals Think More Analytically Than Conservatives,” by Thomas Talhelm, Jonathan Haidt and others. In that piece, Talhelm and his co-authors associate liberalism with individualism and, contrary to the norm, associate conservatism with collectivism.

They argue that

liberal culture is more individualistic, with looser social bonds, more emphasis on self-expression, and a priority on individual identities over group identities…

If you see the world as all individuals, then welfare recipients are individuals too, just like you. Indeed [liberals] are more likely to agree with statements about universalism — “all people are equal”; “an African life is worth as much as an American life.”.

On the other hand, conservatism

is often associated with rural areas, where people are enmeshed in tight-knit communities and are more likely to know the people they see walking on the street. Conservatism is also associated with interconnected groups, such as churches, fraternities, and the military….

Collectivism is not generalized sharing with “other people.” Collectivism is a system of tight social ties and responsibilities, but less trust and weaker ties toward strangers — a stronger in-group/out-group distinction. Conservatives care deeply about close others, but they may dislike welfare programs because those programs serve strangers or even people from out-groups.

Edsall suggests that this divide between people who are inclined toward individualism and those who tend toward collectivism has contributed to polarization.

Does that distinction make sense? If so, can that conflict be reconciled. If so, how?

2 Responses to Individualism and Collectivism

  1. If it is true that:
    ” liberal culture is more individualistic, with looser social bonds, more emphasis on self-expression, and a priority on individual identities over group identities…”

    – then this may go some way toward explaining why liberals have more difficulty creating and maintaining cohesive groups that act liberally.

    Each individual, acting alone, is their own leader. Does this imply that liberals all want to be leaders? No, rather that they tend to make poor followers! 😉

    One may argue that the very notion of community requires us to surrender just enough of our individuality to accept leadership and direction from others when we perceive that doing so will be for the common good – even if, acting as individuals, we would not choose the same direction or actions.

    The crux of the problem of making collective liberal action effective is this: we must recognise that acting as individuals and acting as a group are two different things. For a group to act effectively, its members must unite in supporting the direction chosen by the group and in carrying it out – even when that means acting in ways those members would not choose to act as individuals to achieve similar goals. If the liberal psyche has a weak point, it’s in being reluctant to hand control over action to somebody or something outside the individual.

    For liberals to act effectively in groups, they, more than conservatives, need leaders they can trust to act in ways consonant with their beliefs, values and ethics. For many conservatives, simply being the leader is enough to command trust. But the trust of a liberal cannot be commanded; it must be earnt. Nobody can be more sceptical, or harder to convince, than the individualist liberal. And this is despite their tendency to be more optimistic than conservatives. Conservatives band together in groups to conquer their fears; liberals join loose confederations with other liberals to share their hopes.

    Now, nothing I’ve written above addresses your concern, Wade, with how to reconcile a conflict between liberal and conservative tendencies, and the suggestion that these opposing tendencies contribute to polarisation. If anything, I’ve described these dynamics in terms of polar opposites! And that’s despite the fact that I don’t usually label people as either liberal or conservative. You asked: “Does this distinction make sense?” and I think, yes, it does make _some_ sense. But my normal thinking on this is pretty much like my thinking on, say, sexual orientation: that there’s a continuum, spanning all shades between the two extremes, and that people may fall at different places on that line. Even, at different times in their lives, and on different issues, they may fall at a point quite radically different than they do at others. In fact, there may even be a line for each important issue! Radical liberals usually die young. Conservatism tends to increase with age, except for a few free spirits. We all have some conservative tendencies and some liberal leanings, too; but the balance between them will vary depending on our background and on circumstances.

    To reconcile these opposing tendencies in our society we need to first recognise that they exist in ourselves. In each of us, there are both fears of losing what we value (which Buddhists call “attachment”) and hopes of new achievements. We need to see ourselves in others, and others in ourselves. And show others, by example, how it’s possible to do so. Then we’ll begin to realise that we’re not so different after all.

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