Me the People? A Crisis of American Individualism in Society and the Age of COVID-19

Me the People? A Crisis of American Individualism in Society and the Age of COVID-19

By: Monica Plawecki, SMSBF Staff Writer

As our nation still struggles to contain cases of COVID-19, one thing has become increasingly clear: we need to think collectively. In fact, with a concerning number of Americans choosing to ignore calls to mitigate the virus’ spread, including by wearing masks, avoiding crowded spaces, and limiting social gatherings, we are witnessing firsthand the worst-case scenario of what can happen when individuals fail to think collectively and work towards a common goal. 

The unfortunate truth is that America’s obsession with individualism has created a crisis that is perhaps as disconcerting as the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, though often cited as integral to the American mindset and our nation’s historical success, “rugged” individualism has long hindered policymaking and presents itself as a constant barrier to solving today’s problems: perhaps most upsettingly, by promoting a justification for our nation’s lack of empathy and an environment where lack of concern for the welfare of fellow Americans has become the norm.

As we ponder how we can address the issue of individualism, especially amid a pandemic that requires all individuals to “play our part,” we believe we can glean some insight for the future of our democracy from an unexpected place: our workplaces. With an emphasis on collaboration and collective thinking, it’s possible that our workplace culture offers an alternative set of values to replace the individualistic attitudes inhibiting our nation’s progress.

Taking a Closer Look at American Individualism 

What exactly do we mean by American “individualism?” Robert Bellah defines individualism as “the belief that ‘the good society’ is one in which individuals are left free to pursue their private satisfactions independently of others, a pattern of thinking that emphasizes individual achievement and self-fulfillment.” (Santa Clara University – The Good Society) It exists in contrast to collectivist thinking, “where people are interdependent and link their self-identity to the ‘group.’” (Forbes)

Certainly, the right to pursue private interests and the protection of civil liberties have underpinned our democracy and political ideals since the founding of our nation, and on the surface, individualism doesn’t appear to be a wholly negative feature of our political culture and mindset. Similarly, many would find it hard to argue that self-reliance and economic freedom make our nation of entrepreneurs and self-starters worse off. 

We also see that individualism in the workplace can, at times, be an asset. In fact, success in the American workplace is often contingent upon individual effort; from the get-go, jobseekers are encouraged to emphasize their individual skills, background, and experiences in their resumes and interview process to appear more appealing to potential employers. Similarly, job descriptions frequently ask for “innovative self-starters,” and “employee of the month” programs continue to be a feature of many businesses to recognize employees who outperform others. (Medium) Of course, promotions and raises are also tied to individual performance, rather than the performance of a team. 

In reality, however, we know that rampant individualism in an organization can stifle collaboration among teams, and an entire business can suffer as a result. Though at a great company, everyone will be able to contribute ideas and opinions and consensus building will determine the ideas that are implemented, without general respect for determined company-wide objectives and a shared strategy for reaching them, a business’ overall performance will be inconsistent at best, and failing at worst. And because organizations rely on the collaboration of teams to deliver products and services, productivity and quality suffer when teams fail to work towards a common goal; issues that affect any one individual, such as missing a project deadline, affect an entire team and eventually the business’ bottom line.

In a similar way, America’s overemphasis on individualism and protecting individual liberties at all costs rather than approaching issues with a team mindset has clear ramifications for our society as a whole, including obstructed policy change on a number of concerning issues that have majority support among Americans: global warming, gun control, and healthcare reform, to name a few.

To illustrate, lawmakers declare sacrifices to our liberties, such tax increases or compulsory background checks, to be too burdensome at the expense of policy change that would have widespread impact, save lives, and protect the well-being of generations to come. When seeking to compel corporations to limit their carbon emissions or require mental evaluations to purchase a rifle, proposed legislation has been rejected to protect individual liberties and freedom from government intrusion, a goal perceived to be paramount. Unfortunately, we as a society are paying the price: the frequency of U.S. gun deaths is still nearly 10 times greater than that of European countries and shows no sign of being curbed through policy change despite a strong majority of Americans favoring tightening gun laws. (Pew Research Center) Meanwhile, corporations have been allowed to bypass regulations on carbon emissions and continue to exacerbate climate change, which will inevitably displace populations affected by coastal flooding and bring about worse health outcomes and loss of life from air pollutants, extreme heat, and natural disasters. (The Guardian, World Health Organization)

Using the same justification to prevent taxing to pay for social programs, we’ve failed to adopt universal child care and mandated paid parental leave, and have become “so addicted to the concept of individual responsibility that we have…a weak social safety net, and a culture of averting our eyes from other people’s physical vulnerability.” (The Atlantic) With individualist thinking, responsibility–especially financial responsibility–continues to fall on individuals rather than all of us taxpayers. It follows, then, that having a preexisting condition is a personal problem, and being at risk for COVID-19 is one’s own responsibility to manage.

Particularly now, we’re all witnessing the painful results that maintaining individual choice and personal responsibility above all brings to bear, and the worst-case scenario of what can happen when Americans are encouraged to act in their self-interest at the expense of “concern for the common good.” (Santa Clara University) In the midst of a global pandemic that most countries have managed to contain, American citizens’ health is at the mercy of their neighbors’ individual beliefs, and more than 130 thousand Americans have paid with their lives, far more than any other nation. It’s evident that in glorifying individualism, personal liberties are being permitted to obstruct meaningful change even past the point of ensuring public safety, weakening our future prospects and mocking any notion of “we the people.” 

Swapping “Me” for “We”: A Way Forward from Toxic Individualism 

Recognizing that individualism is so prevalent and deeply rooted in our thought processes and political framework, it’s difficult to imagine that a major shift in our thinking will take place anytime soon. That said, we’re increasingly coming face-to-face with society-wide issues, like climate change, systemic racism, and now a pandemic, that cannot be solved by responsible individuals or the free market alone, and thus necessitate a change in the way we approach these issues. It’s clear that we need to apply the principles we value in the workplace, including team efforts and collaboration, to our democracy in order to work towards the common good. 

Just as companies suffer when collaboration falls second to individual pursuits, without a focus on the common good and concern for the welfare of all Americans, our democracy cannot function. If we cling to individual liberties enshrined by rugged individualism at the expense of protecting the vulnerable, “we the people” simply become a collection of disjointed, self-interested individuals. 

Unfortunately, if we continue to rely on individualistic thinking throughout the COVID-19 crisis, though we may not be “sacrificing” our freedoms, we’ll continue sacrificing our citizens: the elderly, people of color, essential workers, those with preexisting health conditions, and with the proposed reopening of schools, possibly even schoolchildren. Without question, it’s time that we put aside individual interests for the sake of our country and democracy, and actually “play our part” together.


Santa Clara University



Pew Research Center

The Guardian

World Health Organization

The Atlantic

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