Over the course of the last 15 years or so, there’s been an explosion in the number of charter schools around the country. According to the latest figures (from 2012), some 2.1 million students are enrolled in schools run by private groups awarded public money. The schools bear optimistic names like “YES Prep North Central” (in Houston) and “Animo Leadership High” (in Inglewood, California). Beyond the specific concerns about education, the charter school movement is powered by a particularly American worldview, one rooted in the ethos of the dissident Protestant churches that were the foundation of early American culture: citizens opting out of a hierarchical system to pursue personal goals by joining together in a local, voluntary society.
This ideological impulse—which I and others call “voluntarism”—is a cultural trait that helps explain why the United States remains different from comparable wealthy, Western nations. Broadly speaking, voluntarism is not another term for American individualism, although it entails individualism. Voluntarism is the way Americans reconcile individualism and community. And we can feel the weight of American voluntarism in our approaches to public issues, not only in charter schools, but in debates about issues like Obamacare and gay marriage as well.
Other Western nations, by contrast, consider healthcare a civil right of citizens and a moral obligation of government. American tradition, however, treats healthcare as an individual’s personal responsibility, or at least as a personal responsibility exercised through voluntary association, as in workplace health insurance. When the debate around gay marriage shifted from a discussion of God, gender, sex, and propriety to a debate over individual rights, tolerance, and the personal freedom of Americans to choose their partners, the struggle for marriage equality became easier.
American voluntarism makes it hard for social-democratic reformers to persuade their fellow citizens to accept the types of ambitious state-run initiatives common in most Western democracies, such as universal healthcare, free preschools, and guaranteed labor rights. Conversely, the spirit of American voluntarism makes it harder for non-Americans to understand our public policies, which are often caricatured as being nakedly Darwinian.
That American society was notably different—exceptional was the term—from other Western societies was a staple for much of 20th-century social science. Researchers have offered up lists of hows and whys, trying to distill the difference. I joined the enterprise when I started researching my 2010 book, Made in America, and the evidence spoke to the centrality of voluntarism in understanding American culture and its so-called exceptionalism.
Observers have for generations described Americans as deeply individualistic. But, as I argued in Made in America, individualism is too simple a description. Certainly, deeply instilled in American culture is the assumption that we are each a “sovereign” individual: the belief that each person is, deep down, a unique character, distinct and separate from everyone else, that ultimately each person determines his or his own fate, and that individuals ought to be self-reliant.
From the perspective of world history, this notion of the sovereign individual is odd. Most cultures at most times treated individuals as organic parts of their family, lineage, and tribe. That is why, for example, collective punishment—you took our goat, so my family will take your cousin’s sheep—is widely accepted around the globe, even today, after centuries of Westernization. An example I like to use in teaching is marriage: In most places, in most times, marriage has been in principle primarily about connecting families and lineages. Parents sensibly married off youths to appropriate partners. My students, many of them only a generation or two from that Old World, instead take it for granted that marriage is about two young, not fully mature individuals freely choosing one another based on their individual emotions—a weird notion, indeed. Individual sovereignty is a broadly Western assumption, and Americans are the most Western of Westerners.
Individualism, however, is a severely incomplete description of the American character, ignoring America’s strong communal dimension. Just as Alexis de Toqueville and other observers wrote in the 19th century of Americans’ individualism, they also described intensive community activity: neighborly assistance like barn raising; joint endeavors like militias and tending of commons; and clubs from sewing circles to lecture societies. In contrast to churches that were outposts of a central ecclesiastical authority such as Roman Catholicism and the established Protestant denominations (for examples, the Church of England and the Lutheran Church of Norway), the dominant American form was a grassroots Protestant church. This was a voluntary association of individuals who found others with common religious yearnings, pooled their resources, and hired a minister.
The many secular versions of this communalism in America—Rotary clubs, blood drives, online Kickstarter-type philanthropy projects, walks against diseases, beach cleanup weekends, you name it—belie the caricature of Americans as selfish individualists. Critically, such associations are ones individuals have voluntarily chosen; they are not tribes, castes, clans, manors, or ethnicities into which people are born and in which they die. Nor are these distinctively American types of associations sponsored or organized by the state.
American voluntarism is the merging of our individualistic and communal strains, the worldview that individuals forge their distinct fates with like-minded people in groups that they have individually, freely chosen to join and are individually free to leave. People attain their personal ends through community, but through voluntary community. And thus they are both sovereign individuals and community citizens.
My favorite expression of this view is a statement from 1905 by Alma A. Rogers, a local writer in Portland, Oregon, who celebrated simultaneously women’s individuation and women’s community activity: “Woman has at last made the fateful discovery that she is an individual, not an adjunct. Therefore, she thrills to the pulse of organization; and lo! The woman’s club is born.” Another revealing expression is the 1960s-era slogan, “America: Love it or Leave It.” It captured the idea that people are not forced to be American, but as long as they choose to be, they are expected to be committed to the voluntary association that is America. The key to the American community, in other words, are the acts of opting in and every day choosing to stay in. That is why collective action through the state is anathema to so many Americans—it seems to usurp individual agency and responsibility, alone or in community.
Over the years, of course, Americans often compromised this voluntarism for practical reasons. Social Security is a paternalistic government mandate that people accepted during a great crisis, although it was cloaked in the language of “insurance” rather than welfare. But for the most part, such policies remain tough sells. Many observers on the left hoped that the Great Recession would trigger social-democratic breakthroughs. But Obamacare is, in historical perspective, a small step in that direction, a complex and limited extension of government subsidies for private health insurance rather than a full-on establishment of a universal entitlement. Some research suggests that Americans have actually moved against government initiatives in the wake of the financial crisis.
Americans will continue to argue about the proper boundary between our individual spheres and the sphere of our government. But, even in these disagreements, there is a common mindset, shared by right and left, that Americans should get to choose the nature of their participation in the nation. Thirty years ago this month, New York Governor Mario Cuomo delivered a speech at the Democratic National Convention in which he tried to replace or moderate that voluntaristic motif with another kind of imagery,
the idea of family, mutuality, the sharing of benefits and burdens for the good of all, feeling one another’s pain, sharing one another’s blessings … . We believe we must be the family of America, recognizing that at the heart of the matter we are bound one to another …
It was a rhetorically powerful moment, but a losing political strategy. Today, perhaps more than ever, Americans don’t tend to think of the nation as a “family” to which we are “bound,” but rather as a club that we have joined.
is professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, author of
in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character, and a
regular columnist for the Boston Review.
Primary Editor: Jia-Rui Cook. Secondary Editor: Andrés Martinez.
Photo of 1920s Rotary Club luncheon courtesy of the Library of Congress.