A generally accepted view says American democracy is built around voluntary associations. Madison and Tocqueville evoked free individuals coming together to promote and assert shared interests, in deliberation with their fellow citizens. But recent images raise a question: at some point does voluntary association degrade into groupthink?
T-shirts inscribed with slogans, baseball caps, lapel pins, bumper stickers and the like are as American as apple pie. Now the trappings of armed force are often used as identity markers, witness the many January 6 rioters decked out in cammo and armor. Antifa rioters project the same sense of menace, altering the look with face masks and left-wing signage to denote their allegiances.
Less visible are the slogans and shorthand to which two factions have reduced political discourse. Protesters against abortion bans and Covid mask mandates both chant about “my body.” And two truths, that Black lives and all lives matter, are opposing battle cries.
At some point does a person’s free expression indicate submersion of their personal agency in other people’s agendas? Outward signaling in slogans and dress suggest people’s self-reduction, from agents of choice to followers of political camps. A British commentator notes that “In America, if you tell me what someone thinks about immigration, I can tell you what they think about climate change.”
This nation is premised on each individual’s rights, explicitly including everyone’s personal right to the pursuit of his or her happiness. Our creed, of commitment to unalienable rights, makes those rights paramount. It imposes no restrictions, and specifies no approved pathways for our pursuits. In fact, in separating from Britain, the signers’ rejected their prior ethnic and cultural identities, and any traditional habits that might have defined English happiness. In our personal rights, then, Americans took on a new challenge: to create my identity by my own lights.
The burden is a burden and it is unavoidable. Even if I choose to follow my parents’ church, I am choosing rather than starting from a pre-ordained “natural” reality. Anything I make of myself I do by my own judgement. As the world grows more and more complicated, and truth feels stretched by both scientific theory and political ideologies, judgements are harder and harder to make. And we have no shortage of politicians, cult leaders, identity groups, and outright hucksters, offering integrated identities validated by masses of followers.
Many groupings are benign, even creative or at least amusing. The annual convention of “furries” has become a marker on the calendar in Pittsburgh, the steel city. As one grizzled cabbie put it, “they’re weirdos, but they ain’t hurting anyone and they tip well.”
But some, particularly as they engage with politics, foster a belligerence. As we choose these identities, many feel a need to believe that we are in the right, and to defy any who seem to deride me, and “us.” Membership comes with defiance of others. And no activity is served better by this impulse than partisan politics. So anyone who isn’t on board with the rights of my identity group is racist or sexist or even “ableist.” Those who disdain church and flag are elitists. And, of course, left-wing or right-wing opponents are demons, with no shading.
It does seem that many of join some of these associations as a matter of emotional need rather than deliberate choice. And we give up our independent judgement, for a reward that looks like approval and membership in what seems a more accepting clan.
What can anyone do to reduce this self-erasure among so many Americans? Certainly not, as the culture wars do, telling the “other side” that they are wrong. These choices of identity being personal choices, the first need is for each of us to make sure that I have not bought someone else’s ticket and mistaken it for my own choice. Which is hard. Which is to say we need each to help each other, with genuine personal care over this difficult burden. We start with the people we know. But we all do share this burden, as fellow Americans.