During the recent U.S. Senate debate in South Carolina, Jaime Harrison and Lindsey Graham seemed determined to one-up each other about their overcoming hardships in their lives.
Harrison, as a Black South Carolinian, sounded quite similar, in fact, to Republican senator Tim Scott—both sending strong messages about rugged individualism that can easily be viewed by those denying racism as proof anyone can make it in the U.S. with enough grit and the right mindset.
The U.S. has long loved rags-to-riches stories, ignoring both that these stories are compelling because they are incredibly rare and that these stories are often lies.
Rugged individualism is not just an idealistic mythology, but a deforming lie that helps mask that most success in the U.S. comes from privileges and connections linked to family wealth, race, and gender; wealth begets wealth just as privilege begets privilege.
Bootstrapping myths have existed nearly as long as the U.S., and seem grounded in a belief that without these stories to incentivize people, the country would crumble due to inherent human laziness.
Certainly the real and mythologized stories of the U.S. are mostly about exceptional individuals (almost all white men) and the power of competition to drive the demands of capitalism and consumerism.
Bootstrapping and rugged individualism myths fail for several reason, however. One is that rags-to-riches stories are by their nature outlier events; it is both illogical and harmful to treat outlier phenomena as “normal,” as the foundational expectation for everyone.
But the greatest harm in these myths are grounded in the lies. Research, in fact, shows that cooperation, collaboration, and community are far more productive than competition.
Just a bit of critical examination into anyone claiming to be a “self-made” success exposes that many factors played a role in that success, notably connections, collaboration and community hidden beneath the individual, and even luck (despite the problems with Malcolm Gladwell’s work, Outliers serves well to reveal those patterns).
What business can prosper without the publicly funded roads and highways systems?
For many in the U.S., Harrison and Scott as successful Black men prove that there is not a systemic problem in the country, but a failure of individuals who can be “fixed” through a more demanding education system and a more punitive police state and legal system.
Again, these beliefs are contradicted by evidence, such as that Mullainathan and Shafir detail in Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much. Individuals tend to behave in ways that reflect their environments.
Mullainathan and Shafir offer two contexts—slack and scarcity, which we can loosely frame as wealth and poverty but understand it is more complex than that.
When people live in slack, they tend to behave in ways that seem rational and productive, in part because of lower stress and wider margins for error. While this is paradoxical, having more than enough money tends to allow people to be better with money (such as saving or spending more carefully, including having greater access to wealth through loans that tend to be lower interest for those who are wealthier).
Living paycheck to paycheck or living without adequate finances creates a level of stress that tends to result in greater financial hardship—falling behind on payments or accumulating insurmountable debt.
Despite the mythologies and beliefs of many in the U.S., these differences can be traced to the circumstances of people’s lives and not to flaws in individuals.
In fact, living in slack allows for individual flaws since making mistakes or bad decisions have much lower stakes.
Having a car break down when you are a salaried employee with a strong savings account and a high credit score has a much different consequence than when you are a single parent working two part-time jobs with hourly wages and no savings account as well as a low credit score.
Despite our knee-jerk urge as a country to blame individuals for their situations and applaud success as the result of individual effort, the evidence is clear that systemic forces are far more powerful than individual qualities for most people.
The ultimate irony here is that while the American Dream tends to be a message of rugged individualism, bootstrapping, and having the grit and proper mindset to succeed, the more robust and humane version of that Dream requires a culture shift in our collective mindset.
Instead of celebrating individuals who overcome inequity, poverty, racism, and sexism, what if as a people we committed to making sure no one has those challenges to begin with? What if we genuinely committed to the possibility of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness we claimed all people to be endowed with at birth?
Why must any child earn a full and dignified life in the richest and most powerful country in the history of humanity?
While it feels cliche to mention, Martin Luther King Jr. serves well here to demonstrate the great failures of the American culture bound to individualism to the exclusion of community—what John Dewey identified as either/or thinking that misleads people into thinking the needs of the individual are in conflict with the needs of the community.
King, well after his assassination, has been added to the pantheon of celebrated individuals, reduced to a passive radical and quoted or invoked mostly in ways that confirm the very system King was, in fact, rejecting.
The American Myth requires a King who is a unique individual who overcame, and his messages are only useful when they can be woven into the existing fabric of individual responsibility, respectability politics, and (maybe worst of all) a colorblind society.
That is the “content of character” King, often more prop than the person and radical King became near the end of his life.
However, King called for setting aside “fragmentary and spasmodic reforms [that] have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor” because “the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.”
Ultimately, then, King concluded: “I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income” because:
We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished. The poor transformed into purchasers will do a great deal on their own to alter housing decay. Negroes, who have a double disability, will have a greater effect on discrimination when they have the additional weapon of cash to use in their struggle.
Many decades before the research offered by Mullainathan and Shafir, King recognized that shifting to systemic solutions instead of “fixing” or punishing individuals would allow the sort of individualism that need not be rugged in order to be fully human—and a contributing individual to the larger economy and democracy.
Consider the shift in perception of individuals by a systemic change—decriminalizing and legalizing marijuana creating entrepreneurs where we once saw criminals.
The American Dream is a damning dream, a hoax, a lie—as long as it remains a story of bootstrapping and a celebration of manufactured individuals overcoming.
The Harrison and Graham debate was more than one-upsmanship about who had the hardest path to the stage.
One is a pause, a possibility for turning toward the sort of community at the center of King’s final message; the other is clinging to the very worst of the country that has resulted in each of us being on our own—unless we were lucky enough to be born into the sort of wealth and privilege that allows us to fail and try again.
In 2020, during an international pandemic while living in the richest and most powerful country in the world, you are on your own.
But you don’t have to be.