Individual Supremacy: The American Cult of the Individual
By James Minion
A new political creature has reared its ugly head in America at the worst possible time. This creature is not a member of a group, although it makes temporary alliances. It is not a political party, although one party harbors it. It is not a corporation, though corporations cheer it and fund it. It is not friendly and it does not have our best interests at heart. It does not care about our children. It has one purpose in mind: to destroy representative government, forever. I name this creature, the individual supremacist and it's coming for America's future.
What is an individual supremacist? If you have ever wondered how middle and lower income people can be recruited to vote against their political and economic interests in favor of the wealthy and powerful; individual supremacy is why. The name, individual supremacist, describes one who believes that an individual is sovereign and self sufficient. While individual supremacy is not as extreme as the sovereign citizen movement, the individual supremacist believes no institution has the right to govern, regulate, tax, or require any behavior from any individual. The individual supremacist (or "I Supreme") deems illegitimate any institution that seeks to do those basic societal functions. "I Supremes" assume each person will self limit. There is no right or wrong, only success or failure. The individual supremacist is, essentially, an American conservative or libertarian gone wild. Individual supremacy unnecessarily pits the existence of a functioning, representative government against the enjoyment of individual rights to the detriment of both groups and the political process.
Individualism is not new. Americans have gone down this road before. There have been many groups who experimented with various forms of individualism, anarchism, objectivism, egoism and rational selfishness as philosophies of self government. From Henry Thoreau and Josiah Warren to Ayn Rand and Robert Welsh, Jr., modern thinkers have toyed with and pursued the idea that each person has an inviolate sovereignty that is always violated by groups, societies and institutions, including representative governments. But, for the most part, these people and their philosophies remained that; just philosophies for the intellectuals of their respective times, and none of them would qualify today as an individual supremacist.
So what's the big deal? Philosophies can't hurt us. They are not monsters. When philosophies become extreme ideologies, they can hurt. Such philosophies can take on a life of their own after the earthly demise of their progenitors. Once gone, the philosopher can no longer answer his or her critics or celebrants. And like an iPhone in the hands of a teenager, a jailbreak is imminent. This jailbreak occurred with the philosophies of individualism beginning in the 1980's. Ayn Rand and Robert Welsh, Jr. both died while Ronald Reagan was president, but even then, the seeds of their philosophies took purchase in the very places not prescribed by the authors; in campaign politics and then, in government.
Even as these authors of the "I Supreme" intellect passed on, and their followings waned, their philosophy, which was never intended for use by governments, was taking hold in the White House of all places. Despite the fact that Rand criticized Reagan for his positions on religion, abortion, capitalism; both used individualism to build their brand. Rand and Welsh were still around to hear Pres. Ronald Reagan in a 1981 speech make the now famous proclamation that "...Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem." This is the first of many false choices deemed necessary by I Supremes. The statement certainly appeased and baited the ultra-conservatives, but it also provided the best thing supreme individuals could hope for: opportunity. That statement (whether followed with successful policy or not) combined with Ronald Reagan's popularity among conservatives and moderates allowed for a new conservative brand to emerge, one of ownership, the policy of personal responsibility and, halleluiah, less and less government.
In 1981, there was a substantial argument to be made that the federal government had gotten too big and should be trimmed for its own health. After 45 years of depression era programs, 32 years of cold war, soviet containment policy, a space race, a weapons race, and 15 years of turning civil rights legislation into policy; the U.S. government had become large, expensive and unwieldy, not just from a conservative or libertarian point of view. But something decidedly more visceral was extracted from this basic notion of "big, bad government": a villain. Someone who was not a politician had to be held publicly responsible for "big, bad government". Besides the famous quote deriding government as a solution, candidate Ronald Reagan also gave unto the conservatives the unholy image of the "welfare queen." She and her undeserved entitlements were why government had grown too big. This euphemism would come to characterize many of the stereotypes that would normally be recognized as racist but allowed its users to avoid openly racist language. Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan raised taxes 11 times as president, cut social programs, increased corporate welfare and defense spending and inflated the federal deficit to historic levels.
While making the case that government was not the solution, President Reagan simultaneously made a strong case in favor of government spending which has largely been ignored to the convenience of individual supremacy. Ronald Reagan showed us that the United States government can defeat a global enemy with spending. We spent the Soviet Union into extinction. Win. But here at home, the growing anti-government and pro-individual identity, armed with a bogie-woman image, kept up the drum beat that government cannot defeat poverty, ignorance or disease with spending. Since the end of the Soviet Union, those three conditions have been our country's greatest enemies. But to spend tax money, i.e. money that could be corporate profit, to combat those problems is evil according to the individual supremacist and inconvenient for corporate interests. Government should not get in the way of people being poor, sick and ignorant. It's a free country. By the end of Reagan's presidency, the philosophies of the John Birch Society, Milton Friedman, salons and business seminars had worked its way into policy by way of supply-side economics and cutting social programs. The new message to our veterans, children and other human detritus from our shrinking industrial base had become:" You're on your own."
Union organizations are about the only economic leverage an individual worker has against a rich or powerful employer, public or private. As a group, however, unions violate individual supremacy because they use the power of collective bargaining to negotiate their share of corporate profit. When union busting time came the dialogue was written; "Look at the welfare queen taking money that you earned, getting her nails done, having more babies, and who needs more of your money." "Look at the fat cat union employee, with his job, his pension, his health care and his 1400 sqft ‘mansion'." They are why government is too big, not the defense contractor getting billions to build cold war weapons, never used. It's not the oil companies who are subsidized into profit while using our military as their own private security. So the solution must be to fire all those middle income Americans who keep our infrastructure in place and cut sustenance to the poorest; we have a budget to balance here. Corporations need tax breaks and welfare programs of their own. This new dialogue of natural inequality is, in part, how the reverse Robin Hood syndrome began and how the middle and lower income Americans were recruited to hate the welfare queen and create the welfare emperor, both individuals, only one supreme.
Individual Supremacy Part II