From Individualism to Collectivism, the American Nowadays


An essay I wrote for United States history class in my junior year of high school. My prose can definitely be tightened, but the kernel of my idea is still intriguing.

David Xia
Jan. 11, ‘05

From Individualism to Collectivism: The American Nowadays

Americans have always been proud of their “rugged individuality.” The roots of this sentiment originated in the conditions of the establishment of the country. From proclaiming their independence from England in 1776 to the gradual settling of the Great West, self-autonomy was trumpeted as the defining characteristic of the American. However, when one now examines the current trend in society today, the old rugged individualism exemplified by the romanticized cowboy of the West has disappeared.

The United States from its very origins was indicative of an autonomous people. The emigrants from Europe were either religious dissenters or the impoverished who were brave enough to set out for a completely unknown and potentially dangerous new land. By their very nature they were independent. The settlers of the West paralleled the original colonists in pragmatism and more importantly in their self-reliance. The cowboys had to ride long distances to drive their cattle to railroad stations. The “Sooners” of Oklahoma depended on themselves to secure a favorable strip of land and then to protect it from other whites and the Native Americans. When the pioneer’s Conestoga wagon broke down he himself had to fix it for there was no one else around to help him. A common phrase was “Good enough” out of necessity.

People in America now desire desperately to be part of something greater than themselves: a collective group made up of many and dedicated to a cause. This cause can be supporting a sports team. Millions who never had any personal connection with the Boston Red Sox showed up for the team’s belated World Series victory parade. Indeed, even T-shirts were printed declaring “Red Sox Nation.  Not only in the world of sports can one witness such zealous collective groups but also in schools. “Raider Pride” apparel and the many clubs after school represent the current urge to be part of a group, which has relegated individualism to a lower status. Instead of the lone cowboy or maverick or trailblazer who sets out on his own path, almost all Americans belong to what Kurt Vonnegut calls “artificial families. Individuality is now not so much practiced as enthusiastic loyalty to a greater group.

Another place to look in order to see a dearth of individualism is in the marketplace. Advertisers who set tones and attitudes for their wares often invoke the sense of independence. This tactic is used for such merchandise as the Apple iPod, with its blatant white earphone cords that just shout, “Look at me. I’m unique because I have an iPod.” Many car companies also declare their car gives drivers freedom on the road without constraints, especially in the case of SUVs. However, when one takes a closer look at the fundamental paradox of the marketers’ arguments, one can see that this merchandise individualism is but a thin veneer for mass marketing. How can someone truly be an individual if he buys a product that, although proclaims will blazon his independence, is targeted and sold to millions of other consumers?  The answer is that buyers are not concerned with their image, nor are they ignorant that millions of others share their accessories. American buyers buy objects for the sake of feeling a sense of belonging to a family of other like-minded buyers.

This “be your own person” mentality slowly deteriorated as the frontier melted away and was a result of the American citizen realizing that he was not completely unaffected by external events, both national and international.  The frontier forced Americans to be individualists.  No help on the way meant self-help on the spot.  As the West gradually became settled and more and more areas became urbanized, Americans could afford to not be ruggedly independent.  If the plumbing was broken, one called a plumber.  If the car wouldn’t start, drop it off at the mechanic.  Then the realization that there were many greater forces besides the annual crop problems also took an effect.  Americans increasingly became aware of their nation’s huge role on the world stage.  Terrorism and the economic quagmire of their country forced them to band together in order to champion a cause.  In the last presidential election any common American could have seen the many candidate-based support (or discouragement) organizations such as the notorious Swift-boat Veterans for Truth.

Although rugged individualism has all but disappeared from American society, at least the old cowboy myths and stories of the once daring colonists still live on.  Moreover, these romanticized accounts now gleam brighter than ever when juxtaposed with our current collectivist mentality.