Pluribus et Unum: the history of American politics as a tug-of-war between our individualist and collectivist identities.

Author:Miller, Jennifer
Position:American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good - Book review
 
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American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good

by Colin Woodard

Viking, 320 pp.

This past July, presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump took the stage to accept their parties' nominations for president and articulate their visions for America. By all accounts, neither speech towed the traditional party line. Instead of espousing small government, the beating heart of American conservatism, Trump championed the power of the presidency, with himself as savior in chief. "I alone can fix it," he declared. "I will restore law and order.... I have made billions of dollars in business making deals--now I am going to make our country rich again.... I am your voice."

In contrast, the Democratic convention sounded downright Republican. "Over four flag-waving days in Philadelphia, Democrats stole the Republicans' mojo," wrote CNN's Nicole Gaouette. Clinton's theme was American unity: our exceptional patriotism, greatness, and strength. "Powerful forces are threatening to pull us apart," she warned. "We have to decide whether we all will work together so we all can rise together. Our country's motto is e pluribus unum: out of many, we are one."

But pan out a couple of centuries--or even just a few decades--and you quickly realize that Trump's expression of oligarchic individualism and Clinton's mighty collective are precisely the competing facets of American identity that have always divided us. This argument is at the center of a new book, American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good, by the journalist and historian Colin Woodard. Early on, he asks, "When individual liberty and the common good come into conflict, with which principle will you side?"

Don't be too quick to answer. Woodard reminds us that the two philosophies have been trumpeted and twisted for both good and evil, and neither is the battle cry of any single faction. Both gay rights' advocates and gun enthusiasts argue for the individual's right to self-determine. On the flip side, proponents of "traditional" marriage and gun control both believe their positions strengthen the collective. So how do we reconcile these competing facets of American identity? How do we possibly come together? This is the question Woodard seeks to answer.

American Character isn't a long book, but it is sweeping in its scope. Woodard's exploration of individualism and collectivism begins with...

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