The real divide in America

It isn\'t red versus blue, it\'s individualists versus institutionalists. And the latter may finally be winning

By David Sirota

Published December 5, 2011 8:30PM (EST)

   (AP/Haraz N. Ghanbari)
(AP/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

Less than a year from the presidential election, the harrowing television graphics, tired sports metaphor and end-of-the-world fundraising pitches are once again upon us. You know the script -- Democrats versus Republicans, good versus evil, with-us-or-against-us. Whichever team you happen to be on, you are encouraged to see it as your side's phalanx lining up on the battlefield against the other's, in hopes that this time, your troop offensive will finally vanquish the despised opponent once and for all.

But while so much of our culture asks us to rely on this vapid red-versus-blue analysis to understand American society, the truth is there are other binary constructs that better explain the very real chasms separating us.

Economic policy, for instance, typically ends up being a fight not between Democrats and Republicans, but between two competing forms of socialists -- Corporate Socialists, who insist that public money is best used to bribe or subsidize private business, and Democratic Socialists, who want public money spent exclusively on publicly owned entities (corporate socialists, who dominate both parties, almost always win the big legislative fights). Foreign policy, as we've seen most blatantly in the post-9/11 era, is now a fight between Interventionists and Mind-Our-Own-Business types, with the bipartisan coalition of the former usually winning out. And social policy has long been a struggle between Huge-Government Moralists, who want to regulate every aspect of your private life, and Live-and-Let-Livers.

While certainly as crude as Red versus Blue, these paired archetypes better reflect the political and cultural gaps that cleave America. But of all those fissures, none has been more defining than the one between Individualists and Institutionalists -- and the unexpected good news in the awful events of the last year is that we may be experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime psychological shift toward the latter.

To clarify these two broad terms, let's review their contemporary meaning.

Individualists are those who see society's successes and problems as coming mostly from individual behavior. Motivated by impulse and human nature's affinity for simple good-versus-evil stories, Individualists tend to see history as a series of parables about Great Men and Bad Men, Rogues and Bureaucrats, Heroes and Villains. In other words, Individualists subscribe to Margaret Thatcher's theory that "there is no such thing as society -- there are individual men and women."

So, for example, an economic boom period is viewed by the Individualist as a success story of individual and/or presidential intelligence, innovation and hard work, not a triumph of institutions such as good schools, solid infrastructure or properly calibrated tax and trade laws. Likewise, rich people are viewed as singular superheroes whose wealth is a consequence of personal perseverance, not beneficiaries of institutional support whose assets have been accrued through systemic privilege.

At the same time, problems are portrayed by the Individualist as the result of personal transgressions, but not systemic forces: Crime is the scourge of individuals like Willie Horton, not a result of institutional forces like poverty or desperation; the education crisis is the result of individual bad teachers or parents, not systemic economic inequality or misguided school funding formulas; prejudice is the plague of individual bigots, not institutional racism; housing market meltdowns happen because of irresponsible home buyers, not because of predatory financial institutions or the banking system; and recessions occur because of "welfare queens," "parasites," "takers" or other assorted layabouts -- but not larger forces like globalization or crony capitalism.

Institutionalists, by contrast, see it the other way around. They tend to see institutions – whether governmental agencies, corporations, popular cultures or specific policies and incentives – as the most prominent forces in society. To them, it's "The Man," more than the particular men.

Rooted more in data and empiricism than in gut feeling and apocrypha, this camp sees the most famous historical achievements like, say, the New Deal and civil rights movement not as merely the personal victory of people like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr., but as the result of decades of mass organizing for systemic change.

Similarly, the big problems in society aren't seen as a reflection of individual shortcomings, but as a product of systemic dysfunction. In this Institutionalist view, Congress' recent refusal to reduce the national debt isn't merely the crime of individual lawmakers serving on the so-called supercommittee, but also the fault of a democratic system that's rigged to fail. Likewise, abuses of state power -- whether torture at Abu Ghraib prison or brutality from municipal police forces -- are less the sin of the individual grunts than the product of a culture of violence. And nationwide unemployment doesn't stem from a lack of "personal responsibility" among workers, but from an economy that is producing only one job opening for every seven job applicants -- that is, an economy in systemic crisis.

To be sure, it's not this simple -- after all, mass psychology and real-world situations don't function on a strict either/or continuum. Individualists, for instance, will selectively complain about systemic problems if such grievances fit their political agenda (notice how many Ayn Rand acolytes, for instance, vent broad-brush attacks on institutions like organized labor or "Big Government"). Similarly, Institutionalists often channel part of the Individualist analysis, like when they criticize Congress and yet tell pollsters they love their congressperson, or when they chastise the banking system as a whole but also demand that individual bankers be prosecuted. And, of course, corporations try to selectively blur the distinction between the two, simultaneously presenting themselves as multifaceted organizations but also as individual persons whenever the definitions suit their objectives.

That said, the general differences between these overarching worldviews are real -- and it's no overstatement to say that contemporary American history has been defined by a back-and-forth battle between the two. Think back to just the last 75 years or so: With the Great Depression attributed to the Individualist every-man-for-himself mind-set run amok, the New Deal and Great Society predicated their agenda on building public systems and institutions like Social Security, Medicare and the regulatory state. Then came the Reagan Revolution -- its deregulatory agenda aimed to free the individual from those systems and its law-and-order, demonize-the-poor posture focused on punishing the so-called bad eggs.

For most of the last 30 years, the political pendulum has been swinging in that same Individualist direction. Even in the face of overwhelming economic data indicting the Individualist worldview, it has remained the dominant paradigm, with little sign of retreat. That's most likely because it is particularly well-suited to an information age that rewards oversimplified narratives about Great Men and dramatized individual stories over nuanced analysis and multifaceted reality.

Not surprisingly, this has deeply frustrated Institutionalists, whose recent political victories have been essentially limited to stopping or slowing the destruction of institutions like Social Security, Medicare and public schools rather than actually building new ones. Unable to gain any kind of traction or agency, and yet nonetheless still blamed for unpopular government-backed monstrosities like the TARP bailout, the Institutionalist argument seemed destined to reside only in magazine essays, little-read nonfiction books and Washington symposia -- not in American society at large.

But then in the last year or so, as if out of nowhere, came three sets of events suddenly articulating the Institutionalist argument in a more powerful, cogent and far-reaching way than any academic white paper, political convention speech or epic cable-TV rant ever could.

In the hallowed cathedral of religion, we learned that Pope Benedict XVI may have been part of systemic efforts to cover up sexual abuse allegations against the Catholic Church. No longer could the Individualist argument stand -- no longer could the allegations against the Vatican be viewed as only a transgression of single priests-turned-pedophiles. Even the legal system, which on crime-and-punishment matters leans toward the Individualist ideal, began agreeing that this is a systemic problem. As the Associated Press reported in November, a British court has cited the doctrine of "vicarious liability" in ruling that the church as a whole could be held liable for the crimes of its clergy.

This fall has also witnessed the sudden rise of the Occupy Wall Street protests, a collective primal scream anthropomorphized as a functioning social movement. And not just any social movement -- one whose critique of economic and political institutions directly contradicts the Individualist ideology. As if deliberately underscoring that key point, this insurrection isn't succumbing to the media's Individualist pressures for singular iconic spokespeople and a narrow agenda, nor is it organized around toppling individual politicians. It's actually living its Institutionalist creed, refusing to elect individual leaders or to voice demands via individual mediators -- all while calling for systemic change of American society.

Now, as the year comes to a close, big-time sports -- the ultimate stage for "Just Do It" hyper-individualism -- finds itself being viewed not through the prism of singular superstars, but through the more dispassionate lens of institutional inequities. On the professional side, NFL and NBA labor strife has turned football and basketball into cautionary tales about the iniquities of today's employer-employee system. On the college level, high-profile booster scandals and lawsuits seeking remuneration for unpaid players have transformed the NCAA into a lesson in the persistence of the institution of indentured servitude. And with its unspeakable allegations and systemic coverup over years, the Penn State sexual abuse scandal has turned a mirror onto an entire higher education monolith that can seem more interested in protecting its treasured brands than anything else.

Though America will no doubt continue its historical vacillation between the Individualist and Institutionalist mind-set, the high-profile nature of these recent events, and the fact that they pervade so many different arenas of public life, may foreshadow a deeper shift in mass psychology.

Survey data and political rhetoric highlight that potentially huge change.

In the last few years, polls have shown large majorities viewing the Catholic Church scandal as systemic in nature, with most holding the Vatican leadership -- not just individual priests -- partially responsible. Same thing for Penn State -- a new Gallup survey shows most seeing the situation in institutional terms, with 59 percent believing that the scandal proves the football program as a whole "had become too powerful." Meanwhile, polls indicate that while Americans may have questions about the individual Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, the data also prove America overwhelmingly supports the Occupy movement's Institutionalist critique of government and the economy (tellingly, the right's major critique of the Occupy protests mimic Richard Nixon's assault on the Vietnam protests by focusing on individual-themed criticism -- i.e., stories of protesters' individual illicit behavior, etc. -- in order to try to distract from the movement's uber-popular institutional critique).

These numbers are likely why major leaders of both parties -- who typically offer up Individualist bromides -- are suddenly rushing to echo the Institutionalist analysis.

Last month, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh and Republican icon Sarah Palin added their voice to the Occupy critique of systemic inequities. At the same time, President Obama responded to the Penn State controversy by saying "every institution has to examine how they operate."

Those words could be the official motto of Institutionalism. They don't exonerate the individual or pretend "personal responsibility" doesn't matter, nor do they make a Nazis-at-Nuremberg argument about institutional immorality wholly absolving individuals of responsibility. But they do reaffirm that systems can be just as culpable as individuals -- and in many cases, even more culpable.

Herein lies the unspoken truth in the Institutionalist viewpoint. For all the Individualist rhetoric about "personal responsibility" and "bad eggs," there will always be irresponsible and bad people among us, no matter how Good and Decent our society is. That's just a fact of life, which is exactly why a civilized society sets up institutions in the first place: to make sure dispassionate systems are in place to be more consistently rational, judicious and fair than impulsive individuals who so often end up being the opposite.

This is precisely what John Adams was speaking to when he said "the very definition of a republic is an empire of laws, and not of men." In light of that founding ethos, when an institution allows those laws to be broken, it should be as culpable in America as any single perpetrator. To put that sentiment in real-world terms, if the allegations are true that Jerry Sandusky raped children, then he clearly deserves a serious punishment. But if the allegations are true that Penn State systematically ignored those allegations and didn't report them to police, then the entire university -- or at least its athletic department and administration -- deserves a similarly harsh punishment, or worse.

Obvious as this principle is, it's hard to deal with, because institutions supposedly represent all of us -- or at least our universal ethic. Many of us, in fact, draw our very self-image from the institutions we associate with, whether a football team, a religion or a nation. To admit institutional culpability, then, is to admit our own failings -- which is why we have too often opted for diversionary explanations. Rather than admitting to systemic problems, we have sought simplicity over nuance, looked for reassurance in the face of disturbing realities, and taken refuge in the Individualist fairy tale -- the one that insists that problems are all the fault of singular Villains. The process brings us almost completely full circle -- our Individualist religion births a twisted omertà that prioritizes the protection of our treasured institutions over the protection of individuals themselves.

But all those horrifying headlines about priests abusing children and rapes in college locker rooms and police brutality against peaceful protesters just can't fit into an Individualist narrative anymore. Our anger is rightly moving us beyond the silly idea that every problem is merely the fault of a few bad guys.

This is why when we read Pope Benedict's old letters going easy on accused pedophiles, we aren't just enraged at him -- we want much-needed reform of the Vatican as a whole. This is why when we read the grand jury indictment in Penn State, we don't just fume at Sandusky or coach Joe Paterno -- we are rightly horrified at their university. And this is why when we see a multinational bank throwing thousands out of their home, or we see that YouTube clip of peaceful Occupy protesters being pepper-sprayed at the Univeristy of California, Davis, we don't just get mad at the bank CEO or the pepper sprayer, Lt. John Pike -- we understandably demand answers from the entire financial system and the police force that is violently defending that system's interests.

Indeed, with systemic forces so obviously at work, and with the costs of these atrocities so obvious and so huge, we are no longer willingly deceiving ourselves with the Individualist's reassuring-but-fraudulent explanation. We are instead being forced to accept that the institutions and society are part of the story.

If there are any positives to come out of the economic, religious and cultural tragedies that have marked these last few years, that radical-yet-rational realization will be the biggest of them all.

David Sirota

David Sirota is a senior writer for the International Business Times and the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover," "The Uprising" and "Back to Our Future." E-mail him at, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at

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