Individualism and Collectivism


In his January 2015 op-ed, “How Did Politics Get So Personal,” the invaluable Thomas Edsall examines many factors that have contributed to increased political polarization. In that piece, he refers to a paper, “Liberals Think More Analytically Than Conservatives,” by Thomas Talhelm, Jonathan Haidt and others. In that piece, Talhelm and his co-authors associate liberalism with individualism and, contrary to the norm, associate conservatism with collectivism.

They argue that

liberal culture is more individualistic, with looser social bonds, more emphasis on self-expression, and a priority on individual identities over group identities…

If you see the world as all individuals, then welfare recipients are individuals too, just like you. Indeed [liberals] are more likely to agree with statements about universalism — “all people are equal”; “an African life is worth as much as an American life.”.

On the other hand, conservatism

is often associated with rural areas, where people are enmeshed in tight-knit communities and are more likely to know the people they see walking on the street. Conservatism is also associated with interconnected groups, such as churches, fraternities, and the military….

Collectivism is not generalized sharing with “other people.” Collectivism is a system of tight social ties and responsibilities, but less trust and weaker ties toward strangers — a stronger in-group/out-group distinction. Conservatives care deeply about close others, but they may dislike welfare programs because those programs serve strangers or even people from out-groups.

Edsall suggests that this divide between people who are inclined toward individualism and those who tend toward collectivism has contributed to polarization.

Does that distinction make sense? If so, can that conflict be reconciled. If so, how?

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