Individualism in America. The '60s began an era of changes in the boundary between `me' and `we'

A RECURRING story in United States history is of change coming not through the seeking out of new values but rather in elaborating old ones. Alexis de Tocqueville saw the paradox in this a century and a half ago. The country he visited in the 1830s was new and dynamic, and seemed constantly in flux. Still Tocqueville sensed that in a deeper sense it had already experienced its great social revolution - which still lay ahead for Europe - and thus for all the surface action was stubbornly conservative on fundamentals. Americans, he wrote, are ``engaged in infinitely varying the consequences of known principles ... rather than in seeking for new principles.''

The principle we have been varying so furiously during the past quarter century is individualism. It is the key to much of the change that has taken place over this span - and to where we are now heading.

The core idea of America's individualistic public philosophy is deceptively simple. It insists that the individual person must somehow be placed at the center of things, his needs and aspirations served by the central social, economic, and political institutions. Nonetheless, throughout US history vigorous debates have proceeded over which individuals and which claims most need attention.

The 1960s were a time of enormous change in the boundaries of American individualism. The civil rights revolution was a belated recognition that black Americans had been effectively barred from the ranks of individuals whom Jefferson had said two centuries earlier possessed ``unalienable rights'' to ``Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.'' The women's movement occurred against a different historical backdrop, of course, but it was similarly inclusionary.

We can now see that these '60s arguments over ``which individuals,'' while intense at the time, were decisively resolved intellectually. Some may bridle at this suggestion, taking it as a defenseless claim that full equality of opportunity has been achieved. It hasn't, but the case for inclusion has been made and won.

Other elements in the surge and redefinition of individualism in the 1960s have remained, however, intensely controversial. The big moral argument at the end of the 1980s is not over which individuals but which claims.

This argument is sometimes couched in terms of whether ``selfishness'' has been on the rise. But that isn't quite the word for it. Nor is it captured precisely by the label so often affixed to those who came of age during and after the '60s - the ``Me Generation.'' Rather it is whether a sense of individual needs was fostered that is, ultimately, too narrow to serve even the individual very well, much less the society. Family life is a case in point.

Quantifying problems in an area such as this is bound to be inadequate, but even basic statistics are instructive. The divorce rate in 1960 was 9.2 per 1,000 married women 15 years and older; it had been essentially unchanged for decades. By 1970, however, the rate had climbed to 14.9 and 10 years later it stood at 22.6. This huge increase in so short a span reflected in part new expectations individuals were bringing to marriage, expectations that involved a more radically autonomous sense of self.

Divorce is the subject of various strictures in most religious denominations. Concern over its current incidence and effects is certainly not limited, however, to those who share these church perspectives. The steep climb that has resulted in the number of households headed by single parent - disproportionately female - is clearly linked to increases in poverty. The noneconomic human costs can't be quantified, but few would dismiss them.

Abortion is another question, important by itself, that reveals an even larger shift that occurred in thinking about the individual. Some may resent the argument that abortion - the subject of such deep moral concern - should be seen as another issue in a vast argument over individualism that was given new form in the 1960s, but it in fact is. The Supreme Court's 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade followed a revolutionary redefinition in the thinking of millions of women and men of the claims of the mother as a sovereign individual.

Again, the experience of recent years - when approximately 1.5 million legal abortions have been performed annually - has not been, as some expected in 1973, the emergence of a growing consensus around the new claims but rather a growing challenge to them. Public-opinion polling on abortion is often interpreted in a way that understates the extent of this shift.

If a survey question puts the issue strictly in terms of individual choice - e.g., whether the decision on abortion should be ``left to the woman and her physician'' - a majority of the public still appears pro-abortion in the sense of being pro-choice. But if instead it asks respondents whether they want policy to remain as it is, or to change - barring abortion altogether or permitting it only when a woman's health is endangered or when pregnancy results from rape or incest - dissatisfaction with present policy is seen to have climbed significantly. Today, nearly two-thirds of Americans favor significant curbs.

A chief reason why Tocqueville's ``Democracy in America'' has seemed so rewarding to observers of the American scene is his complex view of individualism. He saw it as liberating, a source of great energy and creativity not just in economic affairs but in the life of the community generally. Philanthropy was encouraged, for example, by the sense of responsibility inhering to a confident individualism. But he saw individualism as having destructive possibilities, too, liable to leave the individual too radically autonomous, and too narrowly self-serving. Each generation of Americans has had to deal with change that involved redefining their society by rethinking the nature of its commitment to the individual.

Important in itself, the current debate and questioning involving aspects of personal life reflects a broader national effort to come to grips with the new individualism - to keep parts of it and reject others. Substantial segments of the public are distinguishing between the extension of recognition to groups previously excluded, which they accept, and the transformation of the sense of what it is individuals need and are entitled to, about which they are plainly uneasy. The outcome of the latter reexamination will do much to set the nation's direction in the decade ahead.

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