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Before You Laugh at Kevin McCarthy, Read This
The aspiring House Speaker is facing serious problems. But his struggles reflect a more disturbing trend: the failure of collective action.
You can practically taste the Schadenfreude in the air.
Kevin McCarthy, the leader of the Republican House, has now failed on 11 straight votes in an effort to become Speaker of the House. This failure, the first of its sort in 100 years, may have serious consequences on the operations of government. Congressional staffers, for example, will stop getting their paychecks on January 13 if the House cannot be brought into order; other federal government functions, from social security to national defense, will suffer at a time when the nation is still reeling from unprecedented economic and security challenges.
But half the nation seems almost celebratory in watching McCarthy’s failure. MSNBC’s leading story discusses how much the author has “enjoyed watching Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., squirm during this highly publicized and highly embarrassing saga.” It’s not unreasonable to feel some joy over McCarthy’s pain. In a political climate filled with opportunism, McCarthy has, in many ways, been the sycophant in chief, swaying in whatever direction the political winds might take him, most notably on the January 6 riots. When it seemed politically convenient, he joined the nation in condemning the riots, and even publicly rebuked President Trump. But just days later, when it became apparent that the Republican base was rallying around Trump, he quickly reversed course, perversely blaming the Democratic leadership for the occupation of the Capitol.
McCarthy, in short, is a wonderful role example of what politics should not be: unprincipled, careerist, and focused on personal self-interest over the public good.
But as I’ve watched the chaos unfold in Washington DC, I can’t help but notice another feeling creep into me: deja vu.
Because I have been in McCarthy’s shoes, as a leader trying to organize a mass of passionate but often conflict-driven members. And what is happening to the Republican caucus is happening to the entire United States: a complete failure of collective action.
And this failure threatens, not those in power, but those who seek change more than anyone else.
The 100-Year Crisis is Now Normal
This has been the year of the 100-year crisis. We had COVID-19, a pandemic worse than any we suffered since the Great Flu of 1918. We faced an economic and affordability crisis that has not been seen since the Great Depression, with young people now seeing a financial future that is worse than their parents. And then last year we saw the war in Ukraine, the first time one of the globe’s nuclear powers has engaged in an unapologetic act of territorial aggression.
Seen in that light, another 100-year crisis — the failure to elect a House Speaker after 100 tries — seems almost innocent by comparison. Better to have chaos in the Capitol than nuclear bombs dropping on DC, right? But in many important ways, the crisis in the House reflects broader trends that are driving all of the pathologies in modern human civilization.
Chief among those trends is the rise of hyper-individualism, which is reversing the tremendous moral and political progress that has lifted billions out of oppression and poverty. The individual House members condemning McCarthy, you see, don’t seem motivated by any particular public or community interest. They are instead, like the controversial House member Lauren Boebert, motivated mostly by personal pique.
Coverage of the dispute among Republicans, for this reason, has almost no discussion of differences in policy or philosophy. (Ask yourself right now if you have any idea why the Republicans are fighting. Can you think of a single substantive issue?) The reason is that there are no policy or philosophical differences causing the rift. This fight is a fight over individual recognition and power, not about the direction to take the nation. Call it the curse of individualism.
It’s not surprising that the Republican party is afflicted by this curse. Since the days of Ayn Rand, Ronald Reagan, and Milton Friedman, the Republican Party has been the party of individualism. What’s more surprising, however, is that the Left seems to have followed suit. A generation ago, John F Kennedy asked progressives what we could do for our country. Today, progressives find Kennedy’s call to action laughable, if not outright offensive. And while the critique of Kennedy’s public-mindedness is often grounded in the language of social justice — “Why should I do anything for a country so filled with oppression?” — it actually reflects a darker shift in progressive thinking:
A focus on what’s best for me, rather than what’s best for a broader community.
This is partly because the entire concept of community has failed. I’ve written recently about the dramatic and unprecedented decline in human socialization, and the unprecedented increase in loneliness. How can people act on behalf of “community,” when they have no community in their lives?
But there is also a deeper cultural and perceptual shift in the Left, away from concepts like responsibility, and empathy, and mutuality, and towards concepts like self-care, and outrage, and division. It is a shift away from seeing things through the eyes of “us” and towards the narrow lens of “me.”
And it is impossible for anyone, not just an aspiring House Speaker, to get large numbers of people to work together when they are looking only through that narrow lens.
Kevin McCarthy’s Problem is the Animal Rights Movement’s Problem
The scary thing about this cultural and perceptual shift is that it’s most dangerous for those who want change, not those who favor the status quo. The great economist Mancur Olson explained why in his foundational treatise, The Logic of Collective Action.
Say our community needs a well, so that we can all obtain access to clean water. Building this well will take extensive effort by many people working together. But from each narrow individual perspective, it seems useless to join the effort. “It’s going to be hard work, and my personal role in this is pretty small,” people tell themselves. “Someone else should take responsibility.” No one steps up to build the well because every person is looking through that individual lens.
The solution to the collective action problem comes in part from the creation of more communitarian norms, i.e., convincing each of the individuals to look at their action (or inaction) from the perspective of the group rather than just their individual self-interest. Once people start looking at the problem this way, their motivation to act changes. “I can be part of something that will help the whole community, even if it causes me personally some hardship!” we say to ourselves. “I can be the one to take responsibility!”
That perceptual shift is crucial to not just building wells but any effort that requires coordination between many individuals, for the collective good. And that is precisely what social movements are trying to achieve.
Take the animal rights movement. Our primary goal is to expand the moral circle to a set of beings who are generally ignored. And it requires each individual who is part of the movement to see beyond his own experiences and feelings to the feelings of billions of creatures who he’s not even aware of. That simply is not possible when someone is afflicted with the curse of individualism, seeing things only through their own subjectivity and feeling.
To the extent the entire nation or globe is suffering from this curse — and the House crisis shows how it is affecting all institutions and individuals, even those with the most privilege and powerful — our collective efforts at change are likely to fail. How can we get people to think about animals when they’re anxious about how popular they are on Instagram?
The House Will Eventually Come Together. But Will We?
The House will, of course, almost surely come together eventually. There’s too much at stake for too many. And even nakedly self-interested House members will eventually decide on a leader, when their own paychecks are at stake. But what about the rest of us? The fractious environment of the House is exponentially worse when we are talking about communities or movements of thousands or millions of people.
Over the last 10 years, I’ve seen movements come and go in various cities and nations. And there are a few attributes you consistently see in movements that overcome the curse of individualism, and find ways to engage in effective collective action.
Perhaps the most important attribute is the existence of real community. When the people organizing together are not connected in any way, beyond the nominal mission of a movement, that is a recipe for failure. Real, in-person communities are the cement upon which social change is built. And yet, today, that cement is failing. To build it again, we need to each do our best to embed ourselves in a web of social relationships beyond ourselves. It’s one of the only ways to escape the curse of individualism.
I’ve recently become a member of the Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco for this reason. In many ways, the community there is not a perfect fit. The age of the average member is perhaps 20 years older than me. Animal rights is not a part of the UU philosophy. And yet the UU community has something that all communities have, and that the animal rights movement lacks: a shared past, and an expectation of a shared future. When you’re looking for community, I suggest you look for the same.
Another attribute of movements that have overcome the curse of individualism is a cultural focus on responsibility. Responsibility has become almost a 4-letter word among progressives. It’s the language of corporate masters, of ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ libertarians, and of religious figures who are increasingly discredited. But this is bizarre. The very essence of any coherent theory of justice is our responsibility towards one another.
When you are looking for a community, then, ask to what extent the community you are observing has a sense of collective responsibility, as opposed to individual self-help or interest.
There are numerous other factors at play. Economics distress, which prevents us from focusing on the needs of others. The rise of social media, which disconnects us from each other (and connects us to the chains of advertiser commercialism). And the decline in civil society, with not just churches but all sorts of social organizations dying en masse. (This depressing piece about Stanford University’s collapsing social life is an illustrative example.)
But I think the single biggest factor, that I’ll develop in the next newsletter on The Simple Heart, is a profound lack of purpose. People have no reason to come together because there’s no story or mythology that binds them together, even in the present, much less one that connects them to a shared past, or helps imagine a shared future.
Solving that problem, by building narratives of purpose, is perhaps the most important mission for The Simple Heart. Stay tuned for more next week.