Liberal Individualism and the Challenge of Narrative

There is a philosophical self-image at the heart of the western world’s conception of itself. That image is the classically liberal vision of the self—the individual—as the essential unit of society. To the archetypal western mind, society is the mere congregation of individuals. Since the Enlightenment, in particular, the great minds of the western tradition have tended to identify the individual as the legitimate locus of rights and increasing measures of sovereignty. Indeed, the progress of western—and much of global—society since the Enlightenment, in statecraft, economics, social and religious liberty, can be traced directly to this ideal. The sanctity of the self forms the philosophical basis upon which the entire course of liberal democracy has evolved.

Nevertheless, there has long existed a tension between the philosophical self-image of a self-oriented western world and the cultural self-image of western societies and their sub-groups, which have been anchored in collective identities based on ethnicity, religion, class and creed. The principles of liberal individualism continue to be faced with these competing narratives of identity today. In this narrative battle, the story of individualism struggles to triumph over these competing descriptions of social reality and moral agency. Can the liberal narrative provide, for general society, an alternative to all identity-based narratives? Or must the ethos of individualism always find accommodation within the preexisting frames of cultural identities, whose stories and memories extend back further than even the Enlightenment?

While many of its elements are detectable in eras preceding the Enlightenment (and in other parts of the world) individualism as a perspective matured during the early period of the Age of Reason (Enlightenment) in Central and Western Europe, and in the Americas—particularly in England and eventually in the United States. It emerged as the core of what we today call classical liberalism.

The Enlightenment witnessed a shift in European history. Europe’s long ecclesiastical, aristocratic and monarchical hegemony was challenged by a new philosophical movement which championed the rights of the individual. In his 1689 Second Treatise of Civil Government, John Locke argues that: “All mankind … being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.” These and similar Lockean assertions directly informed the deliberations of the United States’ founding fathers. Locke’s thoughts echo through the pen of Thomas Jefferson, who authored the most pivotal sentence of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” This declaration was drafted by men whose fathers sailed to a new land in search of freedom and whose hard-fought ambitions were obstructed, in their view, by the malice of a corrupt and tyrannical king. This document—and the American Revolution itself—were not mere products of philosophical experimentation. They were the results of long-accumulated European and American experience that gave rise to a point of view that asserted the rights of the individual. With respect to liberalism, a longstanding cultural narrative provides the base for the philosophical one.

The story of the rise of individualism in the western conscience dates back to the Protestant Reformation, when Martin Luther asserted the imperative of the individual to establish a personal relationship with God, with no need of the intercession of the church and its bureaucracy. It stretches back to the medieval era, when Edward I summoned the Model Parliament with the words “what touches all should be approved by all.” It dates back to Socrates’ decision to drink the hemlock, preserving one man’s commitment to truth, in defiance of the corruption of the state and the anger of the mob. There is scarcely a limit to how far back and how deeply we may trace the cultural history that has given rise to the liberal individualist narrative. This philosophical narrative is not a mere abstraction from cultural experience: we must bear this in mind if we want to understand how to advance the liberal narrative today, now that associated cultural memories have shifted so dramatically.

Experience and perspective are intimately connected. Yet, in the context of political and social dialogue—particularly in the liberal, democratic west, where the polemical color of our discourse implies the questionable assumption that debate is generally an effective means of persuasion—it can be easy to overlook just how indelible the imprint of culture upon our cognitive mechanisms really is.

In a 2001 report entitled “Attending Holistically Versus Analytically: Comparing the Context Sensitivity of Japanese and Americans,” Richard Nisbett and Takahiko Masuda describe clear and predictable differences in the ways in which American and Japanese tend to absorb visual information. When shown animated videos that included both objects clearly visible in the foreground and objects subtly distributed in the background, and asked to explain what they had seen, Americans were far more likely to describe objects in the foreground of the picture, whereas the Japanese tended to recall background images. Just as tellingly, Japanese subjects were much more likely to explain the objects they had seen in relation to other objects in the picture. Simply put, Americans were more likely to be struck by the focal images in the picture, whereas Japanese were more likely to focus on the surrounding context.

For Nisbett and Masuda, these differences reflect the contrast between ‘analytic’ and ‘holistic’ analytical thought, which they attribute to differences in the cultural evolution of East Asian and Western civilizations. They cite prior research by Nisbett, who claims that:

Intellectual traditions in ancient Greece emphasized analytic thought, which can be defined as involving … detachment of the object from its context, a tendency to focus on attributes of the object in order to assign it to categories, and a preference for using rules about the categories to explain and predict the object’s behavior. Inferences rest in part on the practice of decontextualizing structure from content, the use of formal logic, and avoidance of contradiction.

East Asian traditions such as Taoism, Chinese Buddhism and Confucianism on the other hand, in Nisbett’s analysis, “are more holistic in character,” and are characterized by

an orientation to the context or field as a whole, including attention to relationships between a focal object and the field, and a preference for explaining and predicting events on the basis of such relationships. Holistic approaches rely on experience-based knowledge…. 

There is evidence to show that cultural experience influences our cognitive approach to seeing the world. Is it any wonder that cultural experience might exert a strong influence on our ideological dispositions as well? If it does, then cultural experience must be appealed to in order to communicate the value of a philosophical or value-based system persuasively. This holds true both for individualism and for the traditional liberal worldview.

In his book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt argues that, to change a person’s firmly-held opinion, we must appeal to the ‘elephant’ and not the ‘rider.’ In Haidt’s analogy, the elephant represents our emotional intuitions, while the rider represents our strategic reasoning. Our reasoning is used to justify the conclusions of our intuitions. For this reason, debate is a poor method by which to try to change people’s thinking, since, as Haidt says, “the human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.”

Haidt’s observation about the inaccessibility of the human mind to purely logic-based appeals holds true for both individuals and groups. As Wilfred McClay has noted, what makes a nation “is shared suffering and shared pain.” The liberal narrative arose in a way that spoke to the suffering and pain of the societies that produced it. It was able to speak to these experiences because it was a product of these experiences. It is reasonable to ask: does this bode ill for the future of individualism in the multicultural West?

Individual sovereignty lies at the core of the larger liberal perspective, which prizes the right of the individual to speak and think freely. In this worldview, the rights of the individual may prevail against the will of the majority. In our time, traditional liberalism is at odds with a social progressivism bolstered by a conspicuous form of identity politics that has linked together many of the West’s different cultural tribes in a grand coalition against the Anglo-American/European cultural forces that still predominate. A political leftism rooted in identity politics tends to be more collectivist, to deemphasize the right of the individual to speak and think freely, and to subjugate those rights to the interests of a moral hierarchy, in which groups are privileged in their freedom to think and speak (at least in certain social contexts) in proportion to the degree of oppression they have traditionally endured at the hands of western power structures.

Although the liberal tradition was refined in post seventeenth-century Western European and American society and was the product of European cultural experiences, you do not have to be of that lineage in order to lay claim to that philosophical heritage. (Neither do you have to be born outside that lineage to oppose it.) However, the intuitive persuasiveness of intersectionality and identity politics lies in the fact that they rest upon sociological presumptions that resonate with the experiences of many people. The larger social progressive critique of western society is that it is built upon oppression and inequality. The oppressed and their allies, therefore, must band together to challenge these structures.

For many people in the west, these truths are as old as they are self-evident. They are attested to by a hundred years of racial segregation, by two hundred years of post-industrial exploitation of labor, by nearly two hundred and fifty years of African slavery, by four hundred years of Native American genocide, by five hundred years of colonialism and by a history of the subjugation of women dating from time immemorial. Throughout these histories, collective action—whether warfare, civil disobedience or activism—has always been a response to collective oppression.

This is not the first time left-wing political movements in the US have brought together ethnically and economically diverse constituencies to advocate for broad-based social and policy change. As Noam Chomsky has argued, such coalitions were responsible for producing the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s, the Great Society and the New Deal in the 1930s. Their origins can be traced back to the beginnings of the country’s history.

Yet the left-wing view of itself as the conscious home of the overlapping political and social interests of the most disparately marginalized groups of society has now matured to a level previously unseen. The concept of ‘intersectionality,’ though evident in unarticulated form before, originated in the 1980s and has been popularized in recent years. Kimberle Crenshaw, the inventor of the term, argues that: “When feminism does not explicitly oppose racism, and when antiracism does not incorporate opposition to patriarchy, race and gender politics often end up antagonistic to each other and both interests lose.” There is legitimate historical ground for this assertion. Nearly a century and a half ago, Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who had been allies in the causes of abolition and both ‘Negro’ and women’s suffrage, parted company over the question of which movement to prioritize—to the probable detriment of both. Historically, alliances between groups fighting overlapping but demographically separate struggles for equality have frequently found it difficult to maintain their coalitions, even when dedicated to a fundamentally common cause.

Intersectional and identity-based, left-wing politics (as well as right-wing identity politics, among white men, Christians, landowners, etc.) existed two centuries before Ta-Nehisi Coates and Linda Sarsour. There is, however, an important difference between Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the principles of the Civil Rights Movement which followed a century later and those who have taken up the mantle of their cause today—and this difference suggests that there is hope for classical liberal individualism.

Frederick Douglass, once the world’s most renowned ‘Negro,’ was a product of the western philosophical tradition. The resounding declarative statement of his life was the simple phrase “I am a man!” which punctuated his speeches. It is a declaration of the equality of the African and the European. Yet it also implies that the highest bounty of freedom is the opportunity to assert oneself as an individual—unique, distinct, and equal in rights to all other men. It is the ultimate statement of individualism.

In the speeches of Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, we encounter the words ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ more often than the word ‘equality.’ Douglass and Stanton fought for an equality of opportunity that would allow people of all races and genders to exercise their rights freely, succeeding or failing upon their own merits. Their fight for equality was real, the constituencies supportive of their battle diverse. Yet their mission was an inherently liberal one. It kept faith with the values of the Enlightenment.

The classical liberal core that has always sustained the struggle for freedom and equal rights in the West has been dislodged somewhat from what professes to be the liberal (more often termed progressive or even ‘leftist’) cause today. Progressive rhetoric focuses more on freedom of lifestyle and equality of outcomes than it has in the past, and its traditional embrace of collective activism has morphed into a larger embrace of collective identity over individual sovereignty.

In his book, The Once and Future Liberal, Mark Lilla bemoans the rise of modern identity politics in our contemporary liberal culture. Yet he regards this as the result of the dissolution of a broader identity politics, based on universal solidarity with the identity of the nation. Interestingly, Lilla also attributes this degeneration to the hyper-individualistic conservative American politics of the 1980s. Yet ultimately what Lilla truly laments is the decline of individualism, if not in the libertarian, then in the Enlightenment sense. In an interview with Isaac Chotiner, Lilla argues:

I would really date the break around 1980. From the New Deal up until 1980, you can think of that as one era of American politics and American liberal politics. The sort of governing ideas were solidarity, equal protection under the law, public duty, and there was a sense of the country pulling together ever since the Depression and Second World War to take care of each other.

With the arrival of Reagan, there was what I call in the book a new dispensation so that certain assumptions about what matters in politics—what can be said, what is not said, what the terms of debate are—all changed.

We went from a political vision of what we are as a country based on equal citizenship to an anti-political vision of the government being the problem, of people being solitary individuals in the market, in their families, in their churches, but without any common purpose as a nation. And at that moment, beginning in 1980, that was the moment when it was up to liberals to meet this anti-political vision of the country with a new political one that was adapted to the times and took into account all the mistakes and failures that had taken place before. We didn’t do that.

…The reason we fought in the civil rights movement isn’t because of difference. We fought for equal rights because every citizen, by virtue of being a citizen, deserves to have those rights. And so the language we employed on the left was that of equal citizenship and solidarity.

As Lilla suggests here, identification with the nation has always been a core tenet of citizenship. Citizenship, an Enlightenment notion, is based on the recognition of individual agency and the right of the individual to have a say in his or her own government and to determine his or her (the ‘her’ came later) own autonomous point of view. The United States has always been viewed a nation of individuals, but a nation nevertheless, as the country’s de facto national motto suggests: E Pluribus Unum, ‘out of many, one.’

In our own time, there has been a great deal of resistance, from the center-left and the right, to the swelling tide of collectivism and anti-Western sentiment on the modern left. See, for example, Jordan Peterson’s acerbic defense of the legacy of Western civilization:

The individual has intrinsic value in Western societies. Do you know how long it took people to formulate that as an idea? … The law has to respect you. God, we don’t want to abandon that for some half-witted collectivism … one of the things that characterizes the radical left types is they don’t give a damn about you as an individual, or about individuals at all. You’re black or you’re white, you’re Latino or you’re transsexual, or you’re homosexual. Whatever. You’re a member of a group and the only thing that matters is the group.

Underlying this resistance is a fear that the primacy of the individual in liberal thought no longer has any broad-based appeal on the multicultural left. If the movement’s animating forces are collectivism and anti-westernism, then its adherents would seem by definition impenetrable to classical liberal assumptions.

Yet history shows us that true liberal values have never been without their appeal on the multicultural left. The ‘rugged individualism’ of libertarian conservatism (with its focus on small government and free market purism and its historical indifference to the plight of the underprivileged) has no appeal for the cultural left. Nor do either neo-liberalism (which Cornel West describes as “financialized, privatized, militarized”) or institutional Democratic party politics.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a product of the Western tradition. He was schooled in the Enlightenment and in Classical philosophy, and he always upheld the ideals of the founding fathers. Yet he also said that “an individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

The liberal narrative cannot exist outside of a cultural narrative. But cultural narratives vary. Nevertheless, a philosophical narrative can span many cultures and the philosophical liberal narrative has done so.

The liberalism of Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Martin Luther King, Jr. connects our concerns for humanity with our aspirations for the individual. The narrative of individualism may have lost its appeal on the multicultural left, but it has also ceased to be the main story that liberal individualism tells. Outside its cultural context (or tethered to a homogenous one) the story ceases to be a story for everyone. It ceases to be relevant to the concerns of those who currently oppose it. Individualism as mere theory is limited in its portability. Yet a liberal individualism that speaks to the experiences of those who have previously thought that only collective action and tit-for-tat reversals of racial privilege can remedy the inequities of society may yet be accepted by many on the left. For there are many who are still longing for the day when, echoing Frederick Douglass, they can say ‘I am a woman’ or ‘I am a man!’ Or perhaps ‘I am an individual, and my mind is my own.’

What narrative does such a liberal individualism call for? That is the question to which we must turn.


*This article initially misstated the date of Locke’s second treatise. Thank you to the reader who pointed out the error.


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  1. It’s a thought provoking article! I’ve just finished Haidt’s book and Richard Nisbett’s book is on deck. I have a minor point of criticism. John Locke was born in 1632, but his ‘Second Treatise’ was published in 1690. He was partly responding to Thomas Hobbes’ ‘Leviathan’ from 1651. It’s somewhat controversial to emphasize Locke as a proponent of individual rights, because like Hobbes, he was writing about the Social Contract. Locke only wanted to establish personal rights as a means to justify rebellion in cases where the government was not providing for the safety of the common-wealth. Hobbes, in contrast, didn’t see the need to limit the authority of the Monarch. Both Locke and Hobbes agreed that the social contract was a sort of tacit agreement that was ordinarily enormously beneficial and that many of the rights of the individual were better off subordinated to the benefit of society.

  2. I very much enjoy reading your pieces, John. And I like the way you brought in a variety of voices. Not many people can reference voices as disparate as Kimberle Crenshaw and Jordan Peterson (who I am not a fan of) in one article. It’s a testament to your commitment to resisting the polarization within US politics.

    However, there are some voices on the Left that are actually saying that the traditional “liberal”/”conservative” paradigm does not really describe what is currently happening. Adolph Reed, a professor of African-American Studies and long-time labor organizer, argues that what we have is a “bipartisan neoliberalism” with one party (the Democrats) that is good on multicultural/diversity/inclusion issues and one party (Republicans) that is reactionary and terrible on those issues; but he argues that both parties do nothing to address the deepening economic inequality in the US caused by unmitigated capitalism and Wall Street greed.

    Reed argues that the consolidation of the identitarian left-wing of neoliberalism occurred with the election of Barack Obama and that this form of politics becomes a way of avoiding speaking about and/or addressing economic inequality. He even argues that race/gender/sexuality equity paradigms were wielded by Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primaries to “red bait” Bernie Sanders and argue that his redistributive economic agenda was inherently racist and white supremacist. Reed and other writers even hit back at the notion currently promoted among some on the Left that *all* white people who voted for Trump did so only because of “a deep psychological investment in white supremacy.” Of course, some of them were driven by racism and white supremacy but to say *all* of them were ignores the fact that there were a sizable number of people who voted for Barack Obama both times and then voted for Trump. People also forget that about 42 percent of the country did not vote at all. Here’s an interview he did with Bill Moyers in 2014 as well as a link to pieces he has published for NonSite:


    I started reading these contrarian Leftist perspectives from Reed and others because I was dissatisfied with the reductive narratives that were coming out of what Reed calls the “left wing of neoliberalism.” I towed what he calls the “reductive identitarian” line of thinking for pretty much the entirety of President Obama’s administration, but over the last few years, my thinking has shifted greatly. I deeply regret not supporting Senator Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primaries because I now believe that his redistributive agenda, which included single-payer health care, would have benefited peop from all backgrounds and may have even disproportionately benefited people of color – the majority of whom are working class, much like the majority of people living in the United States.

    I do think that Sanders sinks into class reductionism at times. And his votes against gun control measures and against immigration reform are concerning. And his explanation for why he voted for the 1994 crime bill is unsatisfactory. But the same can be said for Hillary Clinton’s support for the war in Iraq, her lip service paid to the 1994 Crime Bill, her lack of support for LGBT people until it was politically untenable to be opposed to same-sex marriage. I voted for her and vocally supported her but mostly out of a sense of obligation. I could never vote for someone like Jill Stein or Gary Johnson. Jill Stein has no governing experience and often foments anti-science sentiments on the Left; and I have no interest in libertarian free market fundamentalism, so Johnson is a “no-go” for me.

    I’ve just grown so tired of the amnesia from so many people within the US Left/Center Left. I cannot tell you how many texts/messages/memes I receive that read “Hillary was right about everything” as if she and team did not make any mistakes. We all know that is inaccurate. And the facile “anti-Trump” resistance is just reactionary performance to distract the Left from the fact that it doesn’t have an organized counter-message and the fact that most Democrats have done nothing but be the “less bad” alternative.

    Sorry for this long response. I just so greatly appreciate your commitment to countering the polarization. Thank you.

  3. I lived during the time Democrats were composed of populations of poor, mostly non-white populations whose only choice on ballots was to elect white men on a party platform promising equality standards. Those were the days of Democratic white men politicians who made sure schools were desegregated but sent their children to affluent, all-white, private schools.

    On the other hand Republicans, during those same early days of the 50s through early 70s, were composed mainly of all-white mid-to-upper-middle-class and the extraordinarily wealthy who promised to not raise taxes on the middle class whose taxed income solely supported the poor while also financing politicians to make laws which might could exclude them from paying high taxes and, unlike Democrats, had no care or worries what people thought if they sent their kids to private schools or held lavish lifestyles off tax payer’s monies.

    Then things changed or flipped: Democrats became multicultural due to many affluent white people who left Republican mind-sets and became concerned(?) or became more aware of the need for equality and joined Democratic platforms which views support, respect and give concern for all individuals or groups no matter their skin color, faith, sexuality. Affluent people who chose Democrat platforms are also the “new rich”—folks who earned great amounts of money due to being highly paid actors, television personalities. sports figures, music entertainers and who are of color or part of the continuing rainbow which makes up society.

    The affluent white politicians affiliated with the Democrat platform spoke up and told a truth to the American people—tattled on themselves as well—during the past recent presidential election that 2% of the population who enjoy their great and splendid wealth are above the law of this great nation and do not pay any taxes whatsoever! But no one seemed to give heed or care about this monumental, reality changing, important truth. Former President Obama tried to make the banks, the rich help out but The Recession was abated off the beleaguered hard-working mid-to-upper-middle-class who simultaneous were, as always, paying exhorbitant taxes to help the poor, build and maintain city/town infrastructure, etc. and lost their homes and a large part of their retirement savings.

    Changes which occurred within the past few years for Republican Party platform is a large flop to the right, toward not respecting individual or group rights involving race based on immigration issues and desire to discontinue the employment equal opportunity program, Republican religious beliefs became one and the same with platform which imposes such views on a woman’s right to an abortion, and refusal to accept the moral right of everyone to have access to affordable or tax paid medical care. The latter concern is due to the many business owners who are striving for the “brass ring” of wealth but who don’t want to give a portion of their profits for employee health care so they choose the wealthy Republican “fuck you” attitude toward their employees and grumble about Obamacare.

    American small business owners have more in common with Republican fondness for attaining and keeping their wealth intact like the super rich 2% and prefer no laws enacted which impede their business from making profits by imposing fines, penalties if they do not adhere to stringent rules in following EEOC, EPA standards, employee health insurance guidelines, etc.

    Political topic doesn’t deserve philosophizing; however, the political system needs change, revamping. For quite some time politics has mutated into a flawed flip flopping, bickering two-party system. It makes no sense Bernie Sanders was not elected as president mainly due to the political two-party system rules which do not allow a non-party or independent to vote during primary election. Plus, the electoral college is no longer needed based long ago on fairness relating to regional state population disparities and is the main fault/reason Trump was elected not because of some diabolical Russian plan. If the Russians were involved, it stands to reason they interfered during the Democrats choosing of Clinton over Sanders.

    The author offers intellectual pondering during times populations of citizens and noncitizens who aren’t choosing to watch a Kardashian contrivance on tv, is only exposed to political soundbites repeated every 30 minutes by a biased media network. It’s possible our next president could well be again another wealthy tv personality crazy and thick-skinned enough to want to go for it.

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