There is growing consensus in the United States of the potential collapse of democracy, and many scholars question whether America will be able to address the challenges necessary to avert it. At the heart of the issue is the disintegration of civil society. In a remarkable book on the subject – Democracy on Trial – Jean Elshtain (1995: 5) notes, “As a civic question – and it is by no means a civic matter alone – the locus of despair speaks to the loss of civil society. This deepening emptiness, and kind of evacuation of civic spaces, lies in the background of our current discontents, helping to explain why democracy is going through an ordeal of self-understanding as we near the end of the twentieth century.”
Through example and illumination of contemporary societal distress Elshtain is successful in painting a picture of eminent despair – “the growth of cynicism and the atrophy of civil society; too much acquisitive individualism that translates ‘wants’ into ‘rights’; an increase in disrespect of, even contempt for, the rule-governed practices that make democracy work; a politics of displacement that disdains any distinction between public and private and aims to open up all aspects of life to the harsh glare of publicity; the neglect of practical politics in favor of proclamations of one’s unassailable and exclusive identity as a member of a group defined by race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual preference; and a waning of our ability to transmit democratic dispositions and dreams to succeeding generations through education” (117-118).
Through this rendition Elshtain is successful in pointing to the degradation of civil society, most specifically as the result of increased individualism. This tautological approach, however, risks undermining potential solutions by ignoring the foundational reasons for increased individualism in the United States. In fact it is possible to have both negative and positive developments of individualism, a better understanding of which can be seen by an analysis of individual needs and individual reactions to environmental stimuli. Such an analysis may lend to a better understanding of not only how “negative individualism” develops in the U.S., but appropriate means by which these negative developments of individualism can be avoided in the future without loss of unique American individualism that stands as a forefront of American success and prosperity.
Such an analysis, however, must consider both the individual as a unique human being, with individual wants, desires, and needs, as well as the individual responding to environmental queues which affect their behavior by providing either impetus for, or roadblocks to, their needs and desires. Civil society begins to atrophy when collective behavior is the result of a sufficient number of individuals who feel that collective ends are thwarting their own individual needs, resulting in further exaggeration of negative individualism...