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America is in a watershed moment. Since the 1980s, the country has focused on individualism: the idea that the expansion of the federal government after the Depression in the 1930s created a form of collectivism that we must destroy by cutting taxes and slashing regulation to leave individuals free to do as they wish.
Domestically, that ideology meant dismantling government regulation, social safety networks, and public infrastructure projects. Internationally, it meant a form of “cowboy diplomacy” in which the U.S. usually acted on its own to rebuild nations in our image.
Now, President Joe Biden appears to be trying to bring back a focus on the common good.
For all that Republicans today insist that individualism is the heart of Americanism, in fact the history of federal protection of the common good began in the 1860s with their own ancestors, led by Abraham Lincoln, who wrote: “The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves—in their separate, and individual capacities.”
The contrast between these two ideologies has been stark this week.
On the one hand are those who insist that the government cannot limit an individual’s rights by mandating either masks or vaccines, even in the face of the deadly Delta variant of the coronavirus that is, once again, taking more than 1000 American lives a day.
In New York, where Mayor Bill de Blasio has required teachers to be vaccinated, the city’s largest police union has said it will sue if a vaccine is mandated for its members.
In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott on Wednesday issued an executive order prohibiting any government office or any private entity receiving government funds from requiring vaccines.
In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis has also forbidden mask mandates, but last week Leon County Circuit Judge John C. Cooper ruled that DeSantis’s order is unconstitutional. Cooper pointed out that in 1914 and 1939, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that individual rights take a back seat to public safety: individuals can drink alcohol, for example, but not drive drunk. DeSantis was scathing of the opinion and has vowed to appeal. Meanwhile, NBC News reported this week that information about the coronavirus in Florida, as well as Georgia, is no longer easily available on government websites.
On the other hand, as predicted, the full approval of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine by the Food and Drug Administration has prompted a flood of vaccine mandates.
The investigation into the events of January 6, when a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, also showcases the tension between individualism and community.
Last week, after months in which Republicans, including former president Donald Trump, called for the release of the identity of the officer who shot Capitol rioter Ashli Babbitt, Capitol Police officer Lieutenant Michael Byrd, the 28-year veteran of the force who shot Babbitt, gave an interview to Lester Holt of NBC News.
Right-wing activists have called Babbitt a martyr murdered by the government, but Byrd explained that he was responsible for protecting 60 to 80 members of the House and their staffers. As rioters smashed the glass doors leading into the House chamber, Byrd repeatedly called for them to get back. When Ashli Babbitt climbed through the broken door, he shot her in the shoulder. She later died from her injuries. Byrd said he was doing his job to protect our government. “I know that day I saved countless lives,” Byrd told Holt. “I know members of Congress, as well as my fellow officers and staff, were in jeopardy and in serious danger. And that’s my job.”
The conflict between individualism and society also became clear last week as the House select committee looking into the attack asked social media giants to turn over “all reviews, studies, reports, data, analyses, and communications” they had gathered about disinformation distributed by both foreign and domestic actors, as well as information about “domestic violent extremists” who participated in the attack.
Representative Jim Banks (R-IN) immediately responded that “Congress has no general power to inquire into private affairs and to compel disclosure….” He urged telecommunications companies and Facebook not to hand over any materials, calling their effort an “authoritarian undertaking.” Banks told Fox News Channel personality Tucker Carlson that Republicans should punish every lawmaker investigating the January 6 insurrection if they retake control of Congress in 2022.
Biden’s new turn is especially obvious tonight in international affairs. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, a country we entered almost 20 years ago with a clear mission that became muddied almost immediately, has sparked Republican criticism for what many describe as a U.S. defeat.
Since he took office, Biden has insisted on shifting American foreign policy away from U.S. troops alone on the ground toward multilateral pressure using finances and technology.
After last week’s bombing in Kabul took the lives of 160 Afghans and 13 American military personnel, Biden warned ISIS-K: “We will hunt you down and make you pay.”
Later, a new warning from the State Department warning Americans at the gates of the Kabul airport to “leave immediately” came just before a spokesman for CENTCOM, the United States Central Command in the Defense Department overseeing the Middle East, announced: “U.S. military forces conducted an over-the-horizon counterterrorism operation today against an ISIS-K planner. The unmanned airstrike occurred in the Nangarhar Province of Afghanistan. Initial indications are that we killed the target. We know of no civilian casualties.”
Biden’s strike on ISIS-K demonstrated the nation’s over-the-horizon technologies that he hopes will replace troops. Even still, the administration continues to call for international cooperation. In a press conference last week, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby responded to a question about U.S. control in Afghanistan by saying: “It’s not about U.S. control in the Indo-Pacific. It’s about protecting our country from threats and challenges that emanate from that part of the world. And it’s about revitalizing our network of alliances and partnerships to help our partners in the international community do the same.“
Also last week, news broke that the Taliban has asked the United States to keep a diplomatic presence in the country even after it ends its military mission. The Taliban continues to hope for international recognition, in part to claw back some of the aid that western countries—especially the U.S.—will no longer provide, as well as to try to get the country’s billions in assets unfrozen.
A continued diplomatic presence in Afghanistan would make it easier to continue to get allies and U.S. citizens out of the country, but State Department spokesman Ned Price said the idea is a nonstarter unless a future Afghan government protects the rights of its citizens, including its women, and refuses to harbor terrorists. Price also emphasized that the U.S. would not make this decision without consulting allies. “This is not just a discussion the United States will have to decide for itself.… We are coordinating with our international partners, again to share ideas, to ensure that we are sending the appropriate signals and messages to the Taliban,” he said.
Evacuations from Afghanistan continue. Since August 14, they have topped 110,000, with 12,500 people between last Thursday and Friday.
Perhaps the news story that best illustrates the tension today between individualism and using the government to help everyone is about a natural disaster. Hurricane Ida, which formed in the Caribbean last week, was barreling toward the U.S. Gulf Coast. When it hit western Cuba, it was a Category 1 storm, but meteorologists expected it to pick up speed as it crossed the warm gulf, becoming a Category 4 storm by the time it hit the U.S. coastline. The area from Louisiana to Florida was in the storm’s path. Expecting winds of up to 110 miles an hour and a storm surge of as much as 11 feet in New Orleans, Louisiana officials issued evacuation orders.
The storm was expected to hit Sunday evening, exactly 16 years after Hurricane Katrina did. But this time, there is another complication: this is the very part of the country suffering terribly right now from coronavirus. Standing firm on individual rights, only about 40% of Louisiana’s population has been vaccinated, and hospitals are already stretched thin.
Last week, President Biden declared an emergency in Louisiana, ordering federal assistance from the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to the region ahead of the storm, trying to head off a catastrophe. The federal government will also help to pay the costs of the emergency.
Heather Cox Richardson is a Professor of History at Boston College. This post originally appeared at her Substack, Letters from an American.