The ease with which President Biden and House Speaker Kenneth McCarthy reached a deal on the debt limit and the speed with which it passed through both houses of Congress gives us a rare view of democracy as it should work. Ross Douthart, in today’s New York Times (June 6, 2023) credits this success to a trait rare in today’s legislators—McCarthy’s devotion to the job itself. This distinction between the job and one’s own stardom illustrates today’s hyper-individualism so clearly it is well worth thinking about.
Douthart sees this stardom mindset, what Yuval Levin of American Enterprise Institute calls the “platform mentality,” as a good part of what has gone wrong with American institutions today. He cites examples on the Republican side over the decades, from Newt Gingrich’s wish to be a Great Man in History to Ted Cruz’s grandstanding to “performance artists” like Marjorie Taylor Green.Such performers, he notes, take over the media, making policy-centered legislators look like prisoners. Biden, on the Democratic side, was devoted to the job itself during his senatorial years and carries that trait into the Presidency, in contrast to Obama, who was constantly impatient with the limitations of his power. That Biden and McCarthy both carry this rare trait gave us a week of democracy as it could be—often was and could be again.
It’s easy to blame politicians for the state of almost everything, but the truth, of course, is that they mirror us—and the distinction between the self-centered and job-centered we can see in our own lives. I used to ask students whether they could identify star-centered versus team-centered players on their athletic teams. Every hand in the room shot up. No problem.
I found the difference between the contrasting traits evident during my own career after the Writing Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara, split from the English Department and began the independent development of both curriculum and classes. After a half dozen years of program building, we began to attract notice in the field—and I began to notice a difference in our job applicants. They weren’t applying to help build a program; they wanted the job on their resumes.
On the national level, the whole crisis over mandatory vaccination can be seen in this light, and the death toll demonstrates the effect. It’s deceptively easy to label this hyper-individualism as a Republican, or conservative trait, with its focus on limited government and individual achievement, but there is plenty of demagoguery on both sides. Nor do I believe in the traditional gender division of self and service or in binary “either/or” divisions of any sort. What is clear is that after forty years of self-centered hyper-individualism, we are living with the results. The debt limit experience brings into glaring relief our critical need for problem solvers, and the reassuring news that they still exist.