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John Feehery: The limits of individualism

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recent Pew survey provided a fascinating glimpse into America’s millennial generation. 

According to Pew, “half of Millennials now describe themselves as political independents, and about 3 in 10 (29%) say they are not affiliated with any religion. These are at or near the highest levels of political and religious disaffiliation recorded for any generation in the quarter century that the Pew Research Center has been polling on these topics.”

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The survey also found that this group is the more digitally connected, as well as more distrustful of its fellow citizens. And here is this little nugget from the report: “Millennials are also distinctive in how they place themselves at the center of self-created digital networks. Fully 55 percent have posted a ‘selfie’ on a social media site; no other generation is nearly as inclined to do this.”

It is no surprise that the millennial generation is the most self-absorbed in history. Its members learned it from the baby boomers. 

We live in an age of nonconformity. The American people are besieged by advertisements to do their own thing, to be their own person, that they deserve it done their way, to listen only to the beat of their own drum.

This manifests itself in different ways. On the left, Facebook now gives users 56 ways to identify their gender. On the right, the homeschoolers are becoming the heart and soul of the conservative movement.

America has always prized the individual. The American dream is all about individual achievement. And we are a liberty-loving people whose top values include the freedom of speech, religion and assembly.

But the impulses of the individual have always been counter-balanced by strong societal institutions, whether it be a vibrant religious marketplace, a binary political choice (Republican or Democrat), labor unions and fraternal organizations like the Rotary Club or the Knights of Columbus and, of course, marriage. 

Our culture might have glorified the individual, but for most of our history, it was these institutions that helped to shape that individual so that he or she could succeed within a framework of conformity. And ultimately, it is some measure of conformity that makes a democracy work. 

For our kind of democratic Republic to work, the people have to delegate certain powers to their elected representatives, and with that delegation comes a certain amount of trust. But if the people don’t trust their fellow citizens, how can they trust their elected representatives? 

And that is where you hit the limits of individualism. 

We are seeing the fraying of the social contract in both political parties, but perhaps more acutely in the Republican Party today. 

Sure, Barack Obama is unpopular with the conservative base, but almost as unpopular are Republican leaders John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. There is little patience to follow the leaders within the GOP. Trust has broken down. The movement will not be satisfied. 

The Republican Party used to fall in line, but now, it is seemingly falling apart. The Tea Party insurgency is virulently distrustful of big government, big business and big labor. It despises the “Republican Establishment.” It has even declared war on the Chamber of Commerce. 

The Democratic Party will not escape this chaos, as we hit the limits of individualism. The gender and racial political alliances upon which the modern party is built are not sturdy. One slip of the tongue, one off-color joke can end the career of a Democratic politician. 

Liberals are even more anti-establishment than the Tea Party. They glorify Edward Snowden just as they call for the dismemberment of Wall Street. The Democrats are primarily a secular party that ignores, if not condemns, most church teachings (such as on abortion and gay marriage). The party has come unmoored from any religious values. It glorifies the individual, no matter what choices that individual might make.

This process didn’t start with the millennials, but they are taking it to the next level. The selfie generation has learned from the baby boomers to do their own thing, and our political system will suffer as a result. 

Feehery is president of QGA Public Affairs and blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com. He served as spokesman to former Speaker of the House Denny Hastert (R-Ill.), as communications director to Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) when he was majority whip and as speechwriter to former Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.).