The rugged self-reliance Americans hold so dear, personified by John Wayne and the American cowboy and championed by President Reagan and politicians of the right, has turned "cancerous," rendering much of the country's middle class incapable of a commitment to its most basic institutions--marriage, family, religion and politics--according to new study published by the University of California Press.
The project, five years in the making, was conducted by an eminent Berkeley sociologist, Robert N. Bellah, and four other scholars representing the fields of sociology, theology and philosophy. Their work will be published in a 355-page book called "Habits of the Heart," scheduled to be released in late March.
Although few scholars or politicians have seen the book, those who know of it consider it part of an emerging and highly controversial national debate on the role of ethics and values in American society. And those who have actually read advance copies of the book are touting it as a "benchmark" study of the 1980s American character and the first in a series of "liberal counterattacks" against the neo-conservative movement that has dominated politics in recent years.
Both the title of the book and the questions raised in the project are based on a 150-year-old study, called "Democracy in America," by French observer Alexis de Tocqueville. In taking the "moral pulse" of America in the 1830s, De Tocqueville found the same erosive private individualism that Bellah and his colleagues found in the 1980s--"only it is worse today," Bellah said.
In interviewing white, middle-class Americans, Bellah and his colleagues found that many people in this country have been swept away by "radical individualism," a sense that, as one psychotherapist they interviewed put it, "In the end you're really alone, and you really have to answer to yourself."
"We are concerned," Bellah and his colleagues said in the study, "that this individualism may have grown cancerous . . . that it may be threatening the survival of freedom itself."
The result is that the institutions that safeguard democracy and freedom are being threatened, they said. People marry, for example, not out of loyalty or a sense of commitment or a belief in the value of the institution of marriage and family, but out of a sense of "psychological self-fulfillment." They become involved in politics, not out of a sense of civic obligation or a desire to seek what is best for the community as a whole but in an effort to defend their own "special interests."
That is why politics has become so "morally unsavory" to many Americans and "the politician" is held in such low regard, Bellah explained in a recent telephone interview. "People assume that, if you are in the game of politics, you are not playing fairly. You are not getting involved because you are a good citizen. You are not seeking what is best for the community. You are there for reasons of utility. You are after your own interests."
Bellah did note that "there is a growing nostalgia for the small town, a lot of talk about traditional values." But, he added, "A lot of it is awfully shallow and a bit phony. . . . For the most part, people simply do not have the language to talk about those concerns. . . . We hope the book at least will begin that discussion again."
Among the handful of scholars who have read the book, the discussion certainly has begun. Daniel Bell, a professor of social science at Harvard University, said that for several years now, Americans "have been hearing from the intellectuals on the right, the conservatives" who have provided much of the underpinnings of the Reagan Administration's emphasis on the "individuals and their right to do their own thing, unencumbered by government. . . ."
"The Bellah study and others (that are now under way) move in the direction of asking what it means to be part of a community, " Bell said. In a written comment prepared for the publisher, Bell concluded that the study would become "the contemporary benchmark from which to look back and to look forward, in the continuing inquiry about American culture."
Commented Bill Honig, California's superintendent of public instruction, who has also read the study: "I think the book is timely in the sense that it raises the right issues. . . . The reason I think it is important . . . is that people seem to have lost their civic, ethical and moral connection to one another and they are uneasy about this, but they aren't sure what to do. . . .
"The Moral Majority has responded to this (uneasiness)," Honig said, "but, for the most part, their answers are too narrow, they are simply not sophisticated enough."
Working with Bellah on the project were four younger scholars, all but one of whom had been students of his at UC Berkeley or Harvard.
Ann Swindler, who now teaches sociology at Stanford, conducted interviews about love and marriage in several suburban neighborhoods in and around San Jose and the Silicon Valley.