Indeed, many of the corporate titans who dominate the American imagination live by an ideology of individualism that barely masks selfishness and an air of superiority. A philosophy of supreme self-reliance is common, and the pursuit of unfettered self-interest is considered a laudable ethic to live by. The idea that one must do what is best for oneself at every turn – and that only those willing to live by this code deserve to prevail in the economy – has been translated into a subtle but powerful cultural narrative about the unimpeachable fairness of the market and the undeservingness of the poor. Redistributive programs are often criticized as wasteful and an irresponsible use of resources. But lavish displays of luxury, flamboyant parties, global travel, and opulent mansions are the social currency of the elite – all propped up by a growing underclass of largely immigrant laborers.
A drift toward self-centeredness in private life is matched in the public square. In politics, an overfocus on the promotion of one’s own interests at the expense of others’ has created an environment of relentless zero-sum competition and a repeated failure of compromise. Public debates are characterized not by deliberation on differing ideas, but by demonization of those on the opposing side. Party platforms move toward the extremes. And those in power seek to consolidate their influence by disenfranchising voters unsupportive of their views. The result is a nation more and more fragmented along economic, ideological, racial, and ethnic lines, and more and more dominated by leaders who prove shrewdest at the game of divide and conquer. The inevitable result is political gridlock and a hobbled public sector. Decaying infrastructure, inadequate basic services, and outmoded public programs are a national embarrassment. Citizens rightly despair of elected officials ever being able to accomplish anything at all.
From “The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again” by Robert D. Putnam