This essay explores the variety of discourses around individualism that now characterize American society, and their impact on contemporary social movements and political speech and practice. Though the United States is divided between those who embrace a cosmopolitan liberalism and nativist and populist reactions against it, I argue that contemporary vocabularies of the self, from romantic expressivism and entrepreneurial individualism to aesthetic and networked forms, underlie these different political perspectives. These modes of individualism have developed in the context of the rise of neo-liberalism, reflexive modernity, increased social media use, and the crisis of contemporary institutions. These languages of the self also inform the personal politics of modern social movements, including Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the Tea Party, and the election of Donald Trump.
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This division can be seen clearly in the demographics of political identification. African Americans and other people of color, the religiously unaffiliated, and post-graduate educated college women are overwhelmingly democratic; whites, especially white southerners, white men with some college or less, and white evangelical Protestants tend to be conservative (Pew, 2015a).
To the extent that people form communities with one another, they often resemble “urban tribes,” whereby people come together around shared experiences and similar life stages. These trends, while affecting everyone, have particularly influenced young people. They give each other support, but these urban tribes do not have the long-lasting characteristics of a family or even close friendships that last for years (Watters, 2003; Klinenberg, 2012).
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I would like to thank Jeffrey Alexander, Sherry Silveus Tucker, and two anonymous reviewers for comments on this article.
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Tucker, K.H. The political is personal, expressive, aesthetic, and networked: Contemporary American languages of the self from Trump to Black Lives Matter. Am J Cult Sociol 6, 359–386 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41290-017-0027-9
- reflexive individualism
- social media
- networked social movements
- personal politics