by Hanna Alwine
Picture this: a twenty-something Ohioan who smokes cigarettes, is really into farming, wears Carharrt jeans, has a penchant for red hats, and is a staunch individualist. Am I describing an Obie with lots of school spirit or a Trump-sign-toting election denier?
While some of these similarities are pure coincidence (Carharrts have made a remarkable comeback) there is a strange intersection between the individualistic tendencies of the right and the left. In both groups, MAGA hat and mushroom foraging alike, there is an emphasis put on separating oneself from the pack.
Oberlin College seems to be a prime example of this phenomenon. Oberlin makes its claim to fame through a historically progressive campus culture. Admitting women since its founding and black students two years after, Oberlin was years ahead of its collegiate counterparts. It is consistently ranked in the top ten most liberal arts colleges in the United States. It boasts what was one of the first student run cooperative housing and dining organizations in America. It was a spot on the Underground Railroad. In an article from 2016 it was cited as “the gayest college in America.”
And yet, despite Oberlin’s apparent love for all things left leaning and cooperative, it holds a streak of stark individualism we generally associate with the right. Oberlin is a gold mine of niche interests and the discovery of all things ‘underground’ and ‘new wave.’ If you’ve heard of it, there’s sure to have been an ExCo taught about it. The more a band name sounds like it was created via a random phrase generator (Soccer Mommy, Camper Van Beethoven, They are Gutting a Body of Water, Car Seat Headrest, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, the list goes on) the more likely it is to have a cult following here on campus.
Individualism takes on a more serious tone in Oberlin political identification. Before I came to Oberlin I didn’t know the number of prepositions one could add or the number of ways one could combine the words anarchist and communist. And while this diversity of opinion could be construed as evidence of a critically thinking campus, at times the emphasis on these identifiers can seem performative, a means of separating from the herds of other politically active students. There is something dissonant about the ways in which self-proclaimed ‘leftists’ insist on separating themselves from the very communities they are meant to be working alongside.
While, to a certain extent this dissonance echoes a lack of engagement with or understanding of real world issues and communities – in other ways it seems to reflect a want for community and a means to self-define. It is here that left wing individualism and right wing individualism diverge. Republican individualism is characterized by “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” ideology, the popularity of Andrew Tate, and regular invocations of their right to “free speech” in order to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. It is continually used to separate from community and from others. On the other hand, left wing individualism seems to focus on the definition of identity. While this identity can be extremely individual, it can also serve communal purposes. There will always be those who gate-keep music and books and political thought, but there will also always be those who find common ground with individuals who are passionate about similar subjects. As this yearning for definition enters a political realm it points to a larger problem affecting left leaning groups nationwide – an inability to find a home in their political beliefs.
In a presentation J.M. Purvis, recent author of Democrats 101, gave to the Young Democrats of Northeastern Ohio, he identified this same perceived lack of leftist identity, though he focused specifically on identity in the Democratic party. His book and his talk highlighted a set of “Democratic Ideals” he had designed, what is essentially the Declaration of Independence restructured and reiterated. The list includes, but is not limited to: “All people are created equal, that this is America’s fundamental ideal” and “That America is a democracy by and for the people: ruled by the Constitution and its interpretations, protected by the Bill of Rights, and inspired by the Declaration of Independence.” His solution to the lack of cohesive Democratic identity is to link the values of the party to the values of America as a whole.
And while I agree with Purvis’s diagnosis – the Democratic party and left wing America are scattered and without direction on a good day – I don’t agree with his remedy. His stance promoting a bland, uninspiring overarching American/Democratic definition, highlights a key failing of Democratic leadership within the United States. Rather than recognizing the individual communities – the young and the marginalized – that make up the Democratic party and left wing constituents, the party has moved to make the party “more palatable” to moderates in hopes of gaining votes. But the sacrifice the Democratic party makes in appeasing the middle is this gradual loss of identity. The Democratic party of today no longer stands for its constituents. The problem is not that constituents are unsure of what they want, but an adherence to white bread, moderate ideology. In trying to appeal to everyone, the Democratic party has lost its sense of self.
It is here that left wing individualism and its propensity to bring together small groups of like-minded people, may be its saving grace. Though some of the individualism we see on the left seems performative – there remains value in defining who you are and what you believe in. In leaving the definition of a Democrat broad, ambiguous, and open to interpretation it loses the support of those who have been its strongest supporters. If the Democratic party wants to continue to be the party of the people, it needs to recognize the views of the individuals that make it a reality.