The political philosophers, historians, and sociologists who argue that a kind of rugged individualism is at the heart of the American character aren’t entirely wrong, but the familiar caricature of the individualistic American—someone ruthless doing whatever it takes to get ahead—does not match the reality we can see all around us. When the administration of my university sent students home in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of my friends and classmates returned to frightened siblings, laid-off parents, and ailing grandparents. If there was ever a time where narrow self-interest would be socially and morally acceptable, it would have been this spring. But the isolation-induced breakdown of social bonds that some commentators anticipated did not occur. Instead, friendships deepened, and new ones formed. Social media—typically a bastion of self-aggrandizement—transformed into a hub for offering free meals, empty couches, and FaceTime calls to talk about life. As generations of Americans before them, people my age put their communities first in a time of crisis. Which is to say that, as Tocqueville pointed out long ago, American individualism is not about a simplistic autonomy but is fundamentally rooted in community.
In 2018, while still in college, I applied to teach a civics class at an underprivileged Austin high school. My idealism led me to believe I could teach kids to love democracy. In the first class, I encountered some of the most cynical teenagers I have ever met. For these kids, the only thing that felt longer than this class period was the list of problems with American society.
These students had a perspective on America very different from that of the suburban kids with whom I had taken civics lessons in high school. They did not accept America as it is. Instead, they dreamed of and believed in a brighter future. Sure, as young people, they leaned left. But even as they spoke about injustice and dysfunction, they judged their visions of a better society by how it would strive to realize America’s ideals. These high schoolers from South Austin taught me about patriotism: not wave-a-flag and grill-a-hot-dog patriotism but a true, sincere desire to forge a more perfect union.