Held down by our bootstraps? Author Alissa Quart says the myth of American individualism is a poor excuse for inequality.

By Kelly Candaele, Capital & Main

This story is produced by the award-winning journalism nonprofit Capital & Main and co-published here with permission.

In Alissa Quart’s new book Bootstrapped — Liberating Ourselves From the American Dream, the author argues that the ideology of American individualism guides us all, whether we are conscious of it or not. If you are practicing individual “mindfulness,” Quart cautions that you might just be adapting to the “needs of the elites.” If you have embraced a punishing work schedule for Uber or Lyft, it’s likely that you are justifying it on the basis of “individual initiative” and “freedom.”

During the pandemic, when we were all at our most vulnerable and in need of a strong social institution, Quart was researching and writing Bootstrapped, to examine how our national myths of individualism contribute to economic inequality and political stalemate. She looked closely at famous literary works — Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self Reliance” and the pioneer stories of the Little House on the Prairie book series — to expose not only the authors’ personal hypocrisy but, more importantly, how these works have skewed our understanding of American history.

If tales of individual “bootstrapping” — the term itself has a complex history — partially shape how we view ourselves in relation to others, Quart offers an alternative way of exploring the complex web of mutual obligations that are also part of our national experience. How do we “unmake the self-made myth,” Quart asks. Bootstrapped offers a number of ways in which people acting together have created movements and organizations that meet the collective needs that most people have. 

The “bootstrap lie is finite,” Quart writes in her last chapter. Whatever benefits the beliefs provide do not trickle down. We are all interdependent, dependent and independent at different times in our lives. Quart believes that telling those divergent and complex stories can help liberate us from what has become a dangerous ideology.

Quart is executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a nonprofit supporting independent journalists to change systems perpetuating economic hardship. She spoke to Capital & Main from her home in Brooklyn. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Capital & Main: Can you explain the basic theme of the book?  

Alissa Quart: “Pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps” has become a well-known phrase that supposedly describes a requirement to get ahead and advance by your own steam. We become successful, this idea goes, not by dint of birth or privilege — the things that really do tend to make people wealthy and functional in this country. But instead, all you have to do is use your grit and your resilience and you will thrive and prosper. This is a fundamental national myth. The individual is what matters rather than larger structures that help people: strong unions, affirmative action, affordable housing and other support systems.

As you point out, this idea is internalized in many ways. It’s a complicated history, but how did we arrive at this place where individualism is such a strong theme in our national story?

It’s part of our history for sure. You have Benjamin Franklin crediting endless hard work as the great equalizer. Later, Henry David Thoreau wrote of the benefits of radical independence. It also comes from the writer Horatio Alger, who wrote novels that endorsed the view of people achieving success on their own. It’s there in the pioneer stories of how a bunch of brave men settled the West, but even there they were benefiting from the Homestead Act of 1862, where mostly white men got these parcels of land that were essentially taken from Indigenous people.

You also see it in the political speeches of Hoover and Ronald Reagan and even through Bill Clinton. Business leaders like Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie push the same idea of self-reliance and the theme emerges in religion too, [such as in] the so-called prosperity gospel of Norman Vincent Peale.   

This ideology is not just an ideology. It also serves particular economic and social interests.

You see it translated into tax policy, in our ideas of philanthropy and even in our “nonsystem” child care system, where the argument is that if we are truly independent, women should be able to take care of their families without needing support from a country or commons. And it’s also woven into how we view our own psychology. Often we think that if we are not happy, it’s our problem, and we just have to show more grit, or the new terminology, more “mindfulness,” and we’d achieve greater equipoise. The “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” story, in other words, justifies many different kinds of inequality. 

You point to the gig economy as a way in which this way of thinking diminishes our ability to act collectively. We are told that gig jobs are structured around individual initiative.

I spent a lot of time with gig workers. To start with, yes, they are often being exploited but also they don’t necessarily conform to this idea we have of people who are exploited. Some gig workers said they did these jobs without health care or support because “I have freedom with my time.” “I don’t have a boss yelling at me.” “I have autonomy.” These were the reasons they chose these gig jobs.

But at the same time, during the pandemic they were also mad as they had few protections. They weren’t even getting hand sanitizer or masks. At different junctures, requests for rideshare cars or supermarket shoppers were erratic. Meanwhile, the people running these companies were making money hand over fist while not giving any support to their gig workers and often crushing their union attempts.

Part of your book is about other books. You write about Emerson and Laura Ingalls of Little House on the Prairie and Ayn Rand, pointing out the high percentage of Americans who believed that Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged was the greatest novel ever written.

When I started writing, I was captivated by these myths and how they had become distorted and bastardized. I also saw them as really ripe for satire. I also don’t see as clear a distinction as some do between reporting about the making of a text and reporting on people. I was hoping people would pick up some of these things and use them politically a bit.

Horatio Alger had a completely scandalous biography that most people don’t know. He was a minister in Brewster, Massachusetts, in the 19th century who was chased out of the ministry, and the historical consensus was that he committed pedophile acts. So, his literary life, and his stories about young tramps or peddlers on the street rising to be business titans, was partially an act of self-creation for Alger. And, of course, Trump embraces these rags-to-riches stories about his own family.

Where do these ideas bump up against the politics of the real world? 

You see it in someone like Ronald Reagan where he talks about welfare cheats who are using the state as a piggy bank. There is the “end of welfare as we know it” rhetoric of Bill Clinton where he tried to obligate mothers to have greater restrictions on receiving welfare for their families. And the first con of Donald Trump was that he was a self-made man. All the other lies and cons flow from that one, which leads to his indictment.  

It strikes me that structuring a politics around individualism increases the negative impacts of what we call “failure,” losing a job, not having health insurance, not being able to pay high rents or the enormous costs of education.

If you don’t acknowledge externalities like this and create institutions and policies to support people, then failure is a straight shot downwards. The ideology of individualism actually protects people who already have privilege.   

You write about “girl boss” culture and corporate feminism and the difficult role of mothers in society. What is the impact of pervasive individualism on women in particular?  

We know that women were more likely to be furloughed during the pandemic, and they were much less likely to return to their jobs. I write about what I call the “mother’s revolution,” where during the pandemic there were women whose entire lives were about the dependency of their children, and that wasn’t being acknowledged. So I looked at women and the impossibility of social independence when you have children. A woman I write about with three sons was working at McDonald’s for $9.25 an hour. Even so, she didn’t meet the economic threshold for day care vouchers, so her 14-year-old son had to take care of the two other children, as she was working a night job as well.

There is a gendered element of the self-made myth, because anyone who cares for their elderly parents — often women — or cares for children — often women— knows that there is no total autonomy for human beings. In the past, able bodied white men may have imagined their own autonomy, but they too have been intensely needy, depending upon their wives, mothers, indentured servants, enslaved people — in other words, needing other people’s invisible labor.

You write about therapy. How so? 

I was writing about people who experienced extreme trauma who came from working-class backgrounds. The therapies they experienced tended to be personal psychology, which put pressure on them to heal and be model citizens. In contrast, I also talked to people who were practicing a more class-aware therapy where people pay on a sliding scale or where the therapy is even free. In the latter, there was more awareness of what money and class and inequality have to do with people’s happiness. If a woman can’t leave their partner even if they are emotionally abusive because the woman is unemployed or makes much less money than he does, that’s an important element for a therapist to talk about. 

Is there a way in which a certain type of individualism, which Irving Howe points to in his book on Emerson, provides a potent source of resistance or rebellion? 

Personal responsibility can mean mutual aid. Personal responsibility can mean you have an obligation to participate in the community. It’s a language shift. Similarly, I could imagine an individualism that didn’t just mean Reaganism but also offered a source of resistance, especially if practiced in tandem with others. And sure there are elements of individualism that are nonconformist and that create new cultural and artistic forms that challenge hidebound traditions and are wildly imaginative. That is deeply American as well, along with the negative individualism.   

You argue that we must build off of and celebrate recent political victories. Can you describe those victories?

Some things that Biden and others have achieved have not been celebrated enough. The American Rescue Plan to me was remarkable in parts. So was the implementation of the Child Tax Credit and the eviction moratorium. And slowing down the churn rate off of Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by not making people have to check in for reenrollment. That was driven by the pandemic but also an achievement. In the case of the latter, people stayed on the rolls rather than being kicked out.

You also write about alternatives to the individualist culture, like worker cooperatives and other kinds of voluntarism. You point out that there are around 463 worker co-ops, which is not very many. How can these become scalable? 

These aren’t broad societal solutions necessarily but taken together they represent the seeds of a potential alternative to, say, gig work. I profiled one driver’s co-op cab company in New York and a pizza company in San Jose and a farm in Alabama, and they are on the upswing. With the worker owned cab co-op, the drivers get much more of the share of each ride than they would working for the corporate ride companies like Uber or Lyft.

Copyright 2023 Capital & Main

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