Responsibility is a familiar theme of conservative rhetoric. While progressives expect the state to take care of people, conservatives argue that people should take care of themselves. In his infamous “47 percent” remark, Mitt Romney applied a version of this distinction to the American people. As he put it:
47 percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect… my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
Romney’s remark was a political disaster because it took no account of the challenges that poor and lower-middle class people face in caring for themselves. We can assume that most of them want dignified, independent lives. But it’s almost impossible to do that if you lack not only money, but also the resources of trust, cooperation, and support that sociologists call social capital.
Romney, in other words, called struggling Americans to exercise individual responsibility. But individual responsibility is not enough. In order to make their way, individuals need to be embedded in groups of persons who help care for each other.
The political theorist Peter Lawler explores this important distinction between individual and personal responsibility in The American Interest. Ostensibly an essay in TV criticism, Lawler’s subtle piece makes the case for personal responsibility by comparing the popular shows “Girls” and “Friday Night Lights”.
“Girls”, Lawler suggests, is a kind of parody of individual responsibility. Although its characters are economically and educationally privileged, they’re socially impoverished. Cut off from the given relationships of family and place, the “girls” are incapable either of forging serious relationships or of creating meaning from their own resources. They’re proud of their sexual and intellectual independence, but can’t see how these forms of individualism prevent them from enjoying other human goods.
“Friday Nights Lights”, by contrast, focuses on the 47 percent, who lack the “girls’” advantages but better understand their insufficiency as individuals. Although they can’t articulate the reasons, they know that no one makes it alone. In order to be fulfilled as persons, we need to be members of a family, a community, a church, a team. As the show’s excellent football sequences show, members of a team take personal responsibility for doing their jobs. But none of them can succeed by his efforts alone.
Encouragements to responsibility, including Romney’s, fail when they mistake personal responsibility bounded by relations of interdependence for rugged individualism. Even though they’re directed against the self-indulgence on vivid display in “Girls”, these arguments accept the characters’ narcissistic assumption that living well is a solo endeavor rather than a team sport.
The struggling Texans of “Friday Night Lights” don’t want to be wards of the state. But they do need help building the economic and social resources that would allow them to play together effectively off the field. Although Romney appropriated the slogan of the show’s centerpiece team, “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose”, we didn’t hear much about that in the presidential campaign. As Lawler suggests, then, maybe Republicans should watch more TV.