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Responsibility, Personal and Individual (Or, How to Do Political Theory By Watching ‘Girls’)

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 [1] this important distinction between individual and personal responsibility in The American InterestOstensibly 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.

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#1 Comment By Glaivester On January 10, 2013 @ 10:45 pm

I think the issue is that group responsibility is fine, but it needs to be a two-way street. When Romney criticizes people for not taking “personal responsibility” I think he sees these people as neither taking responsibility for themselves, nor offering to take some level of responsibility for others in the group in order for the group to take responsibility for them. In other words, they expect the group to take responsibility for them without contributing anything to the group.

#2 Comment By Dakarian On January 11, 2013 @ 3:44 am


Possibly, but either way you look at it, the issue still stands: it assumes that the people involved are ‘Girls’ who could, at any point, pick themselves up but choose to be carried instead.

(sidenote: the reason why we assume that it’s ‘rugged individualism’ is the source. The concept of taking responsibility for others in the group is a Socialist argument so the idea of Romney actually advocating that the 47% should support the government that supports them is out of whack of his ideals-“What ideals?” jokes aside. “Skin in the game” is, at best, just a debate point to help cement the “They are leeches” ideal.)

Btw, the concept that Liberals think the government should take care of them is the Leftist-mirror version of the Right’s “rugged individualism” when it comes to the poor. Just as most on the Right, I assume, attempt to attack the welfare queen and end up sounding like Scrooge, most of the Left attempt to evoke Friday Night Lights and end up creating Nanny States. Flip the focus to the upper class and the sides just flip almost perfectly.

I’d say it also shows the weaknesses of both ideals. Liberal ideas have a hard time supporting productive successful individuals and low-income leeches. Conservative ideals have a hard time supporting productive struggling individuals and top income leeches. They do better with the converse, meanwhile.

When asked, I bet most people of either side would prefer the Interdependence route. We just have different ideas on how much Indie and how much Depend we need.

#3 Comment By keypopper On January 11, 2013 @ 8:47 am

In my experience, everyone, whether progressive or conservative, believes in responsible action, the problem is reaching agreement on exactly what that means. The problem with Mr. Romney’s statement about the 47% is that it suggests that anyone getting anything from the government is the equivalent of the mythical welfare queen who uses government handouts to buy drugs and Cadilacs, and when she runs short just has another baby to increase her payment. The real problem we face regarding government funding relates to pensions to persons who only worked for 20 years, albeit in hazardous activities, and programs like Medicare. For example, my elderly father was diagnosed with a weak arterial wall when he was about 75, which at fiorst was treated by lowering his blood pressure. When the weakness appeared to worsen when he was 84, his doctor recommended an experimental procedure to repair the artery. The resulting operation and related treatment cost about $1,000,000, all paid by Medicare. My father insistes he is not getting an “entitlement” just recouping what he paid in, even though what he has drawn from SS and Medicare far exceeds what he paid. But should he have refused the operation to slightly lower the federal debt? I don’t have the answer, but I beleive it is this kind of issue that must be resolved to deal with our deficit issues, and we can’t just hide our heads in the sand and think that we can fix the deficit just by getting rid of welfare queens.

#4 Comment By Rambler88 On January 11, 2013 @ 11:25 pm

Just what is the point of the article?

In order to be fulfilled as persons, we need to be members of a family, a community, a church, a team.

There are dysfunctional families. There are also dysfunctional communities, churches, teams, etc. There are many dysfunctional communities at the low end of the socio-economic scale. A gang, for instance, is a community. There are many communities at all levels of society that are parasitic on the larger society.

A person who finds himself a member of a functional community or whatever is vastly better off than one who doesn’t. But many families, communities, etc., are so dysfunctional that an individual may be better off with no family/community/etc. at all.

In a huge, fluid, modern society, not everyone will be so fortunate, or remain so, as to belong to a community. Among other factors, functional communities are frequently destroyed by more privileged communities. The same was true in the growing, changing, society that was the U.S. before all the frontiers closed. This, in part, is the reason for America’s esteem of individualism. An individual who could survive and more-or-less prosper in the inevitable gaps (geographic, temporal, or social) between communities is an individual who will be able to survive–and to help others–in situations where the more community-dependent cannot.

Individualism, to be sure, is never absolute. it is a matter of degree. But in a society such as ours, the degree can vary very widely indeed.

Community also is never absolute. Communities come and go, and always fall somewhere on the range between functionality and dysfunctionality. More fundamentally, the more narrowly defined communities are, the more tightly they function as communities–and the fewer people for whom they can so function. Multiple communities may meet an individual’s needs where a single community can’t.

A discussion of the value of community, if it goes beyond rhetoric, must quickly reach the point where the relative value of particular communities is addressed.

#5 Comment By WorkingClass On January 12, 2013 @ 1:36 pm

Income taxes are progressive which means that higher incomes are taxed at a higher rate than lower incomes. People who don’t pay income tax have low incomes. If the government wants more revenue from the income tax it should work to increase wages.

Excise taxes, sales taxes and FICA taxes are regressive which means that the bulk of these taxes are paid by the working class.

Romney does not say but implies that 47% of Americans pay NO TAXES which is of course a lie albeit a very popular one. To be fair to Romney he almost certainly knew that he was merely pandering to rich donors who like to believe they are morally superior to the laboring classes.

I once read one of Bill O’reilly’s books. In it he told of a young Hispanic lad who worked at the shop that changed the oil in Bill’s car. The point was made that if the lad exercised personal responsibility there were existing opportunities for him to improve his skills so that he could move up into the middle class. It was all true as far as it went. But my question was neither asked nor answered. Now who is going to change your oil?

To denigrate the character of the people who care for our children in day care and our grandparents in nursing homes because they don’t make enough money to pay income tax is just hateful. And the suggestion that only the working class votes it’s own interest is ridiculous on it’s face.

Let’s remove the perfectly legitimate concept of personal responsibility from the rhetoric of class warfare. If we are going to hold the poor personally responsible for their own lives then lets hold Obama personally responsible for the murder of the innocents resulting from imperial military adventures. And lets hold Wall Street CEO’s personally responsible for the huge fraud they have committed against the American people.

#6 Pingback By Friday Night Wi-Fi « The Politics of Free Will On January 12, 2013 @ 7:44 pm

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