Conflict between the Donkey and the Elephant is the cornerstone of modern American politics. With the birth of the two-party system in the United States, it seems as if there’s no escaping the constant bickering between Republicans and Democrats. Recently, however, a new animalistic player has emerged onto the political landscape: the Sheep.

We all know the imagery—a peaceful group of sheep, unaware of the evils of the world, blissfully following their shepherd wherever they may lead. Maybe there’s even a sunset casting a heavenly glow over the scene. While this picture probably elicits peaceful and positive feelings, it has done the exact opposite for the American public: the idea of being part of a flock has created fear.

To the Donkey and the Elephant, the Sheep is an entity that they can easily persuade to blindly follow their proposals. This premise of obedience and obtuseness has led to Trump supporters calling Ivanka Trump a sheep for promoting mask-wearing or Democrats insisting that Republicans are sheep for supporting the postponement of the 2020 election. In a world of Donkeys and Elephants, Sheep are small players in a large and elaborate game.

However, the negativity surrounding Sheep insults serves to illustrate a much larger trend in American culture. Individualism, a social theory that promotes the moral value of the individual over the group, has begun to permeate our culture. This belief, along with similar notions like capitalism, serve to create a feeling of individual entitlement and importance.

Consider why calling someone a Sheep is an insult in the United States—even the suggestion of solely belonging to another group and not having strong personal beliefs is enough to offend others. In the U.S., we pride ourselves on our personal freedoms and individual goals. Prominent leaders in the United States emphasize the American Dream as a means to succeed in our country by oneself. Our economic system rewards individual hard work and encourages acting out of self-interest. Quite simply, a Sheep would never survive in our society because it would default to existing as part of a whole.

While Americans appreciate being valued as a single person, the anti-Sheep individualism in the U.S. may ultimately contribute to our slaughter. When it comes to issues that demand national unity and compliance, the United States simply does not know how to function.

Take our country’s response to COVID-19 as the most exigent example. When the first cases of the novel coronavirus were reported in the United States, the government actually took thorough steps to prepare. As early as January, the FDA solicited proposals from companies interested in developing COVID-19 tests and the Department of Health and Human Services created a Coronavirus Task Force. Both of these developments, among many others, began well before the American people even knew what the coronavirus was. The government, despite the popular media narrative, was taking steps to control the spread of the virus.

When our country failed, however, was when politics and the public became involved. Once the general populace caught wind of what was to come, around mid-March, the all-too-familiar American entitlement began to manifest. As families hoarding toilet paper left grocery store shelves barren and teenagers became infected after attending COVID parties, the discernable “every man for himself” sentiment became painfully obvious as Americans disregarded the advice of health officials. So much so, in fact, that even the most simple tasks meant to benefit others came to symbolize a threat to American freedom.

Mhadav Bhat, creator of the #MaskedMile, a viral social media trend that challenges its participants to run a mile with a mask on, commented about this distinct pattern of individualism. Growing up in South Carolina, which has ranked third in the world in infection rates for COVID-19, Bhat has experienced firsthand what American individualism in the context of the pandemic looks like.

“When my local news station posted my challenge on their Facebook, a good percentage of the 800 comments were like, ‘this kid’s a sheep, he’s falling into the political mindset imposed by the Democrats,’” said Bhat in an interview with The Politic. “I think that mindset is preventing [the United States] from advancing in the steps to deescalate the coronavirus.”

Right now, the United States populace is acting as if outbursts relating to social distancing or mask mandates are something to be proud of. But they’re not—they just serve to make the U.S. appear as a failure to the international community.

When criticizing the United States’ response to COVID-19, it is imperative to consider the larger global response as well. European countries, which are most similar to the U.S. in economic and political systems, didn’t know about the virus any sooner than the United States did. Why is the U.S. suffering so much more?

The answer lies in the social culture of both regions. Countries like Britain and New Zealand, which actually score highly on the individualism scale, have managed to control the spread of the virus significantly more than the U.S. The co-existence of individualism and government trust suggests that the United States’ unique brand of self-reliance differs from similar countries. In other individualistic countries, the response to COVID-19 was “I before We”. In the U.S., it was “I, but never We because the Government is lying.” 

Individualism can be a good thing, but when coupled with a general feeling of distrust, it creates a disaster. While there could have been more action from our government, Americans don’t do enough to hold the individualist mindset accountable for electing that leadership in the first place. The problem was never the government: it was the country that the government is in.

“My community was making headlines for the wrong reasons at first, and we’re a microcosm of what we’re seeing across this country….People don’t know how to deal with it.” said Lexi Jackson, a COVID-19 Community Response Intern at the Community Foundation of the Ozarks, in an interview with The Politic. Jackson resides in the Ozarks region in Missouri, which has made national headlines for their poor response to the pandemic. “We’re so used to having so many freedoms, so much autonomy and mobility, that to be asked to stay at home or put on a mask is uncomfortable for people. At first, you immediately think about what you’re losing instead of what you’re helping prevent.”

The key problem, therefore, is the United States’ automatic skepticism of authorities. In New Zealand, which ranks seventh on the individualism scale, a citizen’s individual value was preserved while complying with government guidelines. Early border controls coupled with 90 percent of New Zealanders practicing social distancing allowed for the country to eliminate COVID-19 entirely. All the while, nobody complained that the government was lying to them in order to strip away their rights.

American individualism is just as exceptional as Americans think they are: it defies any rules about expectations for human decency. Obviously, expecting the United States to adopt a collectivist mindset like Japan or South Korea would require a massive and unattainable cultural shift. Until the U.S. can adopt a model of individualism that places trust in the knowledge of health experts and officials, we are doomed to a long and strenuous COVID-19 recovery period.

“It’s difficult to see exactly how [the pandemic] is going to end with the American ideal of individualism,” said Ethan Meldrum, a research assistant on the effects of moral individualism on behavior during COVID-19 at the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, in an interview with The Politic. “If America continues on its path of individualism, the virus is only going to get worse—which is what we’re seeing right now. There really isn’t an end in sight, and a lot of that is because of individualism itself.”

In the future, a new individualism may mean trusting our elected officials more when it comes to crisis decisions. In the context of the economy, it may entail a switch to more nonprofit work or service industry jobs, as Americans recognize the importance of helping your neighbor. Either way, American individualism will never be the same after this pandemic.

Accusations of a mindless herd mentality exist to ridicule Americans who decide to prioritize the health of their fellow citizens along with their own. However, if we do not begin to remedy the brand of individualism that has permeated American culture, the worst expectations of the accusers may soon come true. Eventually, those complaining may need to don sheep-like muzzles to prevent themselves from continuing the spread of false information that is killing Americans by the thousands. Either that, or they accept following along in the herd until they can learn to stop crying wolf.

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