I received a text message the night of Obama's historic victory thanking me for my involvement in the campaign. "This victory is all because of you," it said.
One of the big stories about the Obama campaign is how he organized people through the Internet and reinvigorated a sense of collective action amongst an electorate grown cynical by politics. For me, though, there is something missing from this story. What I felt when I received that text was that I, as an individual, helped win the election.
Conservatives often speak about the archetypal rugged individualist: the person who is unfettered by an oppressive state and creates his or her own wealth and well-being. His responsibility is primarily toward himself, and through everyone acting in his own self-interest a type of market equilibrium is reached.
But what is just as evident in our history is a much different type of freedom. A freedom where people feel that their individual experience connects them to others and requires a sense of responsibility towards the greater community.
Walt Whitman writes in Leaves of Grass, "I celebrate myself, And what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you." This poem champions the individual experience, but through it the narrator finds what connects him to others.
"I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government," wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden. "Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it."
Thoreau famously detached himself from society to live in the woods for two years. But unlike modern conservatives such as Ronald Regan, who said, "government is the problem," Thoreau saw the opportunity for a more just republic through each American living by his or her moral beliefs. Indeed, Thoreau's essay on civil disobedience was a major influence on Martin Luther King and the modern civil rights movement.
Brave men and woman committed non-violent acts like sit-ins, often risking their safety. In many ways, this existed as a series of individual actions taken together to form collective resistance. People made a personal choice to follow a higher ethical code in breaking the law, and then taking responsibility for the consequences.
So when we hear calls from the right about "socialism" taking over our country, we can call them out on the absurdity of their statements. It is not socialism, but individualism deeply rooted in our nation's history.
It is the politics of finding oneself through a connection to others. It is the understanding that our freedom comes not through our separation from society, but from our ability to take part in the often radical changes our country continually undergoes. With the serious challenges we face - economic and otherwise - it is about time we reclaim this American tradition.