Herman Cain and Individualism

Many political pundits have dismissed presidential hopeful Herman Cain as a long shot. However, coinciding with a Washington Post exclusive of the recently announced presidential candidate, a new IBOPE Zogby Interactive Poll shows Herman Cain, businessman and radio talk show host, edging out other leading GOP presidential candidates among Republican primary voters. Cain garnered 19% of vote, the plurality response, finally surpassing Governor Chris Christie who received 16% of the vote. A new Gallup poll shows Herman Cain with the leading Positive Intensity Score among potential GOP contenders at 25%, among those who recognize him. His name recognition has jumped from 21% in March to 37% in May.

Cain began receiving substantial media attention due to his popularity with the Tea Party; he recently won a Tea Party Patriots convention straw poll and has garnered 25% of voters most likely to vote for the Tea Party presidential candidate, with Chris Christie at 18%. In addition, GOP pollster Frank Luntz found Cain to be the winner of the first Republican presidential debate in the FOX News-sponsored focus group.

Cain’s recent popularity has brought to the forefront controversial statements he made earlier this year starting with an interview discussing the role of Muslims in American Society with ChristianityToday. ThinkProgress followed up with Cain during the Conservative Principles Conference in Des Moines, IA, asking him whether he would be comfortable appointing a Muslim to his Cabinet or as a federal judge. Herman Cain responded that he would not:

CAIN: No, I will not. And here’s why. There is this creeping attempt, there is this attempt to gradually ease Sharia law and the Muslim faith into our government. It does not belong in our government. This is what happened in Europe. … and now they’ve got a social problem that they don’t know what to do with hardly….I get upset when the Muslims in this country, some of them, try to force their Sharia law onto the rest of us.

In a subsequent Fox interview, Cain clarified his statement:

CAIN: …I did say no. And here’s why…I would have to have people totally committed to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of this United States, and many of the Muslims … are not totally dedicated to this country or our Constitution and many of them are trying to force Sharia law on the people of this country. …I don’t have time to be watching someone in my administration if they are not totally committed to the Declaration and the Constitution of the United States and the laws of this country.

Cain’s blanket condemnation of Muslims as generally unpatriotic is troubling. For starters, Cain’s view of Islam as a disqualification for public office runs contrary to the very Constitution that he claims to cherish: “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” (Constitution Article VI)

Second, Cain’s public statement of his prejudice—and the fact that such a statement is not widely condemned by both sides of the political spectrum—perpetuates stereotypes, increases religious tension, and contradicts the notions of freedom and individualism upon which this country was founded. People are more than the religion they profess. Individuals are a complex combination of environmental factors, choices, personal experiences, will, and culture. Prejudice such as Cain’s emphasizes the group over the individual. In a prejudiced society, individuals are not held accountable for their own actions, but instead are responsible for the actions of other members of the group with which they are identified—irrespective of the fact that these actions are entirely out of their control.

Individuals pursue their ambitions with hopes of happiness and success. Individuals face the costs and benefits of their decisions, and individuals take risks and reap the losses or rewards of those risks. Individualism unlocks an engine of innovation and prosperity, as people—as individuals—are incentivized and motivated to seek out new ventures. Collectivism in all its forms—from communism to racism—is antithetical to individualism and supplants an individual’s drive to better herself with a sense of hopelessness, since her opportunities are not determined by her own merits, but her group identity.

Cain’s remarks about Muslims are a regrettable perpetuation of religious stereotypes and an affront to the founding principles of this country. Such a worldview runs counter to the conditions under which opportunity and prosperity may flourish. Cain should have known better. More importantly, none of Cain’s Tea Party supporters—if they truly understand the principles behind the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—should support such statements.