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American individualism – really? The evidence that we are not who we think we are

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | April 20, 2010

In a March, 2010, essay, National Review writers Richard Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru asked: “What do we, as American conservatives, want to conserve?” They continued, “The answer is simple: the pillars of American exceptionalism. Our country has always been exceptional. It is freer, more individualistic, more democratic, and more open and dynamic than any other nation on earth.” The problem with President Obama, they wrote, is that he is trying to undermine that American exceptionalism.

There is much right and much wrong in this important essay. Here, I focus on the crucial element, the claim which they take as pretty self-evident that America is “more individualistic . . . than any other nation on earth,” that our exceptionalism is centered in our commitment to liberty.

There is considerable evidence that Americans are not more individualistic – in fact, are less individualistic – than other peoples. I mean “individualism” in the sense that Lowry and Ponnuru seem to mean it, that Americans give priority to personal liberty.

The Evidence

Valuing liberty means valuing the individual’s interest, purpose, and conscience over the demands of groups, authorities, and custom – over feudal lords, churches, states, bosses, even household patriarchs. The colonists, presumably, sought to get out from under the thumbs of all those traditional oppressors.

Emerson gave voice to these values in “Self-Reliance” (1841): “No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.” “I appeal from your customs. I must be myself. I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you. . . . I will do strongly . . . whatever only rejoices me, and the heart appoints.” Emerson rejected any suggestion that the individual submit him – or herself to the control or even the influence of any group or its traditions.

Survey organizations have asked people around the world questions that get at whether they hold values such as individualism. One of the longest-running is the International Social Survey Programme. (Another major one, with comparable results, is the World Values Survey.) Here is a sample of relevant findings from the ISSP  – there are more along the same lines – that assess how much respondents value individual liberty. I compare Americans to people in those western European social democracies that Lowry and Ponnuru claim do not value liberty as highly as Americans do, the social democracies they say Obama wants to imitate. (I use all such countries that were polled for each of the questions. This post builds on an earlier paper [pdf], as well as on Made in America.)

Personal conscience

The ISSP asked in 2006, “In general, would you say that people should obey the law without exception, or are there exceptional occasions on which people should follow their consciences even if it means breaking the law?” The percentages who would occasionally place conscience above law are displayed here, by nation:

Americans were the least likely to endorse personal conscience.

Here’s another question about the moral primacy of the individual, asked in 1991: “ Right or wrong should be a matter of personal conscience,” strongly agree to strongly disagree. The percentage who agreed is displayed here:

Americans were nearly the least likely to endorse personal conscience.

Individual versus country

Emerson would have us resist group pressure, including demands of nationalism. Here are the answers to the question, asked in 2003, “People should support their country even if the country is in the wrong,” strongly agree to strongly disagree. The percentage who disagreed, who upheld the moral over national allegiance, is shown here:

Again, Americans were least likely to stand up against the group, in this case, the nation.

Individual versus family

The ISSP and such surveys allow us to also see how people weigh personal liberty against other groups, such as the family, church, workplace, and neighborhood. Here are a couple of illustrations with regard to family.

A 1994 question asked how much respondents agreed or disagreed with this statement: “Even when there are no children, a married couple should stay together even if they don’t get along” – that is, whether the individuals should sacrifice themselves to custom and the institution of marriage.

Americans and the Brits were least likely to uphold the individual interest.

Along the same lines is the subject of personal sexual liberty — a liberty some of the Founding Fathers, like Franklin, especially enjoyed). In 1998, the ISSP asked respondents to say whether “a married person having sexual relations with someone other than his or her husband or wife” is “always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all.” The percentages who endorsed this kind of personal liberty, saying it was either sometimes or always not wrong are shown here:

The French were most accepting of this liberty, but the Americans were least likely to endorse liberty from the conventions of marriage, down there next to the socialist Swedes.


Why don’t Americans’ answers to these questions about personal liberty fit the claim of American exceptionalism?  Americans appear to be the least libertarian folks in the West. Lowry and Ponnuru might answer in several ways:

* They could say, “This just shows how low we’ve sunk. Americans used to hold up the torch of liberty, but we’ve been brought down, down below the level of the social democracies.” Perhaps, but we do not have comparable data for the 18th century, so that remains speculation.

* Or they might answer: “This is not the sort of individualism we mean; we mean something else.” It is true that in answers to some related questions, other patterns emerge. Americans show much more hostility to government and social programs than Europeans do. Also, Americans are much less likely to endorse public assistance for the needy than are Europeans, in effect, saying, “You’re on your own, buddy.” Both positions are consistent with individualism. However, they are not the same thing as individualism.

The first position is basically anti-statism. You could also find great suspicion of central government among, say, clansmen in tribal societies, or could have found it among petty lords in feudal societies, and neither were cultures of liberty. The second position derives from a laissez-faire, pro-business view of economic life, to which Americans do seem especially committed. But this sort of economic social darwinism seems unconnected to general libertarianism. These two positions are special cases, not evidence of general individualism.

* Or, Lowry and Ponnuru might say: “Americans are too individualistic, but they are other things as well – in particular, religious and moralistic – and these other things outweigh individualism.” This answer is consistent with the survey data, with, for example, Americans’ concerns about family and their shyness about sexuality. To make this argument, however, is to concede that American exceptionalism is not centered on personal liberty. If liberty ranks only second or third, then our exceptionalism is centered on something else, perhaps on faith or community.

* Yet another possible reply would be that American individualism is found not in the views of its people but in its governing institutions. Whatever Americans believe, their system, more than others, establishes freedoms of speech, privacy, enterprise, and the like. Consistent with this view are the findings that it is American elites, not the general population, who strongly uphold civil liberties. If this would be Lowry and Ponnuru’s reply, however, they would then face the paradox of revising their claim of American exceptionalism, in effect saying that America is exceptional in its undemocratic libertarianism.

* I’ll suggest one more answer: What makes Americans culturally exceptional is not their historical commitment to individualism, but their historical commitment to voluntarism. Voluntarism is about being part of a community, but belonging voluntarily. Americans have long held that people can and should join or leave groups – families, congregations, clubs, townships, and so on – of their individual free will. But Americans also insist that, as long as individuals are members of any such group, they owe their loyalty. “Love it or leave it” seems to be the dominant ethos. Thus, getting divorced may be OK if the person really needs to leave a marriage (although see the graph above), but while a person is married pursuing sexual liberty is definitely not OK.


So, if  Lowry and Ponnuru are wrong, if individual liberty is not the core of American exceptionalism, but something else is – say, perhaps, community and committment – are President Obama’s policies moving us away from or perhaps closer to the core values of the nation, to, say, being our brothers’ keepers?

Claude Fischer is the author of Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character. The article above was originally published in Made in America: Notes on American life from American history