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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

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

  1. America never really did exist. It was all a lie.
    I feel sorry for those poor, confused collectivists who think they’re American.
    I really wish they would just realize they’re not, and then maybe society would at least be honest about it’s hatred of freedom.

  2. Just Sad that anyone from Burkeley is allowed to speak on such American values as Individual freedom , that of course is alive and well in the USA as well as freedom of speech and equality! They would be better fitted to write papers on fascism, communism or socialism.

    • “Just Sad that anyone from Burkeley is allowed to speak on such American values as Individual freedom , that of course is alive and well” – I’m not sure if it’s a sarcasm or really you celebrate your freedom by telling that it’s sad that author is allowed to say his opinion…

      • And to so mindlessly do so that, in addition to not actually making any sort of argument to support his view, he misspelled ‘Berkeley’. This utterly-stupid sort of …individual has me truly considering a move to Europe. The charade is up; the emperor of hucksterville isn’t wearing any clothes – and he probably can’t spell all that well either.

  3. The United States of America was founded by people of a protestant background (and speaking of religion, these were people against the Catholic church and its ways) and many of these people (such as Washington and Franklin) were very secular for their time. America was one of the first countries that tried to do this. The American revolution was like a “shot heard around the world”.

    It is a shame that the United States has changed so much in the last 200 years. A lot of this has come to the fact that the concept of real “work” has become mere rhetoric in many countries – not just the US. And when it comes to cultures, the lack of proper education in American Public Schools has watered down the mind of the average American.

  4. I disagree on how you equate individualism solely with moral issues. Not personally accepting immorality is not the same as denying the rights of others to engage in that behavior. You don’t have to endorse a specific action to respect the rights of someone to engage in behavior you disapprove of.

    The primary measure of how libertarian a population is how much power the government should have over the economy and individuals. Most mortal issues are irreverent because only a very small minority seriously thinks that the government should make divorce/adultery illegal. The debate on objective vs subjective mortality also has nothing to do with liberty.

    So when it comes to Libertarism moral views only matter when the government tries to enforce them. All cases cited in this article don’t deal with mortal issues that the government has no control over.

  5. It’s a shame the US has moved so far from the values that made it great 200+ years ago. That is why many people now only refer to it as the ‘U.S.’ and not as ‘America.’ ‘America’ represents the ideals of freedom, individuality, self-responsibility, liberty, and more, that just aren’t found very often in the overweight, American-idol viewing majority. There are some patriots still today–Ron Paul supporters prove that. But sadly, most the values of the majority in this country are a polar opposite of what made it great, which portends very poorly for this country’s future.

  6. This article was referenced in a discussion in a Bulgarian internet forum on how Anglo-American culture in specific, and Western European culture in general, are predominantly communal or outright communistic. The “communist citizen”, of whom the Yalta regimes dreamed – but into which they failed to convert their subjects – appears to have been modeled on the cultural traits of Western Europe and Anglo-Americans.

    There is just one potential weakness with the quoted social study: considering the intellectual / educational level of the average person, how many respondents were aware that they were questioned on affirmation of negative statements? Unless the social study engaged people schooled in logic [scientists, engineers, and the like], the responses can be scattered widely.

  7. claude very nice stats on individualship.Men is moving too fast that he is leaving social life behind.baba said true that alone we are nobody.Men is day by day more selfish

  8. Being from The Netherlands I have a bit of a different opinion maybe. But I think that the USA, and maybe not its citizens is very individualistic. It is probably because the USA is still a very young society compared to any nation in for instance Europe. The answers from the ISSP test shown above tell me that Americans think as a group, their opinions are based on what their government tells them to think and not as an individual. It is a very protectionistic way of thinking; Everything for the nation. Americans are not particularly religious and moralistic in my point of view. Yes, maybe when it comes to the subject of sexual liberty or their creationistic views uposed to darwinism. But certainly not when it comes to taking care of fellow citizens who are not so well off. Look at the many many homeless people in the USA. I have never been in a civilized (first world) country where you can see more homeless people begging in the streets. Interestingly enough many of them are war veterans. Shouldn’t these people be treated VERY well after fighting and even getting seriously injured in a war for their country?
    I think most Americans are individualistic in their way of taking care of themselves, fed by the thoughts they are given by their governments. But that is a natural cause of being in a young society. In that case you have to be protective and individualistic in order to build your society. Obama, by looking at European Social Democratic systems tries to take the development of the USA a bit further. A good example is the feared health care system. I am sure that in 10 years from now everyone in the USA will think it is a good system. And I wish Mr. Obama lots of succes with his reforms.

    • Eelco, I think what many people forget is that America was founded by English puritans. I still think this explains much of the rigid attitudes towards sexuality in the US that we see today. Some of the television shows in Europe would be considered pornography here.

      Working in a veterans hospital I agree that it is sad to see these members of our society neglected, but I blame the inefficient government run department of veterans affairs for that. It takes months to years along with mountains of paperwork for a veteran to get enrolled into the system. For all the shouting about a needed public system, I shudder to see a completely public system, as i think it will decrease the quality of care offered due to government bureaucracy.

      Where our system fails is in primary prevention. I believe this is because a minority of people want to take responsibility for their own health. They would rather smoke, eat fast food and not exercise, then expect the health care system to fix their high blood pressure diabetes and heart disease. Even if every American is insured, if they don’t take care of themselves, what good does that do?

  9. A really fascinating article, being a Brit it’s interesting to see how closely matched the US and we are on all these surveys except ‘People should support their country even if the country is in the wrong’ where popular school of thought is completely the opposite. I think this may have something to do with swearing allegiance to the flag and ritualising this so much in your schools, whereas here we seem to have an absurdly negative view of patriotism – all patriots are right wing bigoted British National Party members and the national flag is a symbol belonging to this group. We are very odd in this respect. Enjoyed the read, thanks!

  10. From my point of view, advanced countries like America or Britain are on their exhausted peak. Which means that they individuals are really moving or act as an individual. There is no such things like working together or helping someone else that need one’s help but since you don’t know him, you don’t help him.

    The fact is that, the people of advanced country are more less sharing than people in developing countries. They tend to act as an individuals rather than as a group.

    What could possibly makes this happen? The needs of life, the needs of money, and power. People nowadays craving for those. Yet, they are still walking around without making any advances that counts in people’s worldwide eyes.

  11. I enjoyed reading your excerpt. I printed out a copy for my sister. she earned her poly sci degree last may at Cal State East Bay and has time for issues in The Peninsula including high speed rail and statewide with campaign finance referendum mostly with League of Women Voters I’m re-admitted Fall ’10 as a senior in the School of Social Welfare attending summer sessions to spread my semesters out attending 1/2 time. I can’t wait for 2nd session of Telebears – I will seriously be considering an upper division Sociology Dept. opportunity I have about 19 units to fill my degree course work and hope to take something out of the ordinary again, the “blog” (how i dislike that name) is very instructive and convincing
    respectfully yours…….roger

  12. Claude, this was a great research on individualism. I am from Nepal and believe that staying together would really help each other. We all will have different wanting and would like to stay alone but we should again realize that alone we are nobody. If you can be happy and make happy in group then only our value will be seen.

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