(A revision of this post appeared in the Boston Globe “Ideas” section, June 6, 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.