When it comes to an emphasis on the individual, Americans lead the pack.

That’s according to a Pew Research report which compared American and European sentiments on various democratic principles.

Interestingly, Alexis de Tocqueville described this same tendency toward individualism nearly 200 years ago in his work Democracy in America. Individualism, Tocqueville observed, is a primary characteristic in democratic societies where people are not tied to the aristocratic mentality of class, but embrace equality instead:

I HAVE shown how it is that in ages of equality every man seeks for his opinions within himself; I am now to show how it is that in the same ages all his feelings are turned towards himself alone. Individualism is a novel expression, to which a novel idea has given birth. Our fathers were only acquainted with egoisme (selfishness). Selfishness is a passionate and exaggerated love of self, which leads a man to connect everything with himself and to prefer himself to everything in the world. Individualism is a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellows and to draw apart with his family and his friends, so that after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself. …

As social conditions become more equal, the number of persons increases who, although they are neither rich nor powerful enough to exercise any great influence over their fellows, have nevertheless acquired or retained sufficient education and fortune to satisfy their own wants. They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands.”

If one looks around at today’s headlines, it would be easy to assume that America is a stronghold of inequality. But judging from Tocqueville’s words, is the opposite actually true? Does our great emphasis on individualism signify that America is a society of equality more than we have realized?