Headlines generated by a new poll on American values and attitudes suggest that the mythic America of patriotism, faith, and family is quickly vanishing. Given the fresh offenses that we witness every day, this wouldn’t be a shock. But the survey’s results don’t at all amount to a slam-dunk case. In fact, a closer reading indicates that we still live in a surprisingly traditional USA.
First, the bad. The poll, conducted by the Wall Street Journal and the non-profit organization NORC, found that only 38 percent of respondents consider patriotism very important, down steeply from 1998, when 70 percent felt patriotism was very important. Only 39 percent now say that religion is very important; in 1998, it was 62 percent. And today, a measly 30 percent of Americans say that having children is very important, down almost half from the 59 percent who said so in 1998. One pollster told the Journal that “these differences are so dramatic, it paints a new and surprising portrait of a changing America.’’
Not so fast. When asked to rate these values, respondents could choose from “very important,” “somewhat important,” “not that important,” or “not important at all.” If you tally the “very important” and “somewhat important” percentages and compare them to the combined “not that important” and “not important at all” ones, it’s a clear win for tradition and conservative values. On patriotism, it’s 73 percent to 27 percent; on religion, 60 percent to 40 percent; on having children, 65 percent to 33 percent. And on marriage, 70 percent to 28 percent.
That’s a majority of patriotic, religious, family-oriented people. Or at least that’s how they want to represent themselves, which isn’t nothing. Social acceptability can be a crucial factor in internalizing certain standards.
Is the country less traditional than it was? Clearly. Only a fool expects views and mores to freeze in place. And in a nation founded on individual liberty, resisting the pull of unbridled self-interest is an endless challenge. But there is hope so long as American ideals remain extant in some recognizable form. And this is still very recognizably America. We don’t live in France, for example, where a 2021 poll asked respondents whether they believed in God, and a full 51 percent said no. In the new Wall Street Journal/NORC poll, by contrast, 65 percent of Americans said that belief in God was either very or somewhat important. Nor are we in Britain, where a 2020 poll found that only 27 percent of respondents said they believe in “a god,” and another 16 percent believed in a “higher spiritual power.” In the new American poll, 49 percent of respondents, a large plurality, agreed with the statement “I know God exists and I have no doubts about it,” with various degrees of less certain belief filling out the majority of responses. Only 9 percent said, “I don’t believe in God.”
There’s evidence of America’s enduring traditionalism throughout the data. And some of it shows that fashionable campaigns to reshape our values and engineer our lives have their work cut out for them. A plurality, 43 percent, said “our society has gone too far” in “accepting people who are transgender.” A 56 percent majority say that athletes should “only play on teams that match the sex assigned at their birth.” While the “sex-assigned” wording of the question says a lot about institutional fears of the mob, most individuals are fed up. Pluralities also have unfavorable views of people identifying their pronouns and of being asked to use gender-neutral pronouns themselves. A full 63 percent of respondents said companies shouldn’t take public stands on social and political issues.
And despite the quiet-quitting movement and recent pop-psychology claims about rest and relaxation, 94 percent of Americans agreed that hard work was very or somewhat important. Only 6 percent said it was not that important or not important at all.
It’s hardly all good news. For example, while a 56 percent majority “oppose colleges and universities considering a student’s race and ethnicity when making decisions about student admissions,” a slight plurality say that schools and universities haven’t gone far enough in “taking steps to promote racial and ethnic diversity.” But self-contradictory thinking about how best to attain equality for all citizens is itself a longstanding and distinctive aspect of our political culture. It, too, is an American tradition.