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What Americans Value: A Disquieting Downshift

I’m still a sucker for polls. While polling has taken a deserved beating for “missing” the outcomes of key political elections and ballots in recent years, it retains some purposefulness for tracking society and our beliefs and values. A new poll reveals some disquieting results about what Americans value. This may be no surprise to many, given our casual “acceptance” of mass-shootings and insatiable appetite for social media. The survey did not ask about the value of life.

Patriotism, religious faith, having children, community involvement, and hard work --

priorities that helped define the national character for generations -- are receding in

importance to Americans, a new Wall Street Journal-NORC poll finds. The survey,

conducted March 1-13 with NORC at the University of Chicago, also finds the country

sharply divided by political party over social trends such as the push for racial diversity

in businesses and the use of gender-neutral pronouns.

Among findings:

 38 percent of respondents said patriotism was very important to them. The

“gap” between those aged 18-29 and 65+ is 36 percentage points.

 39 percent of respondents said religion was very important. The gap between

those aged 30 and 55 is 24 percentage points.

Allowing for the usual margin of error, these numbers are staggering compared to a

generation earlier. In 1998 – 25 years earlier – the comparative numbers for patriotism

were 70 percent and for religion, 62 percent. For one useful point of reference, in 1998

the Internet was still relatively nascent in its evolution – only 3 years “old.”

A separate study just announced by the Pew Research Center finds the number of U.S.

Catholic Latinos – traditionally among the most “Catholic” of all Catholics – fell to 43

percent in 2022, from 67 percent in 2010. The proportion of Latinos with no religious

affiliation rose to 30 percent, from 10 percent – about the same proportion of the U.S.

population as a whole.

The Wall Street Journal posits that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the

financial crisis of 2008, and the rise of former President Donald Trump are events that

“have shaken and in some ways fractured the nation,” since the Journal first reported

about unifying values.

The only priority the Journal tested that has grown in importance in the past quarter-

century is money, cited by 43 percent in the new survey, up from 31 percent in 1998.

Aside from money, all age groups – including seniors – attached far less importance to

these priorities and values then when pollsters asked about them in 1998 and 2019.

Younger Americans in particular place low importance on these values, many of which

were central in the lives of their parents. Only 23 percent of adults under age 30 said

that having children was very important. Let that sink in.

A Bend, Oregon survey respondent, age 33, said he thought patriotism is declining as a

civic value in tandem with rising individualism, a sense of entitlement among many

people, and a decline in community involvement. Another respondent from

Pennsylvania said patriotism has taken on a political sheen and is no longer important

to her. As she put it: “For me, patriotism has turned into right-wing nationalism.”

Some 21 percent in the survey said that America stands above all other countries in the

world, a view that some call American exceptionalism. The share who said other

countries are better than the U.S. rose to 27 percent, up from 19 percent when the same

question was asked in 2016 – coincidentally, the year a certain blowhard proclaimed he

had been sent among us to Make America Great Again.

Certain values divide along political lines more than ever. Three-quarters of

Republicans said society had gone too far in accepting people who are transgender,

while 56 percent of Democrats said society hadn’t gone far enough. That reminded me

of a plumber who lamented to me a few years ago that whereas we had long had just

two genders, now there were five or six.

Maybe we need to spend some with our Ukrainian friends, to reclaim something of our

lost patriotism. Of course, the trajectory of our faith has been downhill in the U.S. for

some time, as more and more people profess themselves “spiritual but not religious.”

Most telling, one pollster-analyst observed that “these differences are so dramatic, it

paints a new and surprising portrait of a changing America.” He surmised that

“perhaps the toll of our political division, COVID and the lowest economic confidence in

decades is having a startling effect on our core values.”

Startling indeed. Values aren’t fixed; they are moved and swayed by winds and forces

of change. But if we continue to lose the provenance of all we once trusted and held

important, while finding more “value” in what separates us than what unites us, not even

a greater faith in our legal tender will save us from ourselves.

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