March 21, 2011

American Values: Are We Really Divided?

BakerPhoto2005 By Wayne Baker andgc Gayle Campbell

Flipping through T.V. channels or scanning the web, one hears all sorts of conversations about values in America. But one in particular seems to be invading our living rooms: political vitriol. Talk show hosts hype up hot-button social issues, politicians announce their refusal to compromise with their rivals, and even supposedly objective news sources disproportionately allocate coverage. Polarization is popular, and the media seizes upon that. But is the way the media portrays the issues necessarily indicative of the way Americans feel? If this is true, only one conclusion can be reached: Americans are more sharply divided than ever, especially when it comes to the most important values.

But are we truly divided? Keep reading and you will find that, according to four national polls Wayne conducted during the past two years, there are, indeed, shared core American values. The research on core values comes from the Americans' Evolving Values Surveys, led by Baker and conducted by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research in June 2009, December 2009, March 2010 and September 2010. The purpose was to create a barometer of American values, and the target population was randomly-selected adults, 18 or older, living in the U.S.

These are guiding principles that are strongly and widely held, shared across demographic lines, and stable over time. Here we outline the Top 8 core values that Americans share:

1. Patriotism: The vast majority of Americans say that seeing the flag or hearing the national anthem makes them feel good. Maybe the more significant value Americans hold dear is the manner in which they choose to criticize the U.S—lovingly. The majority of Americans say that if they oppose some U.S. policies, it is because they want to improve the country. So even when people have different opinions about America, they still agree on core principles.

2. Belief in God-- About two-thirds of Americans say God is “very important” in their life, and this figure has not changed much over the decades. This value is uniquely American: Only 15 percent of the Dutch and of the Germans say God is very important in their lives, and less than a majority of our Canadian neighbors (46 percent) say the same. There are lots of disagreements about how this core belief in God is enacted and played out in American life, but belief in God is still a value that unites us.

3. Self-Reliance-- Individualism is coded in America’s DNA—the ideal of individual autonomy, liberty, and sovereignty goes back at least to Thomas Jefferson. Today, the influence of these values is still prevalent. Over 85 percent of Americans say they would rather depend on themselves than on others. About the same proportion say they rely on themselves most of the time.

4. Getting ahead-- American society is unique in the emphasis placed on achievement and success. Three of four Americans agree that getting ahead is important to them. Those who fail to get ahead suffer a defect of will, a lack of persistence, verve, or some other personal shortcoming. Most Americans recognize that forces larger than the individual affect our fates, yet this doesn’t change our strong-held faith in self-made achievement and success.

5. Equal Opportunities-- Well over 90 percent of Americans agree that everyone should have equal opportunities. The same can’t be said, however, for equality of outcomes. Many Americans support some version of this, but it’s far from a core value. While more than 70 percent of Americans believe the gap between rich and poor is too large, the solution to this problem leaves many divided. It’s the ability to have access to the same opportunities as others that truly unites us.

6. Freedom and Liberty--Freedom and liberty are deeply held American values that every generation inherits and passes on to the next. But their meaning is reinterpreted again and again. Almost all Americans agree, however, that freedom is being able to express unpopular ideas without fearing for one’s safety and having the right to participate in politics and elections. The meaning will continue to be debated—but the debate itself is a sign of health and freedom in our country.

7. Respect-- More than 90 percent of Americans agree that respect for people of different racial, ethnic and religious groups is important to them. This core value, however, gets complicated when it is applied. If minorities don’t do well in life, many Americans feel they have no one to blame but themselves. We proclaim respect for people of different race, ethnicities, and religions—but more than 70 percent of Americans say that immigrants should adopt American values. While Americans generally proclaim to value respect, we seem to put limits on it.

8. Free market-- Over 70 percent of Americans in each of the four polls I took agreed that the free market economy is best for our future. The polls were conducted in 2009 and 2010—bad times in our economy—so the economic recession hasn’t had a significant impact on this value. Free market ideology is intertwined with other core values:  freedom and liberty, individualism, achievement, and equality.

As you can see here, Americans have far more in common than the news media and political campaigns will admit. Knowing there are core American values is important, especially in troubled times when political discourse has become more polarized and uncivil. While Americans may not agree on how each core value should be acted upon, it’s important to remember that our general consensus on core values ultimately unites us.


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But what these specific values mean to particular people varies. Patriotism, for instance, has meant everything from supporting the current war in Iraq to protesting the current war in Iraq. The same can be said of the belief in God--Are you talking to a conservative evangelical or a Muslim? What, specifically, God believers believe in varies.

So, within these values, there is variation. Each value can be both a point of unity or division.

Our core American values are a huge part of sociology ethics as well. We have to remember when doing sociological experiments that these are the things people hold near and dear to their hearts. For example, if we are going to study the reaction of an American who lost their job due to outsourcing, we must respect the fact that Americans love their country and when jobs leave us for other countries, it hurts the entire country and not just the people who lost their jobs. Simply put, this means that we have to respect people's boundaries when it comes to events that involve Americans' core values. If we lose sight of what is important to the mind, we lose sight of how to properly conduct ourselves in research.

Politicians and media tend to focus on the bad, more profit making things. This tends to put a blindfold over American eyes and stops us from realizing how united we still are. We still do have a lot in common. We are, after all, Americans and we are united.

Many of Americans are divided in someway, isn't this America? Our whole country is based off division. We need to stand together in someways ,but we also must stand for what we believe in. This is a great country and must put our views out there. The media does really only point out the bad and needs to focus on the good to. Total unity is unrealistic but to stand together even with our social divisions is a very possible idea.

I tink people are divided in many ways but when it comes down to it we will stick together as a nation. People may not get along in times but we still have the same core values. The gap between rich and poor is big and does get in the way of peoples feelings so i think it comes down to it we are divided but we will always stand together as the united states of America.

Like Brock said, the media has traditionally only brought forward the story that will sell. They advertise disagreements and dirty laundry. A story of how we are all happy and united wouldn't be that interesting. I do believe that we are united and our core beliefs are strong and will continue to be shared for a long time. These beliefs are what started the country in the first place. They keep us together. God bless America.

I strongly, STRONGLY agree with Dr. Brock B. We tend to focus on a lot more economical, materialistic, and media. I still feel that most of the citizens born in the U.S. share a core belief in most values and will stand up for them, but we get lost in today's routine. Jobs, debt, and conflict cause americans to turn their backs on what values they hold and go along with what they are expected of.

I agree with Brock, that the Politicians and the media tend to focus on the bad, instead of the good. Especially, when the media shows some picture or they have something to say about the war in the middle east. They always show the bad over there. They never show the good that the soldiers do, and that bugs me. These values though are very important to this country and these values make this country stand out from the rest.

it seems that the media always find the bad stuff but never the good. these country have a lot of values and thats what make these country so strong. i think the media should start reporting the good things there is in the country and what is the good things people do too.

This is a very accurate article in my opinion. There are so many things that Americans stand united on. The ones who do not value these core American traits are deviants in many people's opinions. They are not sticking with what many of us believe makes us American. If you aren't partriotic it is often considered a serious social deviation. I think it is good that Americans have things they can stand together on, but I also think that we have to accept the deviant's opinions for what they are. We can't judge people just because they don't value the same things as us. We are still all United States citizens.
-Ashley Byykkonen

While I agree with Dr. Brock that the media tends to focus on negative news. However, the way people are being raised has an even bigger impact on their values. If kids were taught about respect and God from their parents they wouldnt end up confused and believing everything they hear through the media.

I feel that we as a nation are divided because we think its something we have to do. I feel that there is a lot of pressure from the media to choose a side. It's like have two children pulling on both of your arms in opposite directions trying to get you on their side when really there are no sides there is only compromise. I think that when it comes down to it America really wants one thing in common and that is to prosper and have a successful and free life.

I think the self-reliance part is very accurate but I think that patriotism has really fallen off and not many Americans have the passion that they used to for our country. I think family should be somewhere on the list because I believe that families are really close knit and are a very important value

I think that religion has fallen off nowadays because not as many people are religious any anymore. However i agree with the value if free market because it is what 70% of Americans voted for

Throughout history, our values as Americans can change. For the most part, beliefs stay the same but different interpretations of values cause it to chamge overtime.

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