Opinion: American Values Decline with American Community


A poll on American values in the Wall Street Journal last week has caused a stir. The poll, which the Journal conducted along with the well-regarded NORC at the University of Chicago—the non-partisan research organization that also conducts the biennial General Social Survey (GSS), widely seen as the gold standard in public opinion studies—shows a marked shift in American values over the last 25 years, towards an apathetic detachment from the wider society.

According to the new poll, only 38% of Americans today say that “patriotism” is very important to them, compared to 70% in 1998. Only 39% say “religion” is very important, compared to 69% 25 years ago. “Community involvement” and “having children” have also decreased in importance, as has “tolerance for others,” notwithstanding the unrelenting focus on “inclusion” in the media, elite educational institutions, government, and large corporations. “The only priority . . . that has grown in the past quarter century,” the Journal reports, “is money, which was cited as very important by 43% in the new survey, up from 31% in 1998.”

The poll also reveals other striking trends. Although the change in values has been going on for a quarter-century, sharp breaks seem to have occurred just in the last few years. For example, more than 60% of Americans thought that community involvement was very important in 2019. Only 27% of us do now. And the shift in values appears particularly pronounced among young Americans. While 59% of seniors say that patriotism is very important to them, only 23% of adults below the age of 30 agree. Fifty-five percent of seniors say religion is very important to them, compared to only 31% of younger respondents.

Some questions exist regarding this poll. For one thing, the results could be skewed by the various crises Americans have endured in the last few years, including the Covid pandemic. Nonetheless, the survey tracks important changes in American life over the past generation, and reveals a dynamic that a perceptive observer foresaw almost two hundred years ago. It’s worth reflecting seriously on what the survey shows, and how Americans might stop or reverse these trends.

First, some reasons for caution. Even though the poll shows that fewer Americans say that values like patriotism and religion are “very important” to them, when one looks at the percentages who say the values are either “very” or “somewhat” important, the results are more hopeful. For example, fully 90% of us say that tolerance for others is either very or somewhat important. When it comes to community involvement, the combined percentage is 80%. Things might not be as bleak as first appears.

Moreover, differences in polling methodology may make the changes seem more pronounced than they are. Twenty-five years ago, polls relied on personal telephone interviews, which might have led people to claim values they didn’t really possess. In a telephone poll with a live interviewer, people might be embarrassed to reveal a lack of concern for their community. The current survey proceeded mostly online, a context in which people might feel more anonymous and inclined to reveal their true feelings. Perhaps community involvement hasn’t declined as a value. Maybe people are just being more honest about it.

Finally, the cumulative response rate in the new survey was only 4.3%. By contrast, the response rate in recent iterations of the GSS was around 60%. Low response rates raise the possibility that a poll reflects an unrepresentative set of respondents, which, of course, would make results less reliable—especially if one is making comparisons with earlier surveys that may have had higher response rates. True, pollsters nowadays are comfortable with lower response rates, which they believe they can offset through proper sampling techniques. Still, the very low response rate in this survey might give one pause.

These questions notwithstanding, the Journal survey is consistent with oft-observed trends in American life. In his famous book, Bowling Alone, sociologist Robert Putnam describes the withdrawal of contemporary Americans from civic involvement. Unlike their parents and grandparents, Putnam shows, Americans today devote relatively little time to community organizations such as social clubs, scouting associations, hobby groups, charities, reading circles, volunteer fire and ambulance teams—and churches. Once a nation of joiners, the United States is now a collection of people surfing the internet and posting on social media.

For example, since 1990, America has been undergoing a massive religious disaffiliation. According to the GSS, the percentage of Americans who claim to have no religious affiliation, the so-called “Nones,” has increased from roughly 5% in 1990 to about 30% today. Among younger Americans, the percentage of Nones is even higher, over one-third. Nones now comprise the single largest “religious” group in the country, ahead of Catholics, mainline Protestants, and other Christians (taken separately). It’s not surprising that relatively few Americans in the Journal poll, especially younger Americans, say that religion is “very important” to them.

The shift in values that the Journal survey reflects will not surprise anyone who has read Tocqueville. In Democracy in America, he described the propensity democratic societies have to “individualism,” which he defined as the tendency to detach oneself from the affairs of the wider society. Unlike aristocracies, he argued, which have status hierarchies that naturally encourage deference, democracies accustom each person to think of himself as the equal of everyone else—not only in terms of political citizenship, but moral judgment as well. Because everyone is equal, there is no reason to defer to received wisdom or traditional communal values. In deciding how to live, each person believes he must rely on his own judgment and look out for his own interests. Over time, Tocqueville wrote, this “sentiment disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of those like him and to withdraw to one side with his family and his friends, so that after having thus created a little society for his own use, he willingly abandons society at large to itself.”

Tocqueville believed that the tendency to individualism created the potential for two sorts of tyranny. The first was state oppression. The despotic state desires nothing more than for individual citizens to feel isolated from and indifferent to the concerns of others, so that the state can easily divide and dominate them all. The second was the tyranny of public opinion. Socially isolated individuals are no match for the pressure of majority viewpoints, which, like state oppression, can squelch free thought. Indeed, he observed that egalitarian and individualistic America was, paradoxically, rather conformist: “I do not know of any country, where, in general, less independence of mind and genuine freedom of discussion reign than in America.”

Tocqueville famously argued that the United States overcame the dangers of destructive individualism through voluntary associations, including churches, which encouraged Americans to look beyond themselves and cooperate in common enterprises. They taught habits of fellowship and reciprocity. Importantly, they worked to check the tyranny of the majority by giving people a sense of shared identity beyond citizenship. Collections of like-minded people stand a much better chance than isolated individuals of resisting both state oppression and the pressure of public opinion.

Last week’s poll suggests what happens when mediating institutions weaken and disappear. As Tocqueville predicted, people lose interest in the wider community and focus more and more on their own projects. They “withdraw to one side” and “willingly abandon society at large to itself.” This can help explain why Americans decreasingly value tolerance and increasingly value money. Working in a joint enterprise teaches people to overlook personal differences to achieve a common goal; it trains us to forbear and forgive. Tolerance is unnecessary in a society in which everyone bowls alone. And money allows one to fulfill one’s desires without relying on the cooperation and approval of others.

Whether the tyranny of the majority, which Tocqueville also predicted, will follow from the decline of our mediating institutions remains to be seen. The signs are ominous, though, in our increasingly centralized government and the increasingly strident and unpredictable social media cancel campaigns that ruin the careers of individuals who run afoul of public opinion. Detachment, as Tocqueville saw, ultimately doesn’t lead to security and independence. In fact, it makes all of us less free. It would be a good idea for Americans to strengthen the voluntary associations that have served us so well before it is too late.

Mark L. Movsesian is the Law School’s Frederick A. Whitney Professor of Contract Law and co-directs our Center for Law and Religion. This piece originally appeared at Law & Liberty on April 3, 2023.