Americans Are Losing Confidence in the Nation but Still Believe in Themselves

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A new poll on values shows that there's less faith in Washington, Wall Street, and even God. But Americans still think they can get anything they want through sheer hard work.

tornado2.jpgAn American flag hangs in the doorway of a tornado-ravaged home in Henryville, Indiana. (Reuters)

America's values are in upheaval, triggered by the advance of technology, prolonged pessimism, and a loss of confidence in major social, political, economic, and religious institutions, according to a poll of more than 2,000 Americans commissioned by The Atlantic and The Aspen Institute for the Aspen Ideas Festival. The poll was conducted by Penn Schoen Berland between May 25 and June 6, 2012.

While Americans have become far more socially tolerant of different lifestyles, they have become far more cynical about Wall Street, the ability to succeed on one's own merits, the future of their children, and even the existence of God, according to the poll. (Full results here.)

America is in many ways unhappy with itself and the pop-culture it has become.

More than two thirds (69 percent) believe that American values have declined, and they point to political corruption, increased materialism, declining family values, and a celebrity-obsessed culture as the culprits.

Religious freedom is named as a core value, and yet fewer Americans are embracing any religion. Overall, 89 percent of Americans now say that they believe in God, down from 98 percent in a 1967 Gallup poll. The youngest generation shows an even sharper decline to 81 percent, though people often become more religious after they have children or start a family. By all measures ­- from basic belief to weekly attendance ­-- religion and religious life are trending down in importance in American life.

And while a huge proportion laments the decline of traditional family life, calling its loss damaging to society, most Americans -- and especially the young -- favor alternative lifestyles, from living together unmarried to having children out of wedlock and supporting divorce. And majorities of those 18 to 29 approve of unmarried men and women living together, have no issues with smoking marijuana or homosexuality, and classify themselves as pro-choice. The older generation, which has been rising as a proportion of the population, is far more conservative in outlook, expressing opposition to all of these social matters.

But there are well-documented changes in social tolerance as well. The rise in overall acceptance of homosexuality is probably the biggest single change in social values in the last 30 years. Fifty-three percent say homosexuality is now morally acceptable, up from 38 percent in 2002. Narrow majorities oppose pornography and smoking marijuana, and huge majorities oppose cloning, underage drinking, other illegal drug use, and steroids. Forty-one percent find marijuana use acceptable, as compared to 11 percent for other illegal drug use.

Americans strongly favor life support for as long as people want to be kept alive, even at government expense. Likewise, assisted suicide is seen as morally objectionable by 60 percent to 37 percent.

One surprise comes in the area of guns. The public is split down the middle on the need for more gun safety laws, but 72 percent backed an absolute right to self-defense, even if that means using deadly force. Growing percentages oppose any outright bans on handgun ownership, with 64 percent in opposition, up from 51 percent in 1980, though there are doubts about concealed handguns.

When it comes to personal liberty and freedom, the Americans in this poll reaffirm the basic tenets of the Bill of Rights. The core American values of freedom - particularly freedom of speech and freedom of religion -- are reaffirmed as nearly two-thirds say those are the values that put America in a stronger position than others in the world. Slightly fewer -- about half -- point to the free enterprise system, principles of equality, and our constitution as setting us apart. Some values are seen as less important - such as the importance of being a melting pot and of enabling upward mobility. Young people place equality as a value nearly as important as freedom of speech and religion, while the older generations placed equality after capitalism as a core value. The free enterprise system runs deep as a value for those 45 and older, but the younger two generations are far less rooted in that system.

When probed about their depth of belief in freedom of speech, most citizens were against allowing freedom for pornography, hate speech, and fighting words. They only extended the concept to voting, freedom of information, and, more narrowly, to advertising.

Family, schools, and friends remain the source of and greatest reported influence on American values, underscoring the importance of policies that support working families and education reform. 41 percent of Americans say that family values are the most important in their life, followed most closely by moral values at 31 percent and religious values at 17 percent. By contrast, the impact of political and general cultural values is in the low single digits, although Americans frequently name Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Oprah, and Billy Graham* as the individuals most representative of American values.

The focus on family values also highlights a tension in American life brought about by changing social and economic circumstances, and perhaps the simple passage of time. Most Americans view the decline of traditional families over the past few decades as negative, but also see raising kids in a dual wage-earning household as the new norm. In this new world, 39 percent of American parents want to spend more time with their children but half of them believe their children can grow up to be successful even if they spend a majority of their developmental years in day care or other children's services. However, it is men, not women, who are most likely to say that they are not getting adequate time with their children.

Few younger people believe in mandatory military service, but there is general agreement that perhaps we should have some kind of national community service.

Americans continue to put faith in education as the key to success. Seventy-six percent of parents responded that they are focused on their children's future success and believe that instilling values like dedication, hard work, and career preparation should be the primary goals of public schools. Americans are thus keenly aware of the impact of their values on future generations. More than 8 in 10 of Americans think public education is a central American value, one that that ensures opportunity and success for all Americans. But almost half of Americans give our schools as a whole a "C," highlighting a central problem we face.

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Mark Penn is executive vice president and chief strategy officer of Microsoft.

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