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

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.

An 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.

However, the most important challenge that we face as a nation stems from the crisis of our capitalist values. Most Americans believe that obsession with money and material things, the influence of money in politics, and political corruption are weakening national values. More than two-thirds of Americans think the U.S. economy is on the wrong track - a consistent opinion that has held across the last three years -- and 52 percent believe that the economy and jobs are the single most important issues facing the country. When compared with the next most important issues, deficit and government spending and healthcare -- both at just 6 percent -- the poll provides a clear picture of what the defining element of the 2012 election campaign will be.

But concerns about the economy are not simply a matter of policy and direction. Half of Americans think the economic system is unfair to the middle and working classes. A majority of young Americans and 49 percent of the general population think wealthy Americans had more opportunities than others in achieving their financial success. Only 39 percent of Americans - and 34 percent of our young - believe they worked harder than others to be successful. The view that what is good for business is good for America is losing resonance with younger Americans (only 35 percent support this view), and among the general population only 4 out of 10 Americans agree with the statement.

But these cynical answers seem to be part of a slowly creeping narrative underwritten by the media (which scored extremely low in the poll) about America being driven by wealth and unfairness over merit and accomplishment. But while Americans are cynical about the country, they have a better view of their own lives and communities. Americans rated their own schools a B while rating everyone else's a C. And while they say that working and middle class Americans have been hurt by the free enterprise system, most working class, middle class, and upper-middle class voters when asked about themselves, say that they have been helped more than hurt by our economic system. And 70 percent of Americans still believe they can get anything they want in America through sheer hard work. Americans say the system is broken, yet many still believe in it for themselves.

Only 17 percent of Americans believe that Wall Street executives share the same fundamental values as other Americans, a point that all Democrats, Republicans, and Independents agree with overwhelmingly. They see the executives as Gordon Gekkos, driven by self and greed. Overall, 71 percent of Americans think more Wall Street executives should have gone to jail for their roles in the financial crisis.

The crisis of confidence in the American financial and economic system is also reflected in our politics. Seven in 10 Americans believe that elected officials reflect mainly the values of the wealthy, not the values of middle- and working- class Americans, a finding that is consistent across all age groups. Regardless of party and affiliation Americans are united in their belief that money and lobbyists have too much influence in politics. Seventy-four percent of Americans, including 73 percent of Democrats and 78 percent of Republicans, agree with this statement. Furthermore, 8 in 10 Americans think there is too much money being spent on political campaigns, a finding consistent across all demographic sub-groups. Both Democrats and Republicans agree that there is too much money concentrated among a small number of groups and individuals being spent on political campaigns in America.

Alexis De Tocqueville, once wrote that "America is great because she is good; if America ceases to be good, she will cease to be great." The resilience of freedom, tolerance, free enterprise, and equality under the law in America demonstrate that the first principles laid out by our Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution have withstood the test of time. And today America is a far more open and tolerant place for minorities of all origins and orientations, and the country finds more consensus across many moral and ethical questions that many would believe. Republicans and Democrats are moving toward the same views on stem cell research, sex-education, and contraception, and they are slowing closing the gap on still divisive issues like abortion and homosexuality.

But we have not been good keepers of our forefathers' promise, demonstrating weak leadership and a mishandled stewardship of our financial system and an economy that is threatening the fabric of America. In a wave of pessimism that has been pervasive throughout the last decade (perhaps the longest running in American history), Americans believe their country is heading in the wrong direction, that our values are weathering, that their generation is worse off than their parents' generation, and that their children will be still worse off. Americans believe that political corruption, too much focus on material things, and the influence of money in politics are weakening our values and standing in the world. They believe elected officials reflect and represent mainly the values of the wealthy and think the economic system is unfair to middle- and working-class Americans. And they believe that Wall Street is more like a cancer than an engine for economic growth.

Despite all the self-criticism, America's values make sense for a socially maturing country. They have become more tolerant and more open when it comes to lifestyles while rejecting drugs and other easy fixes. They reaffirm the basic values of the Bill of Rights, but can see its limits. They expect more from their government and more from their economic leaders, and yet still see a future based on pulling themselves up. They are looking for a fairer society and more secure society and yet reaffirm the right to self-defense. They believe less in God and yet they see clear moral limits everywhere.

Not surprisingly young people are diverging from their fathers and grandfathers with new attitudes that revolve less around competition and more around equality. It remains to be seen whether this is just another "rebellion at the university" and their views will change as they grow older -- or if we are witnessing permanent changes that will transform America.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly included the word posthumously after Billy Graham's name.