Confirmed: Americans Have Lost Confidence in American Values

An opinion survey commissioned by The Atlantic finds widespread mistrust of governing elites and an aversion to spreading U.S. norms abroad.

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Valerie Everett / Flickr

Should America focus on trying to spread our values to other countries around the world? The Atlantic posed that question in a just-released survey conducted in partnership with The Aspen Institute and Penn Schoen Berland. You'd think, given our government's involvement in countries around the world, that a majority of Americans would support official efforts to spread U.S. values.

Quite the contrary.
  • Just 15 percent of those surveyed said that America should try to spread its values.
  • 31 percent said that the United States should try to learn from the values of other countries.
  • 51 percent said America should neither try to spread its values nor learn from the values of other countries.
These findings are intriguing. In the aftermath of World War II, the United States embarked on an unprecedented effort to deliberately spread American values, especially in Germany and Japan, the nations the Allies conquered, and in subsequent worldwide attempts to fight the spread of Communism. As recently as the Bush years, a majority of Americans thought it was a good idea to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, and to remake the laws and institutions in those countries in accordance with our own. To this day, the U.S. government exercises hard and soft power in scores of countries. The survey results suggest a vast gulf between the beliefs of Americans and the policies being implemented on their behalf.
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The failures of American foreign policy, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, surely explain some of the aversion to spreading our values. Why trust the folks running things to do so in a way that doesn't wind up being an expensive catastrophe? But the survey indicates something else is going on too. Americans have a low opinion of this country's values, perceiving that they are in decline.

For example, asked if American values have strengthened, declined, or stayed about the same since the 1940s, just 17 percent say they've strengthened. And 68 percent say they're weaker today. This despite the fact that the 1940s were the age of forced internment of innocent Japanese Americans, Jim Crow laws, widespread mistreatment of gays, and unequal treatment of women. Roughly the same percentage said America's values have declined since the 1970s. And Americans are split on whether the U.S. has stronger or weaker values than the rest of the world:

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Among 18- to 29-year-olds, a plurality think our values are weaker than those elsewhere. 

What factors contribute to America having stronger values than other countries? Presented with a long list of possible answers, 67 percent cited freedom of speech, 61 percent cited freedom of religion, and 50 percent cited the free-enterprise system, principles of equality, and the system laid out in our constitution. This suggests widespread support for the theory behind our civic system.

But Americans are a lot less fond of how it the U.S. system operates in practice. Asked what contributes to Americans having weaker values than other places in the world, these answers were given:

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Americans also tend to believe that the most important values aren't ones that are easily exported -- asked, "Which of the following types of values do you consider to be most important in your life?" these were the answers:

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There is so much of interest here. For now, I'll suggest just one conclusion. For several years, I've taken part in the ongoing debate about the wisdom of American interventions abroad. Interventionists and non-interventionists will continue to argue about the wisdom of U.S. campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Some people may be persuaded.

But so long as public opinion resembles the findings in this survey, it is folly to embark on nation-building efforts, for their theoretical success depends on an American public with a deep, long-term commitment. The actual American public obviously isn't ready or willing to so commit.

Americans think family values, moral values, and religious values, the very sorts that it is almost impossible to export, are most important; and that political values, the ones that we've been spending so much blood and treasure to entrench abroad, are of comparatively little importance. They think America's values are in decline, that our governing elites are corrupt, that we lack strong moral leaders, and that money rules in our political system.

They also think we should focus on domestic rather than foreign affairs.

Meanwhile, governing elites continue to support efforts to spread American values abroad, via force and more often via coercion or soft power (personally, I think the soft-power efforts should continue).

In closing, an uncomfortable observation: From other public-opinion surveys, we know that sizable majorities of Americans support drone strikes abroad wherein the CIA kills alleged "militants" without any sort of transparency or due process, sometimes without even knowing the identities of the targets. That's an extraordinary power that America's governing elite asserts: the power to kill anyone based on the judgment of a few people in Washington, D.C. There is a basic contradiction in a polity that believes our leaders can be trusted to exercise that power in secret, and that our leaders lack strong morals, are prone to scandal, and are easily corruptible.