I’m so confused by the “American Values Today” polling results presented by The Atlantic. Consider these data:
- 70 percent of those polled say values in the US are getting worse
- 63 percent say America is headed in the wrong direction
- 75 percent believe America’s values are going to decline or at best stay the same over the next decade
- Half seldom or never attend church, synagogue, or mosque, but religion is “very important” to the same number of Americans (though not younger ones, only four out of five of whom believe in God — significantly smaller than other age demographic groups)
Here’s part of pollster Mark Penn’s analysis of his findings:
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.
If you look at the full results, you’ll find even more intriguing data. Turns out that 59 percent of 18 to 29 year olds — the age group whose values were far more liberal than other age groups’ — believe that America’s values have declined since the 1970s — a decade in which none ever lived. Seventy-one percent of 18-29 year olds say that “family” or “moral” values are the kinds of values most important to them; 76 percent of them say it’s fine for unmarried people to shack up. Fifty-six percent of them believe the decline of the traditional family has been bad for America; only 13 percent of them think it’s been good.
What to make of these data? All I can figure is that younger Americans agree with the older folks that our country is in serious moral decline, in particular with regard to the decline of the traditional family, but they don’t think their permissive personal beliefs and practices have anything to do with it. Is that an overbroad conclusion? What confuses me is the 18 to 29 year olds lamenting the fading-away of the traditional family, and expressing a belief in the decline of American values, but at the same time endorsing the kind of permissive sexual and social practices that are directly related to the outcomes that they say they don’t want.
Grow up! You can’t have it all.
UPDATE: To clarify somewhat, it is possible, of course, that the perceived decline in values has entirely to do with the economic situation, by which I mean the overwhelming disgust with Wall Street revealed by the poll, and with a government large majorities believe serves the interests of the wealthy. I don’t think that can explain all of this, especially when you look at the number of people — in particular, the 18 to 29 year old group — who are sorry to see the traditional family go by the wayside. I think this is another expression of the mentality that thinks America is getting too fat on the whole, but that exempts oneself from the kind of limits-setting that would keep one from getting fat. Or the process by which one laments the decline in affordability of a house, but one rejects the framework of behavior that would encourage one to live within particular limits to achieve a certain goal.
That show on obesity I wrote about back in March featured interviews with the parents of two of its obese subjects, both in their twenties. Both sets of parents are obese, and both said that they knew when their daughters were children that it was wrong to keep feeding them junk food, because it was making them unhealthily overweight. But, they said, they felt that they couldn’t stop, because the girls liked the food, and it made them happy. They wanted their children to be happy. So what they ended up with was adult women who were miserable and struggling to get down to a healthy weight.
This is the kind of dynamic I see at work underneath some of these poll results. Of course you can look at it in a different way too. Most everybody is disgusted with the behavior of politicians and Wall Street, but they keep voting the same people back into office, and if anybody actually proposed serious regulatory or other structural reform of the financial sector, they wouldn’t get far.
Anyway, I like this T.S. Eliot insight:
We should look for improvement of society, as we seek our own individual improvement, in relatively minute particulars. We cannot say: “I shall make myself into a different person”; we can only say: “I will give up this bad habit, and endeavour to contract this good one.” So of society we can only say: “We shall try to improve it in this respect or the other, where excess or defect is evident; we must try at the same time to embrace so much in our view, that we may avoid, in putting one thing right, putting something else wrong.”