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Alone Out of Many

A new poll says less about individual Americans and more about the decay of institutions.

African American man walking on remote path
(John Fedele/Getty Images)

A poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal and the University of Chicago’s non-partisan NORC think tank provoked a flurry of public comment upon its publication Monday. A variety of traditional “values”—patriotism, religion, marriage, having children, and “community involvement”—have hit an all-time low in the importance Americans attach to them.

Let’s have the numbers. Thirty-eight percent of those polled say patriotism is “very important” to them; 39 so identify religion; 43 percent, marriage; 30 percent, having children. These are the lowest numbers since the first iteration of the poll, in 1998. These ratios are ameliorated somewhat when those who say these things are “somewhat important” to them are taken into account. Patriotism: 73 percent. Having children: 65 percent. Religion: 60 percent. Marriage: 70 percent.


The decline is still worrying. A number of my fellows in the commentariat have used the poll to make broad points about the decline in the American character. On the other hand, it appears that at least the Yankee virtues of thrift, industry, and capitalism are stronger than ever. “Money” improved in the standings: Forty-three percent of those polled said lucre is “very important” to them—a sharp increase since the 31 percent of 1998—and 90 percent claimed it was at least “somewhat important.” Sixty-seven percent say “hard work” is “very important” and 94 percent say it is at least “somewhat important.” So some shred of the American spirit remains intact still in the beating hearts of the citizenry. What gives?

The illuminating detail: a strange disunion between the emphasis on belief in a deity—48 percent say it is “very important,” and 65 percent say it is at least “somewhat important”—and emphasis on religion (39 and 60 percent, remember). God is all right, but churches, mosques, and synagogues—not so much. 

This poll is not so much reflecting a spontaneous change in the public’s internal thinking; it is reflecting the collapse of public affinity for institutions. The “values” suffering decline are those that are mediated by the state and formal structures in civil society.

Marriage and parenthood are bereft of credibility in the wake of a century of divorce and misguided family welfare; organized religion has in large part been visibly subjugated to the purposes of partisan politics, not to mention the other great self-inflicted wound of clerical abuse. The state is a mere sharp stick for poking partisan enemies; despite its massive scale, it is incapable of maintaining tranquil order at home or securing American interests abroad. No wonder people, especially young people, are opting to be unmarried, childless, irreligious, and not all that thrilled about America.

On the other hand, working hard, making money, and achieving “self-fulfillment” (53 percent “very important,” 91 at least “somewhat important”) are all basically individual pursuits. Gallup’s annual study of Americans’ trust in institutions is also illuminating. Setting aside law enforcement and the military—both unusual cases for reasons we will not get into here—the only public “institution” that Americans endorse is “small business,” which is just a proxy for “making money as an individual.”


Pius IX foresaw it in 1864: “But who indeed does not see and perceive plainly that a society of men freed of the bonds of religion and true justice is able to hold no proposition besides the goal of obtaining and piling up wealth, and to follow no law in its actions besides the ungoverned avarice of a spirit serving its peculiar pleasures and conveniences?” (Read a certain way, the Holy Father thereby came up with something like Conquest’s Second Law, which states that any organization that isn’t explicitly right-wing will become left-wing.)

There are worse things, I suppose. Whiggism built this country; the fond obligations that underpin a nation rarely make it into law in America. This lightness of touch has allowed for a mass of people to enjoy republican government in relative civil peace, but it appears there may be a limit on how many people can depart by how much from mainstream, historical American values as mediated by institutions; then the wheels begin to come off the bus. (To those who would say the wheels aren’t coming off, I recommend getting out more: Most Americans, irrespective of partisan feeling, disagree.) 

The question is how far we can go before mass disaffiliation catches up with us. Thucydides, through Pericles, says the childless should not be trusted with the care of the polity; religion was not so long ago regarded as such a pillar of civic life that Fr. Neuhaus could ask whether atheists could be good citizens. Even the mainstream press is making trepidatious noises about widespread population decline. Yet a narrow focus on the concrete practical effects of disaffiliation for the state or the economy neglects the fact that participation in institutions is the life of the nation, that the collection of people participating together is the nation itself. 

Of course, the question is whether a national renewal can be achieved, especially when the institutions from which prior Great Awakenings were launched have been themselves discredited and hobbled. I am not by nature an optimist, and am unpersuaded by the idea that state action can do much—which is not to say we oughtn’t try.

Maybe whatever comes out of the “exit” moment will provide a place for the new builders to stand—certainly, if hard work, self-fulfillment, and profit are still attractive to the American people, a new homestead movement has a certain promise. But, in any case, to be a man of the right is to love a losing cause; we have to try anyway. 

“Being a nation is, in the last resort, subjective; those who feel they are a nation and behave accordingly are one,” observed the late Enoch Powell, commenting on the surrender of British sovereignty to what became the European Union. Do Americans feel they are a nation, and behave accordingly?