“God and country” used to serve as shorthand for a set of shared American values such as pride in the nation and religious observance—values many people assumed were immutable. But as a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found, patriotism and religion, along with having children, are now far less appealing to Americans than they used to be.
Twenty-one years ago, when asked what was important to them, “strong majorities picked the principles of hard work, patriotism, commitment to religion, and the goal of having children,” the poll found. Today, by contrast, patriotism is down nine percentage points, religion is down 12 points, and having children is down 16 percentage points.
The generational differences with regard to these values are especially stark. According to the survey, while 80 percent of Americans age 55 and older say patriotism is important, only 42 percent of Americans ages 18–38 say the same. “Two-thirds of the older group cited religion as very important,” the pollsters report, “compared with fewer than one-third of the younger group.” The greatest generational divide on values exists among Democrats: “Democrats over age 50 were more in line with those of younger Republicans than with younger members of their own party,” the survey found, which will not surprise those who have followed the antics of the young, progressive Democratic “squad” of congresswomen in the House of Representatives who frequently spar with their elders.
Some of this shift in values can be attributed to the ongoing decline in trust in institutions, especially government. In July, Pew Research released data showing that 75 percent of Americans believe that faith in the federal government has been declining, and 70 percent believe that Americans’ low trust in one another has made it more difficult to solve the country’s problems.
Here, too, the kids aren’t quite as all right as their elders: Another study released in August by Pew found that 73 percent of U.S. adults under 30 “believe people ‘just look out for themselves’ most of the time. A similar share (71 percent) say most people ‘would try to take advantage of you if they got a chance,’ and six-in-ten say most people ‘can’t be trusted.’” Pew found that people under age 30 “are significantly more likely than their older counterparts to take a pessimistic view of their fellow Americans.” So much for youthful optimism.
Derek Thompson of the Atlantic argues that such cynicism among the young is justified because it is the result of negative personal experience, and that activism has replaced optimism as their way of coping. “Their experience in this economy makes them exquisitely sensitive to institutional abuses of power and doubly eager to correct it,” he writes, citing younger people’s embrace of “equality movements” such as “Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, #AbolishICE and Medicare for All.”
He further believes that their lack of enthusiasm for country, faith, and family is an understandable expression of their distrust in the idea that “America’s existing institutions can be relied on to provide for them.” (Perhaps they came to such views by way of the one group younger people are slightly more likely to trust than their elders are, according to Pew: their college professors.)
Even if one is persuaded that younger generations are justified in rejecting values such as patriotism and child-rearing, nature abhors a vacuum. What new values have arisen to replace the old?
That is not clear. Secular alternatives to traditional civic, religious, and social institutions, such as the media and entertainment industries and Silicon Valley technology companies and their wares, have not proven to be reliable alternatives for those seeking value and meaning. In fact, in many ways, these new secular alternatives have contributed to increased polarization and exacerbated culture-war tensions by encouraging people to embrace anger (and retweets) rather than abstract ideals such as love of God and country.
As well, identity politics is finding its way into the values language of more Americans. In a recent New York Times story about the now-defunct presidential campaign of Kirsten Gillibrand, for example, a political consultant noted approvingly that it is now common to hear ordinary people in focus groups use social-justice buzzwords such as “patriarchy” and “privilege” to describe the issues that concern them as voters.
Yet it is in part this elevation of identity and personal experience that has helped undermine people’s trust in institutions (and in one another).
Consider patriotism. As Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute has noted, Gallup polls consistently find high levels of patriotism among Americans when Americans are asked if they would describe themselves as patriotic (75 percent described themselves this way in March 2017).
But when someone’s personal “truth” leads him to undermine rather than uphold a value such as patriotism, it eventually leads to cynicism about the value itself. This is what happened when former FBI director James Comey tried to justify his rule-breaking during his investigations into Donald Trump by wrapping it in the mantle of his personal patriotism. He claimed he was compelled to circumvent the rules “if I love this country,” an assertion that an Inspector General’s report about Comey’s behavior noted would establish a standard that would render the FBI “unable to dispatch its law enforcement duties properly.” It is also what President Trump does when he tries to arrogate to himself powers that our system of government does not grant the president. Such norm-breaking might generate a powerful cult of personality in the short term, but it breeds cynicism about institutions in the longterm.
There is something reassuringly predictable about younger generations questioning the values of their elders. Many studies have found that interpersonal trust tends to increase with age, which suggests that some of those expressing youthful cynicism about patriotism, religion, and having children in these recent surveys will eventually grow out of it. And the generations remain closer on issues such as the importance of hard work, community involvement, and tolerance of others.
But the 2020 election will likely stress-test our already-fraying moral commitments. A recent USA Today/Suffolk University poll “found a sharply divided country that views next year’s presidential campaign as a sobering test of the fundamental values of the United States.” Eight in ten said the country’s core values are at stake. We are all values voters now, even as our understanding of which values matter most has become increasingly polarized.
Our trust in the democratic process will be tested as well. The USA Today/Suffolk poll found that if the candidate favored by those polled loses in 2020, “nearly four in 10 said they would have little or no confidence that the election had been conducted in a fair-and-square way,” suggesting that election-result denialists like Georgia gubernatorial loser Stacy Abrams in 2018 are likely to proliferate.
The demotion of patriotism and faith and child-rearing as core American values will no doubt come as good news to many progressives and radicals who have long considered such notions retrograde. But theirs is a pyrrhic victory. If these trends continue, and “self-fulfillment” continues to outpoll patriotism while having children becomes increasingly less appealing to more and more Americans, who will be left to celebrate this supposed ideological maturation of the American people?