A declining American belief in God, country, and family

Pollsters and sociologists find a shift away from three American values:

The nuclear family, religious fealty, and national pride—family, God, and country—are a holy trinity of American traditionalism. The fact that allegiance to all three is in precipitous decline tells us something important about the evolution of the American identity…

But it looks like something bigger is going on. Millennials and Gen Z are not only unlikely to call themselves Protestants and patriots, but also less likely to call themselves Democrats or Republicans. They seem most comfortable with unaffiliation, even anti-affiliation. They are less likely than preceding generations to identify as “environmentalists,” less likely to be loyal to specific brands, and less likely to trust authorities, or companies, or institutions. Less than one-third of them say they have “a lot of confidence” in unions, or Silicon Valley, or the federal government, or the news, or the justice system. And don’t even get them started on the banks...

The older working-class men in the Edin, Nelson, et al paper desperately want meaning in their lives, but they lack the social structures that have historically been the surest vehicles for meaning-making. They want to be fathers without nuclear families. They want spirituality without organized religion. They want psychic empowerment from work in an economy that has reduced their economic power. They want freedom from pain and misery at a time when the pharmaceutical solutions to those maladies are addictive and deadly. They want the same pride and esteem and belonging that people have always wanted.

The ends of Millennials and Gen-Z are similarly traditional. The NBC/WSJ poll found that, for all their institutional skepticism, this group was more likely than Gen-Xers to value “community involvement” and more likely than all older groups to prize “tolerance for others.” This is not the picture of a generation that has fallen into hopelessness, but rather a group that is focused on building solidarity with other victims of economic and social injustice. Younger generations have been the force behind equality movements like #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, #AbolishICE, and Medicare for All, not only because they’re liberal, and not only because they have the technological savvy to organize across the Internet, but also because their experience in this economy makes them exquisitely sensitive to institutional abuses of power, and doubly eager to correct it. What Americans young and old are abandoning is not so much the promise of family, faith, and national pride, but the trust that America’s existing institutions can be relied on to provide for them.

My first thought: I wonder if these three values have been consistent throughout American history or are more particular to the postwar era. It was in the prosperity of roughly 15-20 years after World War II that Americans became the most religious, the nuclear family became the ideal, and America saw itself as opposed to communism and the Soviet Union. Additionally, a number of societal institutions were relatively strong and well-regarded. Prior to this era, would the same values have held and/or would others have been in the top three? For example, I could imagine making a case for individualism as a core American value from the beginning. This would, to some degree, be in opposition to all three of God, country, and family which require loyalty to larger groups or beings.

My second thought: what comes next in a trinity of American values? Would something like self, community, and success work?

A reminder of the absurdity of sports

The MVP Machine is a good look at the data feedback player development angle in Major League Baseball today. Roughly two-thirds through the book, there is a reminder about what sports actually are:

It also strikes me as silly that I’m so excited about being a bit better at hitting a ball covered in cowhide with a wooden stick, an ultimately meaningless activity that American culture collectively decided would be worth many millions of dollars when performed with a certain skill. Rational or not, though, the fulfillment is real.

Similar descriptions could render all major sports as absurdist activities. And yet, they are viewed by millions, they are tied to local status and civic togetherness, and there are billions of dollars tied up in them. Sports today are big business, big entertainment, and big stakes for fans all rolled up into one. But, I imagine some sports moments could be made better with this reminder of what sports are at their most basic level.

Considering the Wall Street Journal’s “mansion porn”

The Wall Street Journal sends a special supplement each week to readers looking at the houses of the wealthy:

Mansion, The Wall Street Journal’s real-estate supplement, arrives each Friday slipped into the middle of my newsprint edition, the way pornography (so I’m told!) used to come in unmarked envelopes back before the internet placed it at everyone’s fingertips. I’m satisfied with my weekly print version, but you may prefer reading Mansion on the web, where the photographs are more numerous, detailed, lurid, and explicit…

The comparison to porn is apt. It’s also unoriginal and incomplete. A little more than a decade ago, when the century was young and right before their real-estate holdings drove millions of people into bankruptcy, New York magazine ran a regular feature about how fabulous it was to own real estate. And not just to own it, but to fantasize about it, drool over it, caress the photos and the sales price as though they were objects of sensual desire. The feature was called “Real Estate Porn,” in keeping with the salacious content.

Mansion invokes the same feelings of naughtiness: You’re watching people do something that, in a fairer and more just world, you’d be doing yourself. I think of Vivian Dixon and John Chapple, a married couple that Mansion introduced us to not long ago, as the exemplars of the Mansion character. They are voluptuaries of real estate. They grab houses the way the rest of us scoop mints from the little bowl as we leave a restaurant. At the time of the article’s publication, in May, they owned six residences, though by the time the piece ends you suspect their trigger finger is getting itchy again…

This willingness to take the wealthy on their own terms is a rarity in American business journalism. Reporters are usually more leery in their treatment of such subjects, when not nakedly hostile. Few people in the world despise the winners of the capitalist lotto more than the sorry drudges who are called to write about them. You’ll find a higher percentage of committed socialists in the newsroom of the Financial Times than at a lakefront party at Bernie Sanders’s dacha.

I have not seen this section but I wonder if tackles several darker essentials of American culture from the beginning:

  1. The presence of really wealthy people in the midst of an egalitarian/middle-class public discourse.
  2. The importance of real estate in American life. Sure, citizens can vote and a few people can move from the bottom to the top in unique ways but the real answer to getting ahead is real estate (from moving the frontier for 150+ years to gobbling up expensive properties in  global cities).
  3. The work that goes into homeownership in both maintaining and improving properties.
  4. The interest in seeing what the rich are up to and uncertainty about whether to critique their excess or celebrate their success.

It would be interesting to know how many Americans exist at this elite level of real estate. This is not the typical homeowner hoping to make money on their single-family home or the small market house flipper or the “dream hoarders” in the top quintile of earners; these are people buying and selling with large amounts of capital (perhaps some even thinking like the current president).

Bringing the cool parts of suburban life to urban settings

Can the suburban life be imported to residential units in the heart of the biggest American cities?

Your own slice of suburbia within city limits is a concept that developers and retailers across the country have been pitching a lot recently, subtly or not. The pendulum swings of socio-economic and demographic changes over the past two decades in some thriving cities are partly behind this shift…

The dividing line between urban and suburban limits has always been a little murky in most cities, many of which have their own vast stretches of single-family homes with attached garages. But the general idea was that the suburbs offered comfort and personal space, private backyards and a bedroom for each kid. City living was more exciting and offered culture and a more diverse mix of everything, but required some sacrifice. Apartments were smaller, parking a headache and a backyard unimaginable…

One of the Dahlia’s biggest selling points? It has its own parking garage. “You can pull in with your S.U.V., unload and take your things in a private manner,” said Shlomi Reuveni, the president of the company that is handling sales for the building. “That’s very appealing.” And very suburban.

In some high-end buildings, architects are giving apartments the feel of single-family homes by replicating the layouts of suburban houses. At the Quay Tower, which overlooks Brooklyn Bridge Park, there are just five condos on each floor, two of which have private elevator access. Inside, the larger units have something you see a lot of on HGTV suburban house renovation shows: large mudrooms off the back door with locker-like cubbies and sturdy ceramic-tile floors.

As the article goes on to note, more suburban features like mall food courts and white people are headed to cities.

On one head, the melding of lifestyles is not too surprising. In the suburbs, a “surban” lifestyle helps developers and residents differentiate their product and life from the typical suburban lifestyle. Both producers and consumers can seek out new niches.

On the other hand, that the suburban lifestyle may be a selling point is kind of funny because of all the flak the suburban life takes. I thought the suburbs were about exclusion, homogeneity, wastefulness, and individualism? It is not just that some of these features of suburban life have urban analogues. After all, they are both situated within American culture. The idea that certain suburban features, such as garages or mudrooms, will be replicated in cities flies against the claims about tacky suburban life. Suburban consumer goods and lifestyle markers are now cool?

Separating the ills of suburbia from the ills of the United States

The critiques of the American suburbs are common and persistent. But, how many of them are unique to the suburbs as opposed to multiple American settings or American society as a whole? A thought experiment with a number of the ills of suburbia:

  1. Consumerism. Present everywhere with displays of wealth such as expensive housing, cars, and technological goods alongside just having a lot of stuff. Certain suburban symbols may catch attention – such as McMansions and SUVs – but these are present all over the place. Excessive or wasteful consumption is not solely an American problem.
  2. Sprawl. This may seem like a uniquely suburban problem. Yet, numerous American cities have varying levels of density and lots of single-family home neighborhoods (even if these homes are closer together).
  3. Driving. Suburbs may be more dependent or designed around automobiles but so are most American cities and urban neighborhoods. And  rural areas would be very different without widespread access to cars.
  4. Conformity. Mass culture is everywhere, even if cities are often regarded as having more diversity and cultural experiences. This is related to consumerism as many Americans are thoroughly immersed (just see the figures on how much media Americans consume a day).
  5. Inequality. Across categories of race, class, and gender, American communities of all kinds experience problems. They may manifest differently in each context but addressing inequality in the suburbs would not solve the problem in the entire country.
  6. Lack of true community. Social ties seem to be more tenuous across the United States as a whole and the influence of and trust in institutions of all kinds has declined. Americans are famously individualistic, whether in suburbs or other settings.

Another way to think about it: did these problems begin in suburbs or are they amplified or exacerbated by suburbs? Imagine the United States where only 30% of American lived in suburbs: might driving and sprawl still be an issue? Would the problems of inequality be alleviated?

Two data points in transportation change: NYC subway ridership peaks in 1946, US non-commuter rail traffic drops after 1945

That the automobile came to dominate American social life and physical spaces after World War II is clear in multiple ways but two recent points of data I saw helped drive this point home.

Start in an obvious place: New York City. On one hand, the use of mass transit in New York City is unparalleled in the biggest American cities. On the other hand, subway ridership peaked in 1946:

1946: Subway ridership peaks

Subway ridership has never been as high as it was in 1946, and a precipitous decline began in the late 1940s as automobiles became widely available. The busiest station in the system, Times Square, saw its ridership drop from 102,511,841 riders in 1946 to 66,447,227 riders in 1953. Subway expansion would become increasingly difficult to justify as New Yorkers were abandoning the existing system—even though outward expansion was just what was needed to keep the subway as the region’s primary mode of transportation.

To a less obvious place: Toledo, Ohio. In the late 1940s, the city proudly constructs a new train station amid a growing population and optimism about the future. And then train traffic fell off dramatically across the country:

In the 20 years following Toledo Tomorrow, non-commuter rail travel in the U.S. collapsed, falling 84 percent nationwide, thanks in large part to the airports and the ribbons of limited-access high-speed roads Bel Geddes had foretold. Five years after the new railroad station opened in Toledo, the New York Central put it up for sale. Eight years later, the Beaux-Arts Pennsylvania Station in New York City would be demolished; five years after that, the New York Central and Pennsylvania railroads combined to form Penn Central, then the largest merger in American history. It would become the largest bankruptcy in American history two years later.

There is little doubt that the car is a nearly essential part of American culture today but it was not always this way nor is it guaranteed to be in the future. Reversing or countering a major trend is always difficult, particularly when its tentacles are everywhere and embedded in infrastructure and culture. To truly move to other forms of transportation would require not just fewer cars and vehicles on roads but a massive reconfiguring of American society.

What I want to know: do TV shows push viewers to buy certain kinds of houses?

After publishing two papers in the last few years on TV depictions of suburbs and their houses (see here and here), it leaves me with one big question: do shows like these directly influence what homes people purchase?

Americans watch a lot of television – still an average of about four hours a day for adults – and they see a lot of dwellings. While there is a mix of housing units shown, scholars point out that television since the 1950s does place a lot of emphasis on single-family homes. This includes fictional shows set in single-family homes in the suburbs (think Bewitched or Desperate Housewives), rural areas (think Lassie), and cities (think Happy Days and King of Queens). More recently, viewers can see homes on HGTV and other networks that emphasize home life (plus the shows on other networks that specifically target homeowners, from This Old House to Trading Spaces). This makes some sense in a country that holds up owning a single-family home, particularly in the suburbs, as an ideal.

But, we know little how about all of this watching about homes translates into choosing homes. My study “From I Love Lucy to Desperate Housewives” did not find much evidence that more popular suburban television shows led to more people living in suburbs (or vice versa). Similarly, outside of some interest from Sopranos’ fans in having a home like Tony, there is little to no evidence that Americans flocked to imitate the home or neighborhood of the Sopranos. While the viewers of HGTV might be relatively wealthy, do they take what they see and directly purchase something like that?

It is relatively easy to make claims about how media products affect thoughts and behavior. However, it is harder to make direct, causal connections. I would guess advertisers around such shows hope such a connection is present. If we could examine this relationship between shows and homes more closely in research studies, it could help us better understand how Americans form, maintain, and change their approaches to homes and communities.