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?

Gallup: most Americans are proud to be American

In time for July 4th, Gallup has numbers on how many and which Americans feel “extremely proud” of the United States:

Proud to Be an American

In addition to the 54% who are extremely proud to be an American, 27% say they are “very proud,” 14% say they are “moderately proud,” 4% are “only a little proud” and 1% state that they are “not at all proud.”…

While most Americans are proud to be an American, certain groups are especially likely to say they are extremely proud. “Extreme pride” rises for each succeeding age group, from a low of 43% among those under 30 to a high of 64% among senior citizens.

Extreme pride also varies regionally, from a high of 61% in the South to a low of 46% in the West…

How proud are you to be an American --

None of these findings should be too surprising. Yet, one takeaway I have that I haven’t seen noted in the articles about these data is that almost all Americans have some pride in their country. Only 1% were “not at all proud” and then another 4% were “only a little proud.” This may be a product of the categories as well as a patriotic culture. Can you really distinguish between “very proud” and “moderately proud”? If you are “very proud,” what holds people back from being “extremely proud”? Perhaps the best way to get a handle on this would be to compare it to international data.

What is a suburb selling if it is “home to proud Americans”? Whiteness

New Lenox, Illinois is running radio ads extolling its virtues. They include: a growing population, new retail facilities, and opportunities for business. The final selling point? It is “home to proud Americans.” What exactly does this piece of boosterism mean?

If I was guessing, I would say that this is a largely white, working-class to middle-class community. Using this hint to patriotism hints at hard working, long established families. Perhaps the residents of New Lenox are similar to the counties largely in the South where the largest number of residents claim American ancestry. This doesn’t mean people of other backgrounds can’t be “proud Americans” but they may not phrase it that way or lead with it as a key selling point.

Here are the Census QuickFacts for New Lenox: 96.2% white, 5.7% Latino, 3.5% foreign born, 35.5% have a bachelor’s degree, 2.9% poverty rate, and a median household income of $93,609. New Lenox is largely white and wealthy (though not necessarily educated – the bachelor’s degree rate is only a few percentage points higher than the national average).

This is an example of patriotism as racially coded language. The ad may suggest that New Lenox welcomes “proud Americans” but this is not just about love of country; it is about a particular kind of resident.

“Our veterans deserve a clean [and mowed] lawn”

The American quest for a good-looking lawn extends to one man determined to keep the lawn mowed on the National Mall during the government shutdown:

A kind-hearted South Carolina volunteer who has mowed lawns, cleared a fallen tree and emptied ‘hundreds of trash cans’ up and down the National Mall since the federal government partially shut down told MailOnline that an aggressive, ‘bully’ of a U.S. Park Police officer who ‘looked like Robocop’ today ordered him to leave the Lincoln Memorial.

Chris Cox, the one-man landscaping crew, calls himself the Memorial Militia. He said he has been on a mission to spruce up the lawns, trees and trash bins near America’s grandest memorials before the weekend, because a ‘Million Vet March’ event is expected to bring scores of retired servicemen and women to the nation’s capital...

‘I’m calling on Americans,’ the 45-year-old told MailOnline: ‘Find a memorial. Go there. Instead of bringing a picnic basket, show up with a lawn mower and a rake.’

The peak of American patriotism: a cleanly-cut lawn! To me, this hints at the American obsession with lawns. On one hand, there might be safety and health arguments about garbage sitting out or fallen down trees that might lead to some harm. But, keeping the lawn neat? If the grass gets a little long, it is a major problem? The connection to veterans is intriguing as well: we can honor fellow Americans by having a well-manicured lawn.

Should new “Buy American” pushes be lauded if they occur because goods are now cheaper to make in the US?

Walmart is purchasing and selling more goods made in America – primarily because making some things in America is now cheaper:

In many cases, Wal-Mart’s suppliers had already decided to produce in the United States, as rising wages in China and other emerging economies, along with increased labor productivity and flexibility back home, eroded the allure of offshore production.

Though wrapped in the stars and stripes, the world’s largest retailer’s push to bring jobs back to the United States also makes business sense both for suppliers and retailers.

Some manufacturers are finding they can profitably produce certain goods at home that they once made offshore. And retailers like Wal-Mart benefit from being able to buy those goods closer to distribution centers and stores with lower shipping costs, while gaining goodwill by selling more U.S.-made products.

“This is not a public relations effort. This is an economic, financial, mathematical-driven effort. The economics are substantially different than they were in the 80s and 90s,” Bill Simon, chief executive of the Walmart U.S. chain, told the Reuters Global Consumer and Retail Summit earlier this month.

To restate, this isn’t because of some commitment to the United States or patriotism or creating American jobs. This is because the goods can be made more cheaply in the US due low-wage workers in other countries now earning more and rising transportation costs. Thus, if items could once again be made and shipped more cheaply overseas, businesses would likely chase that again. Granted, profits of American companies might be good (shareholders, for example, might be happy) but is this the only way to assess manufacturing and sales decisions? Is selling products partly on the fact that they are made in America then somewhat deceptive?

What can 90% of Americans agree on?

The answer: not much. Pew Research has an article about the small number of issues in which 90% of Americans agree:

Yet there are some opinions that 90% of the public, or close to it, shares — including a belief that citizens have a duty to vote, an admiration for those who get rich through hard work, a strong sense of patriotism and a belief that society should give everyone an equal opportunity to succeed. Pew Research’s political values surveys have shown that these attitudes have remained remarkably consistent over time.

The proportion saying they are very patriotic has varied by just four percentage points (between 87% to 91%) across 13 surveys conducted over 22 years. Similarly, in May 1987, 90% agreed with the statement: “Our society should do what is necessary to make sure everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.” This percentage has remained at about 90% ever since (87% in the most recent political values survey).

Interestingly, these cited figures are about foundational values in American culture. Exactly what some of these things mean could be up for debate: how should one express their “very patriotic” feelings? What exactly should it look like so that “everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed”? But as values, voting, patriotism, and meritocracy are quite powerful. (And it would also be interesting to see who doesn’t agree with these values.)

We could also ask why exactly 90% is a cutoff we should care about. Here is an explanation:

[R]eaching the 90% threshold is a rare occurrence in public opinion surveys. In part, this reflects the tendency of polling organizations to focus on current issues about which there are often considerable differences of opinion. Nonetheless, even on issues where one would expect to find near-total agreement, the public’s views are far from unanimous.

This is why Pew highlights a recent finding: “fully 90% of the public said that they were hearing mostly bad news about gas prices.”

It would be interesting to see more data on this to know just how rare 90% agreement is. How often might we expect to see this out of all survey responses? How different is the 90% occurrence compared to 80% or even 70%? Is this lack of 90% agreement unusual only for the United States or does this apply to other nations as well?

Patriotism at the Super Bowl

If you want to see what Americans think about their country, sporting events are good places to find out, particularly the Super Bowl, the sporting event of the year.

This year, the pregame featured a reading of the Declaration of Independence. Football players, surrounded by military personnel, read the main parts though we didn’t hear all the grievances regarding the tyranny of the English king. Colin Powell and Roger Goodell finished off the reading.

The two patriotic songs, God Bless America and the Star-Spangled Banner, seemed overwrought. God Bless America had an interesting arrangement at the end while Christiana Aguilera tried her own take on the National Anthem.

Some of this is standard fare at American sporting events. But I’m still trying to figure out how the Declaration of Independence fits with football. It did offer an opportunity to support our military, a cause that often is invoked in big sporting events. But is the idea that because we have freedom and strive for equality as a nation that we therefore should sit together for the next four hours and watch football? Perhaps a little more text could have been added: “We are not red or blue states, Republicans or Democrats: we are united together on this day like no other in our desire to watch football and many commercials.”

This mix of patriotism plus the military plus explicit values plus football seems to have been done in a uniquely American way. The next step sociologically is to discuss this as American civil religion.