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Widely Shared American Values Essay

The differences between America and other nations have long been a subject of fascination and study for social scientists, dating back to Alexis de Tocqueville, the early 19th century French political thinker who described the United States as “exceptional.”

Nearly 200 years later, Americans’ emphasis on individualism and work ethic stands out in surveys of people around the world. When Pew Research Center surveyed people in 44 countries last spring, 57% of Americans disagreed with the statement “Success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control,” a higher percentage than most other nations and far above the global median of 38%.


True to the stereotype, surveys showed that Americans are more likely to believe that hard work pays off. When asked, on a scale of 0 to 10, about how important working hard is to getting ahead in life, 73% of Americans said it is was a “10” or “very important,” compared with a global median of 50% among the 44 nations.

Americans also stand out for their religiosity and optimism, especially when compared with other relatively wealthy countries.

In general, people in richer nations are less likely than those in poorer nations to say religion plays a very important role in their lives. But Americans are more likely than their counterparts in economically advanced nations to deem religion very important. More than half (54%) of Americans said religion was very important in their lives, much higher than the share of people in Canada (24%), Australia (21%) and Germany (21%), the next three wealthiest economies we surveyed from 2011 through 2013.

People in richer nations tend to place less emphasis on the need to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values than people in poorer countries do. While the share of Americans holding that view is far lower than in poorer nations like Indonesia and Ghana (each 99%), the U.S. stands out when compared with people in other economically advanced nations. In the U.S., 53% say belief in God is a prerequisite for being moral and having good values, much higher than the 23% in Australia and 15% in France, according to our study of 39 nations between 2011 and 2013.

Americans are also more upbeat than people in other wealthy nations when asked how their day is going. While we ask this question to help respondents get more comfortable with the interviewer, it provides a glimpse into people’s moods and reveals a slightly negative correlation between those saying the day is a good one and per capita gross domestic product. About four-in-ten Americans (41%) described their day as a “particularly good day,” a much higher share than those in Germany (21%), the UK (27%) and Japan (8%).

Note: For more details on the role of religion in people’s lives, by country, see our full topline 2011-2013 findings. 

Topics: Religion and Society, Social Values

  1. George Gao is a former associate digital producer at Pew Research Center.

Political culture is that set of ideas which Americans share widely about who should govern, for what ends, and by what means. Values are shared ideas about what is good. Beliefs are shared ideas about what is true. Beliefs often give a foundation for values. For instance, the belief that God endowed humankind with rights to life, liberty, and property is a foundation for giving these concepts the status of values in our political culture. Subcultures also exist, such as those based on religion, race, or ethnic identity, holding different or even deviant beliefs and values. Actual conditions (ex., slavery before the Civil War) may contradict cultural values (ex., equality), creating pressures for political action. The existence of a shared political culture does not prevent conflict over such pressures to reconcile conditions with values, or one value with another.

The Liberal Tradition in America

Classical liberalism, which asserts the dignity of the individual and their rational ability to control their own destinies, is central to American political culture. It derives from Enlightenment thinkers who opposed the heritage of European feudalism:

1.John Locke (natural law implies limited government, rather than absolute monarchy)

2.Jean-Jacques Rousseau (social contract, rather than divine right of kings)

3.Adam Smith (free markets under capitalism, rather than mercantilism)


Dilemmas of Equality

The cultural value of equality means that, in the abstract, Americans believe no person is better than anyone else. This applies especially to legal equality, where every citizen is supposed to have equal rights before the law, such as right to a speedy trial. Political equality trailed the development of legal equality, with constitutional amendments not guaranteeing the vote for ex-slaves until 1868 and for women until 1920 and with the need for voting rights acts even in modern times.

Equality of opportunity is a widely-shared value which means Americans do not begrudge income inequalities arising from differences in education, effort, risk-taking, investment, talent, or event luck, like winning the lottery, but this acceptance assumes that all have had an equal opportunity to become educated, make effort, take risks, invest, use talents, or just be lucky. To the extent race, gender, religion, ethnicity, or other factors make equality of opportunity different for different classes of citizens, Americans feel the value of equality of opportunity is violated. Affirmative action, which are efforts to remedy the effects of past bias, is a value which is in dispute and cannot be said to be part of American political culture, though many Americans support it.

Equality of results is another value which is in dispute. Thomas Jefferson denounced "leveling," and such views have been part of the American critique of socialism. Americans differ strongly on whether the government should take action to reduce income and other material inequalities, which are larger in this country than some other Western democracies, and larger than in the past in terms of our own history. One may contrast Italian political culture, for instance, where over 80% believe it is the government's responsibility to reduce income differences between people. Fewer than 30% of Americans hold the same belief, by 1988 data.

Inequality of Income and Wealth

That Americans do not agree on equality of results reflects the fact that in this country, as most others, inequality of income and wealth is a source of political conflict. Comparing 1929 and the present, the poorest one-fifth of Americans increased their share of al family personal income from 3.5% to 4.2%, while the richest fifth declined from 54.4% to 46.2%. However, while these figures show slightly more equality of income, in absolute terms the difference remains very great. Moreover, the equalization occurred prior to 1970. Since then, the trend has been back toward greater inequality of income. This may be due to replacement of manufacturing by lower-paid service sector jobs, global competition, increasing numbers of female-headed single-income families, increasing numbers of elderly, and other factors.

It should also be noted that wealth is much more unequally distributed than income. The wealthiest 1% of Americans own almost 40% of all family wealth. Its distribution, too, has been becoming more unequal since the 1970s.

Social Mobility

Social mobility is high in the United States, mitigating possible discontent over income and wealth inequalities. In a given decade, about one-third of those in the poorest fifth of the nation move upward, and about one-third of those in the richest fifth move downward. In recent years there appears, however, to be a slowing in socially mobility out of the lowest fifth. Most Americans describe themselves as "middle class" and class conflict is not a major factor in American politics.

A Nation of Immigrants

The United States started as a nation of immigrants and still today accepts more immigrants than all other nations of the world combined. Early immigration acts were biased, such as the 1882 act, which barred nearly all Asians from immigration. The Immigration Act of 1921 established as an immigration quota 3% of the number of a given nation's foreign-born living in the U. S. in 1910. This was later reduced to 2% of those residing here in 1890. These quotas were directed against massive immigration of Southern and Eastern European Catholics and Jews. This quota system was abolished by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, replacing quotas with a system giving preferences to close relatives, professionals, and skilled workers.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 sought to control rising immigration, especially from Mexico and Latin America (not restricted by the 1921 act). It did this by establishing fines for employers of illegal immigrants. Partly because it allowed employers to accept easily-forged documents as evidence of residency, the 1986 act did not reduce illegal immigration. Today about one million legal immigrants arrive each year, to which must be added illegal immigration, estimates of which range from 400,000 to three million. As a result, immigration raises complex economic, social, and political issues.

Ideologies: Liberalism and Conservatism

An ideology is a consistent and integrated system of ideas, values, and beliefs about who should get what, when, and how. While many Americans avoid labeling, preferring to call themselves "moderates," two major ideologies are prominent in American politics:

1. Modern conservatism believes in free market capitalism, limited government, and individual self-reliance without government aid. Much of modern conservatism reflects values it shares with classic liberalism, discussed above. Unique conservative perspectives, different from classic liberalism, include pessimism about human nature, belief in the importance of strong law and order measures, and support for efforts to strengthen traditional institutions such as families and churches.

2. Modern liberalism believes in a strong government to provide economic security and protection for civil rights, yet it also believes in freedom from government intervention in social conduct. In its commitment to individual dignity, modern liberalism shares much with classic liberalism. It differs, however, in not viewing government as a negative force to be limited but instead favors government action to end discrimination, reduce poverty, provide medical care for all, educate all, and protect the environment. Modern liberalism supports free markets, but it endorses government actions to mitigate what it sees as hardships associated with capitalism. Modern liberals also believe that individual dignity and true equality of opportunity to some extent rest on government action to limit extreme inequalities of income.

There are, of course, other ideologies of importance in American politics. Neo-conservatives support liberal goals, but believe that liberal means (big government) are self-defeating. Neo-conservatives are typified by ex-liberals who later became Republicans. Neo-liberals support liberal means (big government), but believe social goals favored by liberals must defer to more important economic goals, such as federal industrial policy to promote growth. Neo-liberals include Clinton advisors who favored welfare reform and reduction of the deficit rather than national health care.

Ideological Battlegrounds: Four Perspectives

The figure below depicts four ideological groupings in American politics:

  • Liberals favor economic activism by government, including protection of the environment and consumers, but in social affairs they are apt to oppose government intervention such as restrictions on abortion.
  • Conservatives favor limitation of the government's role in the economy, including low taxation, but they often favor strong governmental activism in such areas of social affairs as regulation of pornography.
  • Populists are liberal in economic affairs, favoring governmental regulation of the economy, but they are conservative in social affairs, often siding with conservatives on social issues.
  • Libertarians are consistent in favoring sharp limitations on government action in either the economic or social spheres. Libertarians thus may oppose almost all government regulations, whether environmental regulations or attempts to regulate drug use.

Dissent in the United States

Outside the range of political ideology discussed above are dissenters of the left and right. These include antidemocratic ideologies like fascism (belief in the supremacy of the state or race over individuals), Marxism (belief a working class revolution should and will overthrow capitalism), communism (authoritarian single-party rule in the alleged interests of the working class), and socialism (seeks democratically and peacefully to replace capitalism with an egalitarian order).

Some have argued that the collapse of communism and the worldwide movement toward free markets and democracy in the late twentieth century has led to an "end of history," making irrelevant all those ideologies focused on issues surrounding capitalism. However, these trends do not spell an end to ideology since capitalism does not automatically ensure democracy or other values of the American political culture, conflict over which can and does continue. This continuing conflict is evidenced, for instance, in the debate over "politically correct" (PC) thinking, a form of academic radicalism which views America as racist, sexist, and homophobic, requiring correction in curriculum, books, and the media to assure racial, gender, and sexual choice sensitivity.


Dye, Thomas R. Politics in America, Prentice Hall. http://cw.prenhall.com/bookbind/pubbooks/dye2/
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