K-12 Education

The Content of Our Character: America Reflects

July 1, 2012

“Never underestimate the ability of Americans to hold several contradictory ideas at the same time,” iconic pollster and political consultant Mark Penn told the crowd at the Institute’s Ideas Festival in his introduction to the Aspen Institute/Atlantic Survey. This Fitzgeraldian ideal of a first-rate intelligence was on full display as Burson-Marsteller Worldwide Vice Chairman Donald Baer, Editor-in-Chief of The Atlantic James Bennet, and Penn explored the results of the survey with Institute EVP Elliot Gerson. Although Americans seem to have no trouble forming strong opinions, when it comes to everything from women’s rights to freedom of speech, it seems we’re just not sure how to reconcile those opinions with the way we live our lives.

PennAccording to the survey, 90 percent of us now find it acceptable for a woman to work outside the home, and 84 percent of us approve of the use of contraceptives. But only 69 percent approve of an unmarried man and woman living together, with a far greater percentage of the younger generation approving than the older, despite the fact that more of the older generation is “living in sin than ever”, as Penn put it.

Although 67 percent of us claim freedom of speech is our dearest value, a full 38 percent find censoring books or explicit materials morally acceptable, and 31 percent think both viewing pornography and the release of national security information should be excluded from free speech protections. “On one hand, people say freedom of speech is one of their highest values,” Penn said, “but on the other hand, thankfully they don’t sit on the Supreme Court, because they would limit most things the court protects.”

We have a fraught relationship with the elite, with 56 percent of the younger generation believing the wealthy got that way because of their connections—“a notion antithetical to the American idea,” Bennet said. “This is despite the fact that the 18-29 year old group is growing up in a more open and tolerant society than we have ever known.” However, 70 percent of us still believe that with hard work, we can accomplish anything. “Underneath the money, the celebrity culture, Americans still believe in a can-do society,” Penn said. “And when I examined data from working- and middle-class respondents, most of them said they had personally gotten a fair shake out of the system—so there’s more cynicism about society than people have about themselves.” 

We take a similar attitude that it must be worse “out there” than it is in our own lives when it comes to the public school system. Americans gave public schools overall a meets-minimum-requirements grade of C, but the schools in their own districts a better-than-average B, and very few rated their schools as either excellent or abject failures.    

And despite the “chards of optimism” Baer pointed out— that we believe we can rise through hard work, and that trend lines are moving towards greater tolerance towards different lifestyles—70 percent of us say our values are on the decline. “There is a consensus among Americans that our values are going in the wrong direction,” Penn said. “We are cynical about political corruption, our focus on money and material things, and our celebrity-obsessed culture.” 

But even this overarching concern had a counterweight. “Declinism is older than the founding of the country itself,” Bennet said. “Early Massachusetts Bay Colony preachers were already lamenting the decline of America. We’ve always been terrified that the virtues that have sustained us are collapsing.”