Seeing Things: America by the Numbers

For some time, surveys of the American people gave reported that most of us believe that the country is headed “in the wrong direction.” What this phrase means has been a matter of heated dispute. Are we worried about economic uncertainties like downsizing and globalization; the unresponsiveness and corruption of our leaders, political parties, and cultural institutions; or a general moral decline?

There are now some good answers to these questions. Thanks to Professor James Davison Hunter and the Post- Modernity Project that he heads at the University of Virginia, an enormous amount of very interesting data has been collected from more than two thousand extensive face-to-face interviews. It shows that Americans mostly remain committed to the basic principles of our republic but have quite definite views about why they fear the future.

At first sight, “postmodernity” may seem an odd way to approach current social questions. Most Americans have never heard of the postmodern theories that currently agitate campuses, and those who have probably think little of them. But Hunter and his colleagues have discovered that what may appear to be an esoteric academic debate explains a good deal about the American people and the way we tend to look at the social fabric we feel fraying around us.

Americans, in large numbers, continue to profess strong belief in the “framing narratives” of the United States. They agree that liberty and the expansion of its fruits to more citizens along with the promotion of justice; the common good, and other mainstays of civics textbooks remain what America is, ideally, all about. Most say they are willing to sacrifice for these principles.

Yet these same Americans also express a pervasive pessimism about the future because of the way the country currently is run. Their fears focus particularly on the ways that family breakdown, crime, violence, the absence of morality, the influence of Hollywood, problems in public schools, and the self- interested behavior of elites threaten the American future. Elites are described by a majority of Americans as irreligious, out of touch with reality, not in the mainstream, and lacking in character. State and local officials enjoy a measure of trust, but federal government, including the tax system, is widely regarded as unjust, unresponsive, and simply too intrusive. Eighty percent of us think “our country is run by a close network of special interests, public officials, and the media.” Almost one-quarter are willing to describe this as a “conspiracy.”

The working class, the poor, and minorities are somewhat less pessimistic than are white middle-class people, (surprisingly, poor, black, inner-city young people are most confident about their personal futures). Yet American blacks accept the American dream and middle- class morals in roughly the same percentages as whites. There is no gender gap in the data. Nor is the anxiety, as some left-leaning commentators have argued, a projection of the middle class’s “fear of falling” to a lower economic level. Current middle-class worries reflect a belief that “a certain way of life is disappearing.”

The postmodern fly in this ointment is less a debate about the political means to solve these questions than a disjunction between what people say would be good for the country and what they seem to think good for themselves. President Clinton’s embrace of some conservative moral positions, though often described as political opportunism, may in fact reflect a deepening consensus across the political spectrum that moral questions lie at the heart of many current controversies. Yet, like the president, the same middle-class people who deplore cultural breakdown and desire that moral absolutes be taught to children deeply believe in relativism—for themselves.

Is this mere hypocrisy? In part, it shows a conflict within the cohort of baby boomers who lived by one set of values during the 1960s and are becoming somewhat more culturally conservative as they age. They see clearly that it would be bad for their children—and for society—to continue in the permissiveness of their own past. To paraphrase an often-criticized author, they see the better and do the worse. Or rather, they see the better for others. For their own part, they want to do what they like.

How are churches and schools supposed to teach morals, civic responsibility, and the common good when parents and teachers are skeptical deep down? A friend, hearing of the Post-Modernity Project, described a neighbor who takes her children to church for the values, but gets nervous when they start to recite the Apostles’ Creed. Many postmodern Americans want good behavior without the inconvenience of beliefs. They cannot have one without the other.


  • Robert Royal

    Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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