May 28, 2024

Earlier this week, The Wall Street Journal created buzz with its new poll detailing changes in American values. The findings pointed out that traditional American values such as patriotism, religion, having children and community involvement have all been in decline. But a closer look at the survey, and the historical comparisons used, raise questions about that conclusion.

The poll was conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago using today’s gold standard of survey design, which recruits online panel participants via mail, email, telephone and in-person interviews. This thorough process attempts to recreate a true random sample that has been increasingly difficult to obtain since surveys went fully into the digital space. Ultimately, 980 of the 1,019 respondents answered survey questions alone via an online form.

To reach the conclusions that certain values are on the decline, data from the March 2023 poll is compared to data from a 1998 poll, conducted entirely among people on landline telephones, and a 2019 poll that involved calling a mix of landline and cell phone numbers to find respondents. At the time these polls were conducted, the methods used were standard and widely accepted.  

But on a topic as loaded as values, it’s hard to ignore that in the two historical versions of these polls, respondents had to answer to a live person, which triggers social desirability bias, or the tendency to answer questions in a way that will make them look favorable to others. 

For example, if people have been brought up to think patriotism and religion are good and important values, they are likely to tell others they value those things, even if they don’t. When given the chance to answer away from the interaction of other people, survey respondents are probably more likely to provide their honest feelings. We see this in our everyday lives as well. According to a State Policy Network State Voices poll, 59 percent of voters say they have stayed quiet when they had a difference of opinion to avoid a conflict.

If you don’t make faulty comparisons to previous surveys, the data in the new WSJ/NORC poll is encouraging. Self-fulfillment, which is significantly related to the American ideal of individualism and personal responsibility, is important to 91 percent of Americans. Hard work, which is at the core of American values and success, tops the list, with 94 percent saying it is important to them.

Seventy percent value marriage and 65 percent value having children. These figures are out of line with current marriage and fertility rates, which suggests there is work to do not in propping up these values but rather in helping Americans achieve these milestones. Amending tax codes that effectively punish marriage and reducing regulations that drive up the cost of having children would be a good start. Although half the country at any given moment thinks the party in power is steering America down the wrong path, the ideal of patriotism still unites three-quarters of Americans.

A final number stands out in the 2023 NORC data: 90 percent of Americans believe “tolerance for others” is important, and over half qualify it as “very” important. American norms on religion, family and community have been in flux since our nation’s founding. It is not any one vision for how these are incorporated into our lives that defines American values. It is the fact that we can live alongside people whose views differ from our own, respect their individuality and still build a nation together.

Perhaps the anonymity of online communication has shown us we aren’t exactly who we thought we were and that there is more diversity of thought in America than stereotypes would suggest. But the WSJ/NORC poll shows that the big-tent, melting pot version of America is very much alive and well.

Erin Norman is the Lee Family Fellow and the senior messaging strategist at State Policy Network.

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