The American Values Survey: The Evolving Face of the United States

Large swaths of the American public are in such a state of unrest and agitation that they feel a violent revolt might be the best option for change. The American Values Survey (AVS), conducted between Sept. 16 and Sept. 29 through online interviews with a random sample of 2,508 adults living in all 50 states, found “Nearly one in five, or 18 percent, of overall respondents, said they agreed with the statement: ‘Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country,’ according to Yahoo News

The organization that conducted the survey, Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), also examined the perceptions of the following broad political concepts:

  • American Exceptionalism
  • Cultural Change 
  • American Identity 
  • Racial and Religious Pluralism
  • Increasing Diversity 
  • Immigrants and Immigration 
  • Race and Racism
  • Economic Problems
  • Partisanship 
  • Religion 

A deeper examination of the survey reveals we are not only fractured along political and ideological lines but that those groups who feel their power diminishing likely feel threatened and overwhelmed by both the nature and the rapidity of our changing social landscape.

Public Religion Research Institute Source:


In this article, I will report the condensed results of the AVS while simultaneously providing commentary about the most salient issues. To make it manageable, I will focus on American Exceptionalism, Cultural Change, American Identify, Racial and Religious Pluralism, and finally, Partisanship. 

The Survey: American Exceptionalism

Americans overall still believe that the United States, on the whole, is a force for good. Specifically, the survey found “About three in four Americans (74%) agree that America has always been a force for good in the world, including 19% who completely agree with this idea and a majority (55%) who mostly agree.” 

However, there is an underlying facet that somewhat contradicts these findings, because the report also states: “When Americans were asked if there has ever been a time when they were NOT proud to be American, 41% say yes and 58% say no.” Moreover. this trend is up 10 percentage points since 2013, indicative of the evolving consciousness of our country. 

This likely reflects the coverage of police brutality cases involving multiple African Americans, most notably George Floyd,  which led to the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement. Tellingly, the percentage of Democrats and Independents that agree with not being proud has increased by double digits since 2013 (30% and 36%, respectively).

Another telling facet was the belief that God has granted the United States a special role in world affairs. The survey found that the “belief in this statement has dropped a massive 20 percentage points, to 44%, with a majority of Americans (53%) now disagreeing that God has granted America a special role in human history.”  Again, the report found political polarization at play,  finding  “Republicans (68%) are twice as likely as Democrats (33%) to agree that God has granted America a special role in human history.”

Commentary on American Exceptionalism

The concept of American Exceptionalism is a double-edged sword. On one hand, American Exceptionalism provides a common linkage to our historical impetus to dream and achieve big things. In this sense, it is both idealistic and materialistic. It is what gave rise to the clamor for freedom for an enslaved populace, resulting in a war that tore our families, states, and ultimately our country apart. 

Through the dark days of Jim Crow, to the civil rights movement of the 60s and the simmering rage symbolized by protests and race riots, to our current struggles to deal with police brutality and mass incarceration of historically marginalized groups, we have lurched in a series of cultural paroxysms  in an attempt to extend and fulfill the meaning of the words, “all men are created equal.”

And despite the failures, we always have, and hopefully always will move forward, impelled by the idea that we can do better, that we can continually reinvent what it means to be American in a fairer, more inclusive manner because we are Americans and we expect better. 

At the core of this dynamic was the experimentation to build a better society for all. As David Marion of the Washington Times writes, American Exceptionalism has pushed us “to acquire historical significance by advancing the success of our ambitious experiment in democratic-republican government,” a government that was “broadly extended to many groups over time. “ 

On the materialistic stage, American Exceptionalism has led to rapid improvement of the quality of life for the majority of our populace. We are simply living longer and for the most part better than any generation in history. Advances in medicine have eradicated the scourge of numerous diseases. We have achieved a form of surgical prowess that was at once time unimaginable, replacing organs and limbs and saving countless lives.

Our cars are safer and faster, our homes are bigger and more comfortable. We hold the power of a computer in our hands and with a few clicks have access to entertainment and a vast storehouse of knowledge. On almost every front, incredible technological innovation has enriched our lives and transformed how we live, democratizing our conversations by giving everyone a voice.

Yet, for all of these advances due to  American Exceptionalism, the reality is that its historical lack of inclusivity cannot be overlooked. The writer Vinay A. Ramesh makes the painful observation that  “America has a tendency to take credit for progress, but accepts little to no blame where there’s been blowback. Much like U.S. achievements have built a better world, U.S. mistakes have shaped the world we live in, and Americans deserve to learn about those fatal flaws as well in order to be better equipped to address them.”

Ramesh and others make a basic argument: Our God is not always another’s God. Our sense of greatness still must square up with the fact that we incarcerate more people, especially people of color than any other industrialized country. It must deal with widespread poverty, increasing homelessness, and the growing menace of addiction. It must endeavor to explain why our cities are epicenters of gun violence, why gangs hold more appeal than our schools, and why a wide swath of Americans feel that the American dream is slowly but surely slipping away. 

Yet, the presence of these demons does not necessarily prove that American Exceptionalism is nonexistent nor that it is an inherently evil enterprise. It does, however, mean we will have to continually work together in a form of social negotiation to redefine what this exceptionalism means to future generations. These are issues a truly democratic republic must wrestle with; a failure to do so will spell doom for all of us. 

The Survey: Cultural Change 

When asked whether American culture had changed for the better or the worse, Americans were divided along political lines, with a slight leaning towards the negative,  47% to 52%. Importantly, PRRI found “ that during the final year of Donald Trump’s presidency and an election year , . . a majority of Americans (55%) said that American culture and way of life had mostly changed for the better since the 1950s, compared to 44% who said it had changed for the worse.” 

As with other issues, there was an evident split along party lines, with 70% of Republicans saying “American culture and way of life have changed for the worse since the 1950s” and by contrast, 63% of  Democrats responding that  “American culture and way of life have changed for the better, much the same as in 2020 (62%).” One group, in particular, White Christian religious people, showed “a considerable decline in the proportion who say American culture and way of life has changed for the better since the 1950s,” further evidence of a social-cultural rift. 

Commentary on Cultural Change

The reality is that this is not the first time we have had to deal with cultural change. Although the previous immigration waves that characterized Ellis Island were largely European, even those groups were not monolithic in nature. Russians and Poles are very different cultures than Italians and Irish, and the ugly truth is that many of these people were brutalized by petty prejudices and all-too-real forms of systemic racism. And though some would like to believe current immigrants are inherently different than previous groups, they are ironically likely just as committed to being part of American Exceptionalism as previous immigrants.

They may speak different languages and have different religious beliefs, but they are also committed to sharing in the American dream. What has changed is our beliefs system and our consciousness. We no longer accept the harassment of other cultures as a form of “rite of passage.” Moreover, we are more tolerant and are seeking to learn from others as a way of enriching our own perspectives. This means we are redefining assimilation as a two-way, or a multi-way, rather than a one-way street.

Essentially, culture exerts a type of social inertia and “leads to a chain reaction, [so that] whenever a change is incorporated into the culture and becomes defined as a ‘social necessity’, new needs emerge, generating the desire for still further changes to complement or supplement the original change.” In this sense, we are always evolving, and when that evolution is rapid, it’s surely going to give rise to conflict. 

The Survey: American Identity 

The survey demonstrates that how we identify ourselves as Americans is also evolving. Although the support for more traditional rights, such as the right to free speech and the right to vote in elections remain strong across all demographics, there is increasing support for cultural and religious tolerance, indicative of our rapidly changing cultural demographics. And though there is still support for immigrants to learn English, the percentage of people holding that view is declining.  

The responses involving beliefs about capitalism are particularly telling, with the survey revealing “Republicans are significantly more likely than Democrats to think that both believe that capitalism is the best economic system (77% and 50%).” 

The importance of being born in America also suffered a decline, though again, the rift was evident,  with 62% of Republicans declaring it is important to be born in America, compared to 44% of independents and 43% of Democrats.

Culturally, it was a bit more complex, with strong support for this notion among Black Protestants (70%), white evangelical Protestants (58%), and white Catholics (54%), while Christians, white mainline (non-evangelical) Protestants and Hispanic Catholics were mostly evenly divided over this issue. 

Commentary on American Identity 

Through fits and starts, we have endeavored and often struggled to define what the American Identity is as a nation. As demographics and outlooks have changed, this experiment has evolved, particularly in light of being more interconnected through social media. In essence, we are still working out what this identify means, and that will inevitably cause friction. 

The results from the survey auger the sense that some people, especially younger supporters that identify with figures such as Bernie Sanders, lean towards a more socialist perspective, and more importantly, have a sense that the system is “rigged” in a way that rewards the few while diminishing the many.

As a recent article in the Intelligencer put it: “Tell a subset of your population that they are entitled to economic security if they play by certain rules, provide them with four years of training in critical thinking and access to a world-class library — then deny them the opportunities they were promised, while affixing an anchor of debt around their necks — and you’ve got a recipe for a revolutionary vanguard.”

It is probable that as we move forward, we are going to incorporate, for better or worse, notions of fairness that are expressed as a more generous entitlement state, a move that will have wide-ranging ramifications not just on our economy and how we earn and tax money, but more importantly how we provide for those at the margins of society. Ironically, we may need to reach back to the founding ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in order to move forward in a more inclusive manner. 

Andy J. Semotiuk, a U.S. and Canadian Immigration attorney, defines our path clearly: “Today America has no choice but to transform itself into the multi-ethnic, multiracial and diverse country it needs to be to play a leading role in the modern, multinational, multilingual and secular world. It is time for Americans to return to their founding principles in that regard.” 

The Survey: Racial and Religious Pluralism 

Nearly half of all Americans support the idea of broad racial and cultural pluralism versus a Western European-centric model. The fissures between Republicans and Democrats were strongly evident in this component of the survey, finding “Three in ten Republicans (30%), compared to a slim majority of independents (53%) and more than six in ten Democrats (64%), mostly agree that they prefer the U.S. to be made up of people from all over the world.”

White people were overall less supportive than other ethnic groups for the idea of racial and cultural pluralism, with a stark contrast between college graduates who largely support pluralism (59%), and their counterparts without college degrees (38%). 

The ideological divide in our country was clearly evident when the role of religion was examined. The survey found “Only 17% of Republicans, compared to 41% of independents and 55% of Democrats, mostly prefer the U.S. to be made up of people belonging to a wide variety of religions,” while those who identify as non-Christian Americans or religiously unaffiliated were more supportive of religious diversity.

And when breaking down stances along cultural lines, the survey showed that “Less than four in ten Hispanic Catholics (38%), one-third of white mainline (non-evangelical) Protestants (33%), and about three in ten Black Protestants (31%), white Catholics (30%), and other Christians (30%) express a preference for religious diversity.”

Racial and Religious Pluralism Commentary 

Underneath these data points is a growing tension in the United States as we try to work out who were are on a fundamental cultural level. The political commentator Eric Kaufmann frames the dynamic this way:  “Cosmopolitanism must manage the contradiction between its ethos of transcending ethnicity and its need for cultural diversity, which requires ethnic attachment. How we resolve this seeming duality may be the great task of this century.”

The Survey: Partisanship

While there have been shifts in terms of political views, the nature of the shifts is more nuanced than what you might think. The results of the survey show that a roughly equal amount of  people are as likely to  “think of themselves as Republicans (25%)” as they are  “less likely to think of themselves as Republicans (22%).”

Moreover, 22% identify their views as having not changed at all. The same pattern emerged for Democrats, though the results indicate “the net shift toward being more likely to be a Democrat is slightly larger than it is for Republicans.” Not surprisingly, Independents were equally likely as unlikely to identify as Democrats. 

Religion did seem to play a role in terms of the political divide, with nearly half of white evangelical Protestants identifying themselves as Republicans over the past five years while a slim majority of Black Protestants identified themselves as Democrats. Two groups that seemed particularly polarized are White people with and without college degrees, with about a third without college degrees more likely to think of themselves as Republicans.

And, in a similar pattern, the survey found “19% of white non-college graduates have become more likely to think of themselves as Democrats, while 24% have become less likely to do so.”

Overall, people seemed to stay in their respective political camps, with less progression among White people without college degrees. 

Most concerning was that approximately 1/5 of respondents validated the following statements that loosely align with the QAnon movement:

  1. “There is a storm coming soon that will sweep away the elites in power and restore the rightful leaders” (21%).
  2. “The government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex-trafficking operation” (18%).
  3. “Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country” (18%).
Commentary On Partisanship 

Of course, those that subscribe to this style of thinking would cite Jefferson’s warning that “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Of course, context matters because Jefferson was certainly not an anarchist. But subscribing to a belief that the majority of our powers-that-be are Satanists or pedophiles would have been completely alien to those schooled in Enlightenment principles or involved in 18th-century European politics. 

Yet, we should not so quickly invalidate those who hold such beliefs. Not because the beliefs are correct, but because they exist at all, for they are a symptom of a larger disease, a pervasive sense of alienation. It is this brooding sense of estrangement that threatens our peace because it can so easily spill over into the ethos of mainstream culture.

Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, states that as this agitation grows, “the more there is a chance that political violence will not only come from extremists, but will come from really angry, agitated people in the mainstream as well.”

To be fair, the same thing can be said about the Antifa movement, or any movement, be it radically left, or radically right. While Trump seemed to give legitimacy to the QAnaon movement, which can arguably be said to be the philosophical origin of the January Capitol riots, political leaders such as Rep. Maxine Waters, who urged her poeple to “absolutely harass” Trump supporters are not helping matters.

Beyond the paranoia and ravings of QAnon supporters, beneath the mask of rage, we are likely to find people who feel insecure about their place in American society. I am not talking about White supremacists or militia members. I am talking about people that simply don’t know how they fit in anymore and reflexively are acting just as much out of fear as anger. 

The way beyond all this is to have dialogue that is respectful and to be willing to see others as fellow human beings just trying to figure out all of this madness we have collectively created on this spinning blue planet. Acting as though there are extremes on only one side only further alienates and polarizes the other. Time is running out. 

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