In Search of American Values

We didn’t used to talk openly about American values per se, but at some point in recent years the topic of American values entered U.S. political discourse big time. Now they are all the rage. Except that there is no clear, universally accepted statement as to what those values are.

Family values really took off in the 1980’s as a hot political topic. Presumably family values overlap American values to at least some extent. They do share one particular quality in common: both are equally vague, subjective, and a matter of vicious partisan political debate. The presidential election of 1980 dramatically boosted attention to family values, with the Republican party platform emphasizing traditional family values. The battles over family values raged through the 1990s, but really didn’t mention American values per se.

A group of Progressives launched the American Values Project in 2011 and issued a handbook in 2012, which may have been part of the impetus for a lot of Democrats starting to refer to American values in their speeches. Hard to say for sure, but looks very possible.

What are American values? I’m not convinced that anybody can give a better answer than simply that we know them when we see them.

So, I am embarking on a little project to attempt to catalog what exactly American values are.

A simple Google search and peek at the Wikipedia is always a great way to start any research project, but as amazing as it seems, there is no Wikipedia page dedicated to American values. There is a page on Culture of the United States, but it says very little about particular values.

In fact, I didn’t even find the American Values Project until I found it in one of the results when I googled for Progressive Values, after searching for Democratic and Republican values.

American values are not something that I would have expected to be kept so well hidden.

This informal paper is a start on my project. It’s a scoping paper. The focus here is simply on raising a number of questions that will have to be answered in order to arrive at the answer to the main question: What are American values?

My goal here is to be descriptive rather than prescriptive — I’m just reporting from the field, not trying to tell people what they should believe or how they should live their lives, or how to vote. My goal is to compile and catalog, rather than create or manipulate values.

Update: Subsequent papers in this project, so far:

The questions

  1. What are American values?
  2. What are traditional American values? Whose tradition?
  3. What are old-fashioned (American) values?
  4. Is there an objective set of American values which are not subject to vicious partisan political debate?
  5. What are middle-class values?
  6. What are working-class values?
  7. Do the wealthy have a distinct set of American values?
  8. What are Wall Street values?
  9. Are there Main Street values as well?
  10. Why have American values not been much more clearly articulated?
  11. What are collective American values as opposed to individual American values?
  12. What are national collective American values as opposed to values relevant primarily to individuals and groups or segments of society rather than the country as a whole?
  13. What are American values that relate primarily to government or relations with other countries?
  14. What is the interplay between public values, collective values, and American values?
  15. What are the public values of government in America — national, state, and local?
  16. How important is public values plurality? (Different groups with different values.)
  17. How plural are public values?
  18. How problematic is public values plurality?
  19. How healthy is public values plurality?
  20. How severe is the issue of public values plurality?
  21. What values do various religions or sects espouse and how do they relate to American values?
  22. What are Christian values?
  23. What are Jewish values?
  24. What are Muslim/Islamic values?
  25. What are the values that various ethnic and social groups espouse?
  26. What American values are distinctly white?
  27. What American values are distinctly European?
  28. What are white values?
  29. What are African-American values?
  30. What are Hispanic values?
  31. What are Asian values?
  32. Do different generations have distinctive American values?
  33. Do different age groups have distinctive American values?
  34. What are basic American values?
  35. What are deeply held American values?
  36. What are fundamental American values?
  37. What are core American values?
  38. What are key American values?
  39. Are rural American values distinct from urban American values?
  40. Are suburban American values distinct from rural or urban American values?
  41. What American values are common across rural, urban, and suburban areas?
  42. What are the values that make our country great?
  43. Who originally decided what American values would be? When was that?
  44. How have American values evolved since they were originally decided?
  45. What is the role of the family in promotion of American values?
  46. What is the role of schools in promotion of American values?
  47. What is the role of the media in promotion of American values?
  48. What is the role of government in promotion of American values?
  49. What is the role of the individual in promotion of American values?
  50. How are American values taught?
  51. How are American values learned?
  52. How are American values practiced?
  53. What is the scope and content of the so-called battlefield of American values?
  54. What are family values?
  55. Are all family values American Values?
  56. What are traditional family values?
  57. Are all traditional family values American values?
  58. What are community values?
  59. Are all community values American values?
  60. Is work ethic a part of American values?
  61. Are there elements of work ethic that are not part of American values?
  62. What are core values that are shared by all Americans, despite variations on all other values espoused by individual Americans and groups?
  63. Is the concept of American values a myth?
  64. Is there one homogeneous set of American values?
  65. Are American values nothing more than vague platitudes?
  66. Are American values just a political talking point?
  67. What are American Values for Democrats?
  68. What are American Values for Republicans?
  69. What are conservative American Values?
  70. What are liberal American Values?
  71. What are alt-right American Values?
  72. What are progressive liberal American values?
  73. What are internationalist American values?
  74. What are isolationist American values?
  75. What are Democratic National Committee American values?
  76. What are Republican National Committee American values?
  77. What are libertarian values and which are American values?
  78. What are Green Party values and which are American values?
  79. What are progressive American values?
  80. What values are common to Democrats and Republicans?
  81. What are democratic values?
  82. Are all democratic values American values?
  83. What American values are contained in the U.S. Declaration of Independence?
  84. What American values are contained in the U.S. Constitution?
  85. What American values are contained in the Bill of Rights?
  86. What American values are contained in the civil and voting rights acts?
  87. What values did the founding fathers have?
  88. What values did George Washington have?
  89. What values did Benjamin Franklin have?
  90. What values did Samuel Adams have?
  91. What values did James Madison have?
  92. What values did other historic U.S. presidents have?
  93. What values did Abraham Lincoln have?
  94. What values did Teddy Roosevelt have?
  95. What values did FDR have?
  96. What values did JFK have?
  97. What values did more modern U.S. presidents have?
  98. What values did Jimmy Carter have?
  99. What values did Ronald Reagan have?
  100. What values did Bill Clinton have?
  101. What values did Barack Obama have?
  102. What values did Bernie Sanders have? (Well, okay, if he had been elected!)
  103. What values did Hillary Clinton have? (Well, okay, if she had been elected!)
  104. What values does Donald Trump have?
  105. What values did Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. have?
  106. What universal values does the UN promote and how do they differ, include, contradict, or transcend American values?
  107. What American values do various private institutions, nonprofits, or commercial businesses (big and small) espouse?
  108. What are values in other countries and how do they differ from American values?
  109. What were the values of early American colonists well before the American Revolution?
  110. What values did King George have?
  111. What are values of Native Americans?
  112. What are values of other indigenous peoples?
  113. What is the difference between values and rights?
  114. What is the interplay between values and morality and ethics?
  115. Do American values constitute a morality or ethical framework?
  116. What is the interplay between values and dreams?
  117. What is the interplay between values and characteristics?
  118. What is the interplay between values and virtues?
  119. What is the interplay between values and principles?
  120. What is the interplay between values and beliefs?
  121. What is the interplay between way of life and values?
  122. What is the interplay between values and cherished ideals?
  123. Can we legitimately call a value a value if it is not practiced?
  124. Can you really claim to have a value if you don’t practice it regularly in daily life?
  125. What are military values?
  126. How does what it means to be an American relate to American values?
  127. How have American values changed or evolved, if at all, over the past 5, 10, 25, 50, 100, 200, or 250 years?
  128. Whose values rule when two or more set of conflicting values overlap in some setting?
  129. What is the role of personal values vs. shared values?
  130. To what extent are American values a personal matter as opposed to government policy, constitutional, legal, organizational, institutional, or corporate matters?
  131. Is there any clear distinction of American values which are distinctly personal matters, even if shared by many, most, or even all people, as individuals?
  132. Are we entitled to our own American values as individuals — is that a value of society as a whole?
  133. To what extent are American values a holistic effect rather than specific, enumerated values?
  134. Is consumerism an American value?
  135. Is materialism an American value?
  136. How does money impact American values?
  137. What are political values?
  138. What values are politicians expected to have, as distinct from average citizens?
  139. What form of social contract is applicable to American values?
  140. Why the sudden surge in partisan political use of the term American values in recent years?
  141. Are value conflicts a sign that something is wrong or a sign of a diverse, vibrant, and healthy society?
  142. What values are unique to America?
  143. What values are especially important to Americans?
  144. What values are most important to Americans?
  145. What American values are shared with most countries (with modern, western-style governments)?
  146. What values are universal?
  147. What values are unique to Baby Boomers?
  148. What values are especially important Baby Boomers?
  149. What values are most important Baby Boomers?
  150. What values are unique to Millennials?
  151. What values are especially important to Millennials?
  152. What values are most important to Millennials?
  153. What values are unique to senior citizens?
  154. What values are especially important to senior citizens?
  155. What values are most important to senior citizens?
  156. Where do our values come from?
  157. What values are unconscious — there but we are unaware?
  158. What values are tacit — we know we have them, but not sure why and unable to express them in plain English?
  159. What is the interplay of values and bias?
  160. What are the values of scientists?
  161. What are the values of social scientists?
  162. What are the values of engineers?
  163. What are the values of doctors?
  164. What are the values of lawyers?
  165. Are U.S. values the same as American values?
  166. What are socialist values?
  167. What are capitalist values?
  168. What were the values of those who colonized America, well before the revolution?
  169. What are the values that have drawn immigrants to America?
  170. What are the values of the American people, as distinct from the U.S. government — if the two can in fact be separated?
  171. What role or influence did the U.S. have in the drafting of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
  172. How do American values compare with the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
  173. What are American values from the perspective of mainstream, average Americans?
  174. What are American values from the perspective of minorities and the disenfranchised?
  175. What are the values that the U.S. government was founded upon — the American Revolution and the Constitution?
  176. What are Western values, including post-war Western Europe, the UN, and the U.S.?

This is a living list. I will periodically update it as the project progresses.

What’s next?

  1. Compile a quick and dirty master list of easy to obtain answers to some of those questions. IOW, values from all groups.
  2. Document preliminary issues.
  3. List my own personal values, just for reference.
  4. Document collective values, as distinct from individual values.
  5. Continue to update the list of questions.
  6. Continue my research.
  7. Refine that master list incrementally.
  8. Eventually compile a more firm list of American values.

Or something like that, and not necessarily in the order listed. That’s an initial conception of the plan for the project, but it will evolve dramatically as the project unfolds. Or, it could fizzle out. You never know with these projects.

The eventual list of American values will likely be several lists:

  1. Universal, core, common, shared values — shared universally (except for anarchists, radicals, and the like, of course.)
  2. Almost universal shared values — shared by many but not quite universally.
  3. Values which are generally shared but with nuances of differences and disputes.
  4. Various common groups of values. But with significant disputes as to interpretation.
  5. Outright conflicting values between relative large groups of individuals. Like abortion, religion in school, burning the flag, immigration, and the death penalty.
  6. Values espoused by the major political parties.
  7. Values espoused by the major religions or sects.
  8. Values shared universally, around the globe.
  9. Values that are inherently collective, even national, not an issue for individuals per se.
  10. Values that are most commonly a matter for the individual to internalize and practice in their daily lives, as opposed to matters of collective action.

At this stage I don’t imagine that I will accomplish all of that, but I do expect to come up with a master list of values plus a lot of notes on what aspects of the list are problematic. I already have a lot of that waiting in the wings, albeit in raw note form.

I also expect to come up with a shorter list of relatively non-controversial values — the American values that many of us can all agree on. (Why are you laughing?!?) There will always be anarchists, radicals, and others of a similar persuasion who won’t go along with anything even remotely mainstream just on a matter of principle.

Whether there might be a short-short list that even diehard anarchists and radicals can agree on is an interesting open question. Hmmm… how about a list with one item on it: freedom. Knowing this country, there’s probably somebody who would object. Still, I’m hopeful — I’ll produce my own list and see what the response is.

Update: Subsequent papers in this project, so far:

Other related papers:


This project already has too broad a scope, so there are are number of laudable goals that I will exclude from the get-go:

  • Detailed descriptions for each value. That’s a useful effort, but beyond the scope of this immediate project. Although I may have to get into it at least a little for values where there are disputes, like fairness — what form, structure, level, or rate of tax is fair.
  • Personas and use cases for each value — show what it would look like for each value in practice. All very useful, but well beyond the scope of this project.
  • Necessarily giving specific and detailed answers to every question listed in this scoping paper. Questions are tools to guide inquiry, not an intention to point directly at solutions or definitive answers. Only as the inquiry unfolds do the really important questions — and sometimes answers — really emerge.
  • Detailed citations. I will try to provide some, such as when I get specific lists of values from specific sources. The products of this project will be strictly informal papers, nothing formal or intended for professional publication.
  • Make everybody happy.

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