I remain unsuccessful at identifying any core set of values that are shared by anything close to the vast majority of Americans. But my search continues. This informal paper is essentially a status report on my ongoing efforts.
As part of my Search for American Values project I remain committed to figuring out what exactly people mean when they refer to American values.
So far, I’ve identified:
- A very long list of values that occur in America, even if not universally shared. See my Master List of Values in America. Over 8,000 entries.
- A framework for viewing how values are defined and promoted by society, groups, organizations, and individuals. See my paper Whose Values?.
- Values that are indeed shared — for specific ideological groups, religions, political parties, and influential public figures. See my paper Values of Significant Groups, Organizations, and Figures in America. That includes values expressed or implied in the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights, by Founding Fathers and prominent early American leaders.
- Quite few values that are shared almost universally — but with wildly divergent interpretations.
- For reference, My Personal Values.
The main focus of this paper will be twofold:
- Universally shared values with very divergent interpretations.
- Value gaps and conflicts. Fairly widely held values important to some significant fraction of individuals, groups, or strata of society but not held as important by some other significant fraction of individuals, groups, or strata of society, or in sharp opposition to values held by other significant fractions of individuals, groups, or strata of society.
America is chock full of divides — social, economic, political, or by any criteria you can imagine.
If fact, rather than seeking to bridge or erase divides, many people seem to revel in them. Divides provide a sense of identity. Identity seems to drive many Americans.
Yes, there is plenty of talk about bridging divides, but if you dig just a short depth below the superficial platitudes you quickly find that it usually amounts to one side of the divide seeking to dominate the other side of the divide. In short, any bridges seem more commonly intended as forms of assault. And even when assault is not the explicit goal, the surrender of the other side is more commonly sought.
In short, conflicts over values are a major stumbling block in the way of unity and social harmony in America. And appeals to American values only seem to make things worse rather than helping to heal or cure the many divides.
Universally shared values with significantly divergent interpretations
People agree, almost universally, that some principles are shared American values, but they frequently do not share the same interpretations of those values.
Some examples of universally shared values but with significantly divergent interpretations, not intending to be comprehensive or exhaustive, and not in any particular order:
- Equality. Many disputes. Disputes over economics of access to equality. Disputes over equality of outcomes vs. equality of opportunities.
- American creed. Is it all about equality, more about liberty, or more about democratic government? Varying interpretations. No clear and consistent definition.
- Freedom. How free? What limits are acceptable? How to resolve conflicts between individuals and between groups?
- One person one vote. Disputes over voting power, Senators of smaller states, gerrymandering, etc.
- Voting. Should it be considered mandatory? Does every vote really count? Does your vote make a difference? Is fraud a significant problem? Is mandatory ID a responsible measure to protect the integrity of democracy or does it undermine the voting franchise?
- Family values. Most people value the family. But whose model of the family? Is the traditional nuclear family essential and the only truly acceptable family structure, or are alternative family structures as essential and equally valued as traditional family structures?
- Children. But what rights do they have? What responsibilities do they have? How much obedience is expected or required? What forms of punishment are permissible or expected? What say does the state have in how they are raised or treated?
- Community. Most people value their community. But who’s in charge? Who has what say? What about minority voices?
- American Dream. Vague term with no definitive meaning. Open to varied interpretation. Is it a guarantee or not? A promise or merely a hope? For all or only for some? Reality or aspiration?
- Social contract. Vague term with no precision in its meaning. Open to varied interpretation. What is guaranteed, promised, or merely aspirational?
- Individualism. To what extent? With what constraints? How to balance against collectivism.
- Collectivism. To what extent? With what constraints? How to balance against individualism.
- Collective welfare. Of what, of whom? To what extent? Who pays? Who decides?
- Statism. To what extent? With what constraints? Who decides? Who controls?
- Law and order, rule of law, and justice. Fierce disputes. Harsh mandatory sentences — good or bad? Role of discretion and compassion? Model of justice — retributive vs. restorative? Value of diversion programs?
- Border security. How open? How much discretion and compassion?
- Immigration. Most see the benefits in it, but priorities differ — some focus on merit, skill, and sharing American values, while others welcome any and all with open arms as in the words “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore” which appear on the Statue of Liberty. Quotas? Refugees? Asylum? Merit-based migration? Extended families?
- Better race relations. Based on what criteria? Historic injustices? Reparations?
- Spirituality. When does it conflict with other social interests? Who decides? What should happen when different spiritual belief systems conflict in the public sphere?
- Democracy. Direct or representative? Anarchism? Role of civil society?
- Civil society. What is its role? More protagonist or more antagonist? How and to what extent is it encouraged and supported?
- Protest. How much is reasonable? What limits are reasonable? Is it really fundamental to democracy? Is it a sign of democracy in action or a sign that democracy (representative democracy) is failing? At what stage does constitutionally-protected peaceful assembly cease being peaceful?
- States. But with what roles? What relationship to federal government? What relationship to local communities?
- Federal government. But with what roles? Limited vs. expansive government?
- Fairness. But in what ways and how is it measured?
- Fair taxes. By what criteria? Is a flat tax more fair or less fair? Is a progressive tax more fair? To who? Who should decide? State vs. federal vs. local?
- Health care. But what services, and how should they be paid for?
- Education. But what should it contain? How much should be free? What is the role of merit? How much is a right vs. privilege? Should college be free? Debates over student loans.
- Equal pay. But what about equivalent work? How to value intangibles? Is experience equal?
- Infrastructure investment. But according to what plan or model? How much public vs. private? How much federal government vs. state or regional?
- Public transportation. But who pays for its development and maintenance and how? What role for the federal government? How much should it be subsidized? How fair are fares?
- Truth. But whose truth? So much subjectivity and interpretation abounds, with various groups feeling that their truth or interpretation is so much better than that of those whom they oppose.
- Honesty. Disputes over exactly when is it considered okay to not exactly tell the whole and literal truth. Exactly when is shading the truth actually considered a virtue.
- Loyalty. But by whom to whom? Liberals may feel that management should be loyal to workers and government should be loyal to citizens, while conservatives may feel that it it’s workers who are expected to be loyal to management and citizens must be loyal to their country and government.
- Authority. But how much respect is expected by citizens and workers, and how much respect is required towards citizens and workers.
- Middle class. General support, but vague term. How should it be defined, especially relative to working class, working poor, upper-middle class, professional class, and blue-collar workers? An entitlement or a privilege?
- National defense. But how? How much? How far? What objective criteria to evaluate and judge?
- National security. But how? To what extent? How exactly are liberty and security to be balanced? How much surveillance, if any, is warranted and legal?
- National security. Strictly limited to military threats to the country (including state-sponsored and non-state terrorism), intelligence gathering, military and covert protection of U.S. interests abroad, border control, transnational crime and drug trafficking, and some degree of diplomacy if that can minimize or neutralize military threats vs. more broadly defined to include economic security, energy security, environmental and climate security, water security, and food security.
- International relations. But to what degree? Does foreign aid and assistance work? How much is appropriate?
- Democracy promotion around the world. But to what degree. When exactly is regime change okay? How much meddling in the affairs of other countries is okay?
- National service. Wildly varying views. But could be an area for seeking common ground.
- Substance abuse programs. What’s acceptable? Who pays.?Who runs them?
- Winning. But whether win-win is better than win-lose is a matter of dispute. And when exactly is winning the proper criteria for success?
- Success. But at what cost? By what criteria? And is it always so necessary?
- Good will towards strangers. But how strange? How unlike us? How generous?
- Generosity. How generous? To who? Who deserves it? Generous with whose money and resources?
- Clear air and clean water. How clean? Whose responsibility?
- Identity. But whose identity? Which are preferred or acceptable identities and by whom? How much is by birth and innate versus how much is personal choice? How should government respond, react to, or treat identity?
- Prosperity. By whose definition? Who shares in it? Who gets left out? Do the have-nots deserve government assistance? How much is the responsibility of government?
- Access to economic opportunity. By whose definition? Who assures it? How to facilitate it?
- Privacy. But to what extent? And from whom?
- Civility. To what standard? To whom? What limits?
- Change. Of what? To what extent? Who decides? How to balance against maintaining status quo?
- Progress. Of what? To what extent? What is too little? What is too much or too fast?
- Sustainability. Of what? By what measure? How short term? How long term?
- Competition. For what? To what extent? When is it too unfair? How can it be regulated? Should it be regulated? Who should regulate it?
- The future. For who? How far? What can be controlled? What should be controlled?
- Future generations. What is really best? Who decides? What criteria to use? How to measure?
- Formality. How much is good? How much is bad? Who decides? When is it appropriate? When is it inappropriate?
- Informality. How much is good? How much is bad? Who decides? When is it appropriate? When is it inappropriate?
- Practicality. Of what? How much is necessary? When is it not necessary? How to measure it?
- Idealism. Of what? How much is good? When is it less appropriate?
- Efficiency. For what? To what extent? How to balance with other interests and values?
- Innovation. Of what? For whom? Who benefits? What should be done for those who lose?
- Tradition. Of what? How much is good? How to balance against progress?
- Materialism. How much is good? How much is bad? How to measure it?
- Fate. is it real? What is its role? Is everything preordained? Does God have a plan for everything?
- Free will. Does it even exist? For what? To what extent? Is it always good? Can it ever be bad? How to balance against competing interests?
- Purpose. Does everyone and everything really have a purpose? Is purpose needed? How is it judged?
- Responsibility. For what? To whom? To what extent? Who decides?
- History. To what extent does it define us? To what extent does it control us? To what extent can we escape it? What responsibility do we have for it? How important is it to us? How to balance our history and progress?
- Entitlement. For what? To what extent? Who is entitled to what? Who decides? Using what criteria? Using what metrics?
- Self-help. For what? To what extent? How to balance the responsibility of the individual and the collective responsibility of society?
- Value of women and their role in society.
- Value of minorities in society.
- Value of immigrants in society.
- Value of refugees in society. How binding are our international obligations?
- Opposition to racism. Disputes over what it means today. Disputes over whether race-blind/color-blind is in fact racist.
- Opportunity. But disputes over access and lack of opportunity.
- Hard work. But is it a guarantee or only a requirement? How much? By what criteria?
- Ownership. But is it out of reach for some? Is it a trap?
- Politics. Source of deep discomfort for many, but still seen as important. Is it out of control or doing exactly what it is supposed to do?
- The system. Working for us (some) or against us (others)?
- The establishment. Who is it working for? How can it be made to work for others, for all?
- Citizens United. Great decision or reprehensible and incorrect decision?
- Open borders. A very good idea and necessary for a prosperous future for America or a really bad idea?
- Impartiality. Some prefer blind fairness, while some prefer discretion and tipping the balance when things seem unfair.
- Judiciary. Variability in how people see its role, such as literal interpretation of the law versus progressive interpretation. And its degree of independence.
- Feminism. Good thing or bad thing? How to define and interpret it.
- Social media. Really great thing and essential to modern life or a really terrible thing, a waste of time, distraction, and outright detrimental?
- Neutrality. Is it better to stay out of other people’s (and countries’) business and avoid the risk of making things worse, or to take a stand and act out of principle rather than stand by idly as bad things happen?
- Fighting corruption. Most are for it, but scope and definition vary. Opinions vary as to whether it should it be limited primarily to financial bribes and threats and coercion, or widened to include corruption of values and norms and more petty infractions. Where should the threshold bar be set?
Value gaps and conflicts
Then there are clear value gaps where values are held strongly by some significant fraction of individuals, groups, or strata of society but not held as important by some other significant fraction of individuals, groups, or strata of society, or held in sharp opposition to values held by other significant fractions of individuals, groups, or strata of society.
Some areas where specific values are highly disputed by a significant fraction of individuals, groups, or strata of society:
- Death penalty. Is it an essential deterrent, or is it a moral abomination, an ineffective deterrent, and should be banned and abolished?
- Guns. Gun rights vs. gun control.
- Harsh and mandatory prison sentences.
- U.S. prisons. Essential to law and order or a national embarrassment?
- Mass incarceration. A reality or an illusion? Necessary or a national embarrassment?
- War on drugs. Necessary to public health and order, or inherently racially motivated?
- Value of criminal diversion programs.
- Torture. What specifically defines the criteria? When might extreme measures be warranted? How never is never?
- Prayer in school.
- Role of religion in government.
- Role of government in religion or spiritual matters.
- Respect for the flag. Or desecration.
- Abortion. And other forms of family planning.
- Nuclear weapons. Are they a national treasure and essential to ensure our security, or are they a moral abomination, make us less safe, and should be eliminated and banned?
- Nuclear power.
- Fossil fuels.
- Direct democracy. Including the electoral college.
- Government social programs and redistribution.
- Income inequality.
- Wealth inequality.
- Value of wealth.
- Value of work.
- Whether all forms of protest are always good. How much is reasonable? What limits are reasonable? Is it really fundamental to democracy? Is it a sign of democracy in action or a sign that democracy (representative democracy) is failing? At what stage does constitutionally-protected peaceful assembly cease being peaceful?
- Single payer health care.
- Universal basic income.
- Government role in social programs.
- Government role regulating the private sector.
- Value of the short-term.
- Value of the long-term.
- Value of others like us.
- Value of others unlike us.
- The environment. Some focus on protecting and preserving the Earth, ecosystems, and all living things, while others see the environment as forces to be overcome and defeated, and resources to be exploited for economic gain.
- Natural resources. Some focus on limited, responsible, and minimal use, conservation, protection, and preservation, while others focus on natural resources as an entitlement to be exploited for maximal economic gain, with no limits.
- Recycling. Some see it as valuable, essential, and important, while others see it more as an annoyance, or at most worthy only of lip service.
- Climate change.
- Population control.
- America First.
- English first, English only.
- Supervision of law enforcement.
- Community relations for law enforcement.
- Inclusion. The degree to which disparate groups are enthusiastically welcomed by a group and who is not. Degree to which the varying interests and needs of disparate groups will be enthusiastically accommodated, or whether they will simply be ignored. See tolerance. Liberals will speak more explicitly about valuing inclusion, while conservatives will tend not to mention it. Liberals give it a much higher priority, while conservatives don’t explicitly give it a priority at all. Liberals will make a conscious effort to be inclusive, while conservatives will not.
- Diversity. How wide a range of disparate groups feel welcomed and who does not. Who tends to gravitate towards a particular group and who tends to shy away from that group. See tolerance. Liberals will speak more explicitly about valuing diversity, while conservatives will tend not to mention it. Liberals give it a much higher priority, while conservatives don’t explicitly give it a priority at all.
- Political correctness.
- Rugged individualism.
- Nanny state.
- Role of corporate money in politics.
- Role of private wealth in politics.
- Money as a form of speech, to be protected.
- Status quo.
- What if any identification should be required to vote.
- Capitalism. Many see it as the ultimate key to economic prosperity, while others see it as exploiting workers and a cause of despair.
- Socialism. Many see it as the key to economic justice and prosperity for the working classes, while others see it as a recipe for economic despair.
- Profit motive.
- Corporate profits.
- Big business.
- Value and meaning of polls and surveys.
- Value and meaning of social science.
- Social divides. Bridging and healing vs. exploiting.
- Polarization. So many groups actively seek to exploit it while decrying its exploitation by opposing groups.
- Hollywood. National treasure or den of evil?
- Guantanamo Bay detention camp. Essential to national security or national embarrassment?
- Modern responsibilities for injustices of past generations.
- Pride in our history. All of it? How much of it? Any of it?
- Moderates and centrists. Are they a key stabilizing force or an impediment to progress?
- Silence. Golden or irresponsible?
- Silent majority. A force for good or an excuse for evil?
- Neoliberal economics. Really good thing or really bad thing?
- GMO food. Godsend or ecological disaster?
- United Nations. Essential to international order and peace or waste of resources?
- Liberal international economic order. Are international financial institutions (IMF, World Bank, etc.) essential to world peace and prosperity or cause of economic and political oppression?
- Austerity. Necessary discipline or form of economic and political oppression?
- Power. Necessary tool for progress or cause of oppression? Inherently good or inherently evil?
- Subsidies. Necessary incentive or inherently evil and disruptive?
- Israel. Close friend or threat to world peace?
- Media. Friend of foe? How objective? How subjective? How partisan? Role in politics? No limits? Any limits?
- Partisan politics. Path to victory or cause of division?
- Causes of poverty. Racism and greed vs. weak work ethic.
- Cures for poverty. Jobs or training vs. public assistance.
- Progress. Is the glass half full or half empty? Those who are proud of achieving a glass which is half full versus those who are unable to share or even acknowledge such pride since they are outraged that the glass remains half empty.
- Melting pot and assimilation. Not everyone shares this value anymore. Maintaining distinct ethnic, racial, gender, and national origin identity is more important to many these days.
- Color-blind and gender-blind. Not everyone shares these values. Some consider them racist and sexist.
- Pace of change. Is it too slow or too fast?
- Guilt and innocence. Is it better to let a dozen guilty persons go free to save one innocent person or is it better to convict a dozen innocent persons to prevent a single guilty person from going free?
- Standard of proof. How certain must we be? Is the standard too high and should be lowered or too low and should be raised?
- Tolerance. Should we be tolerant of or, or should we be intolerant of intolerance? Liberals will be tolerant of socialists, communists, and archists, while conservatives will not. Conservatives will be tolerant of fascists, supremacists, nationalists, and racists, while liberals will not.
- Role of sexuality and sexualization in public space. How much is too much? How much is freedom of expression? Who gets to decide?
- Role models. Gender roles, family roles, leadership roles, worker roles, management roles, political leadership roles, political representation roles.
- Who is expected to be or permitted to be caring, sensitive, strong, or heroic?
- Our relationship with nature: awe and respect or tame and exploit?
- Do we place greater value on predictability and playing by the rules or on surprise and the unexpected?
- Resilience. An essential virtue to be expected of all Americans, or an excuse to exploit and demean and devalue others?
- Minding your own business. Generally, it may be a good thing, but is there some threshold beyond which principle and other values force you to make the business of others your own business. Where is that threshold? Is it a fairly low bar or a fairly high bar?
- Freedom of the press. Some believe it is absolute, without any limits or obligations to society, while others believe it has limits and obligations to society.
- Rights. Some believe that all rights are absolute, without any limits or obligations to society, while others believe that each right has limits and obligations to society.
Deeply-held values in America
I could go on for both these lists. The intent here is simply to give a flavor.
There is no shortage of deeply-held values in America. It’s just that we don’t all share those values or at least share them in the same way.
Or in some cases we each (or different groups) simply have different priorities.
In short, I don’t have any great, magical answers at this stage of my search for American values. This is merely a status update as the process continues.
I haven’t found any polls on values that are particularly enlightening. They’re all a bit too vague, or merely highlight particular demographic groups where particular categories of values are stronger or weaker.
The bottom line may simply be that the polls simply confirm what I’ve already said, that not all groups share the same values or have the same interpretations or the same priorities.
Core American values
The term core American values is somewhat popular these days, but once again is thrown around as a sort of rhetorical placeholder, an abstraction that defies any universally-accepted definition.
Maybe the term is redundant, meaning only to emphasize that American values (whatever they really are) are core to being a true American. Or something like that. Who knows.
Our values and our shared values
It is quite popular these days to speak of our values as well as our shared values, once again with no clear reference to any explicit definition of what the full list of those values really are.
On top of that difficulty, these two references fail to acknowledge the prevalence of dramatic social divides which means that any notion of a single our or a single we is more of a fiction or fantasy than a fact.
These two terms don’t serve to attempt to unite all Americans, but to starkly call out a division of an us and a them — preferred Americans and those Americans whom that preferred group hold in disdain or even consider deplorable. And that sword cuts both ways — the deplored consider the other side equally deplorable. This is a classic chicken and egg problem, so that any notion of which group is most in the right is so lost in the fog of history so as to be no longer relevant in contemporary life.
Onetime presidential candidate Howard Dean famously thundered, “We want OUR country back!” Back from whom? Well, from anyone who didn’t share “our” values — the values of his own political party, or at least of the party that he thought was his party, but apparently wasn’t his party when the dust settled.
America remains a country of many and diverse we’s and our’s. I always have to ask people which we or which our are they really talking about.
Context is important. In fact, sometimes, the context is international, so that the we or our is referring to The West or Western values, referring to the U.S., Europe, Canada, and other Western allies — a Eurocentric view.
I have no clear, definitive, next objective, other than to continue monitoring the evolution of discussions of values in America, being especially alert for whether any value gaps are beginning to close, get worse, or even new value gaps opening up.
I have been considering a focused paper on value gaps, with the list above as a starting point. And to highlights sources for some of the gaps.
I’m also interested in trends for values, such as whether gaps are widening, roughly stable, or narrowing. But, there isn’t much in the way of hard data on this kind of stuff, just vague and subjective feel.
I also intend to spend more time getting a sense of how often “American values” pops up in news and whether it pops up with a positive or negative connotation.
At some point I’ll take a stab at a quasi-definitive and relatively small set of widely shared American values that are relatively universal even though significant minorities may not consider them to be their core values. My last attempt to do so resulting in my massive 8,000 entry list. I’m still struggling to come up with criteria for a much shorter list. I may just go with an arbitrary but representative list. Whether to limit it to a Top 10, 25, 50, or 100 is unclear. I may start with the list presented in this paper and then prune and extend it as seems appropriate. It may indeed be a futile effort to the extent that many of the values have disputed interpretations.
And in a few months I’ll post another status update for my Search for American Values. [I’ll continue to incrementally update this paper until such time as a major revision is required.]