photo services
news staff
Marketing & Design
Tips for faculty
Social Networks
PHONE: (734)764-7260
FAX: (734) 764-7084

Nov. 17, 2004


Americans are not bitterly divided

ANN ARBOR, Mich—Despite post-election claims, Americans are not bitterly divided when it comes to moral values, says a University of Michigan professor.

“Contrary to the perception of pundits and the general public that the nation is becoming increasingly polarized, most Americans continue to hold and share the traditional values upon which the democracy was founded more than 200 years ago—firm beliefs in religion and God, conservative family values, absolute moral authority and intense national pride,” said sociologist Wayne Baker, a professor at Michigan's Stephen M. Ross School of Business and researcher at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR).

“Despite the inflammatory rhetoric and attack ads of this year's presidential race, there is no crisis of values. In fact, Americans tend to share attitudes, values and beliefs, and to be united when it comes to the most important values.”

In his new book, “America's Crisis of Values: Reality and Perception,” published by Princeton University Press, Baker explores the moral terrain of America, analyzing the widely held perception that the nation is in moral decline and bitterly divided.

Using ISR's World Values Surveys—the largest systematic attempt ever made to document attitudes, values and beliefs around the world—Baker shows overwhelmingly that America has not lost its traditional values, that the nation compares favorably with other societies and that the “bitter divide” is largely a myth.

In addition to being one of the most traditional societies in the world, the United States is also one of the most religious, Baker says. Most Americans report that God is very important in their lives and a majority attends religious services.

For Americans, God, country and family are tightly connected. Americans, whether they are traditionalists or embrace secular-rational values that emphasize the right of personal choice, are among the world's most patriotic.

The presidential campaign exaggerated the political and moral differences of Americans, Baker says. Even when Americans disagree about social and policy issues, their differences have been narrowing over time and most Americans share similar attitudes.

Baker says that Americans have become more absolutist over the years, with increasing numbers reporting that they believe in God as the ultimate source of moral authority. A rising tide of moral absolutism in America has swept over all social classes, generations, men and women, whites and non-whites, married and single—all these groups have increasingly adopted absolute values, he says.

"However, the differences between moral absolutists and moral relativists are not big enough to conclude that they are irreconcilably divided," Baker said. “There is sufficient overlap for common ground. Many absolutists and relativists share similar attitudes, feelings of interpersonal trust and similar levels of confidence in the nation's institutions.”

Americans, Baker says, have retained their traditional values while increasingly embracing self-expression values. These values manifest themselves in rising environmental concerns, demands for equality, well-being, and the search for meaning and purpose in life beyond the mere consumption of goods and services.

“Americans are unusual in that they cherish traditional values as well as a high degree of self-expression," he said. "Traditional values and self-expression values can be contradictory because the first demands obedience to an absolute moral authority such as God, while self-expression values require obedience to oneself as the source of judging what is right and wrong. This contradiction can lead to the feeling of a crisis of values, even when traditional values are strong and stable in America.”

The current debate about values, framed by presidential election politics, serves an important rhetorical function, Baker says. Repeated warnings, public alarm, and political and intellectual debates about the loss of traditional values or a bitter divide remind Americans of the ideals that undergird the nation.

“These debates also affirm and reinforce the ideological core of the nation's sense of community—the values that define who we are,” he said. “Such rhetoric is as forceful a reminder of America's traditional values, alongside the symbols of these values, such as ‘In God We Trust’ on U.S. currency, the U.S. Supreme Court invocation that includes ‘God save the United States and this honorable court’ and the ‘Pledge of Allegiance’ recited daily in schools across the country.”

Web links:
The first chapter of  “America's Crisis of Values: Reality and Perception,” on Baker's Web site >

A related article by Baker >

To order copies of the book >

More about Baker >

Contact: Bernie DeGroat
Phone: (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847