The pundits are busy sifting the election litter for clues about what Americans are thinking. (They voted for compromise! They voted to raise taxes on the rich! They rejected old white men! They’ve expressed their inner greed! And so on.) It might help to step back, seek some perspective, and review what we actually know about what Americans think about important issues and what direction their thinking has taken in recent decades.
Since 1972, the General Social Survey (which I have often drawn upon for this blog) has been the premier, high-quality, long-run compilation of what Americans have to say about their public and their personal concerns. A valuable new book, Social Trends in American Life, edited by Harvard sociologist Peter Marsden, explores the trends found in the GSS on a dozen different topics. In the last 40 years, Americans have changed dramatically in some regards and, surprisingly, not changed in other regards. Here is a sample of what the contributors found.
Political Views: Americans moved to the right in the 1970s and beyond, at least in terms of how they labeled themselves and in their general attitudes toward the role of government. However, Americans’ views on specific programs and on cultural issues – such as government spending for health care and on rights for homosexuals (but not on abortion) – largely shifted back to the left after the 1980s. Americans thus arrived at 2010 more than ever philosophically conservative but pragmatically liberal. Another chapter in Social Trends documents how Americans’ attitudes toward crime have become less punitive since the crime rate took a nose dive in the 1990s – so much so that crime is for most part off the national political agenda.
Political Tolerance: Americans increased their support of free speech for all sorts of disfavored groups, including communists, atheists, and homosexuals. The biggest opinion changes occurred between 1950s and ’70s, largely before the GSS started, but Americans continued to become more tolerant through recent decades as new, better-educated cohorts grew to adulthood.
Public Trust: Americans’ confidence in the people running major institutions has waxed and waned, but mostly waned. GSS respondents in the early 2000s, compared to those in the mid-1970s, expressed considerably less confidence in the leaders of the press, television, organized religion, education, and (puzzlingly) medicine. Americans expressed more confidence in the military during the post-9/11 era than they did in the post-Vietnam era.
Gender Attitudes: Americans have sharply changed their views of women’s roles. For example: In the 1970s, about two-thirds thought that women should give priority to their husbands’ careers; in the 2000s, fewer than a third did. In the 1970s, a large majority thought it better for women to stay home to care for the family while men went out to be the “achievers”; in the 2000s, a clear majority disagreed with that division of roles. The revolution in gender attitudes and women’s behavior has been profound (see this earlier post and this one).
Racial Attitudes: White Americans have largely abandoned crude anti-black attitudes and increasingly endorsed equality. Most dramatically, few now state that there should be laws against racial intermarriage, and in the last 20 years, the percentage who said they would object to a close relative marrying a black person dropped from about two-thirds to under one-third. At the same time, some racial attitudes persist – and some serious discrimination does, too; whites express racial discomfort in some domains (such as the prospect of living near many blacks); and whites continue to resist programs that smack of affirmative action.
Religion: Much has stayed the same in Americans’ religiosity. For example, about as many Americans these days as in the 1970s say that they believe in God, pray regularly, and are born-again. However, much also has changed, particularly Americans’ connections to church. Fewer Americans call themselves Protestants – especially of mainline denominations; more claim no particular religion. Church attendance slumped until about 1990 and has been roughly flat since. Fewer in the new generations are being raised in a church. (For earlier posts on religious change and stability, see, for example, here, here, and here.)
Social Life: Americans’ reports of how much social time they spend with other people has been largely stable over 40 years. We are, on average, spending less time with neighbors, but as much or even more time with friends and with relatives. (Earlier posts on this topic include here, here, here, and here.)
There is the temptation upon most presidential elections to find in them an historical turning point – a transformation that shaped the election or one brought about by the election. (Some people, for example, seemed to have just discovered on November 7 how many Latino-American citizens there are.) But transformational elections are rare. Most social change involves gradual shifts in lifestyles and worldviews — the sort tracked in Social Trends in American Life.