Amidst national debate on healthcare, foreign policy, and economics, with news outlets devoting coverage to pundits, officials, and political processes, it is easy to overlook the role of the American citizen in shaping public policy—the popular culpability in US decline.
To the extent American democracy functions democratically (see my earlier post and EAC chapter five), public opinion is an important variable in the furthering or the mitigating of growing challenges. Troubling trends in the American psyche are among the results of the newest study released by the World Values Survey.
The research, spanning more than fifty countries during the past four years, shows considerable divergence between American and world opinion on issues of importance.
Reaffirming The End of the American Century correlation between religious fundamentalism and rejection of science, the survey found that Americans were nearly twice as likely as non-Americans to be active in churches or religious organizations; simultaneously, Americans were 11 percent less likely to consider global warming “very serious” and three times more likely to consider it “not serious at all.”
Gaps also existed in attitude toward security and conflict resolution, reflecting a continued embrace of “hard power” in American political thought, with Americans placing more confidence in the military than non-Americans and placing less confidence in international organizations like the United Nations.
By far, the biggest gulfs between US and global attitude were in the area of economic policy. Here, Americans were much more likely than others to be tolerant of inequality, to disfavor government intervention in the economy, and to believe in the wealth-accumulating potential of hard work and individualism.
The contrast of attitude was particularly striking between the United States and the fifteen European countries surveyed. Europeans were almost twice as likely as Americans to strongly agree that incomes should be made more equal. They were also more likely to view circumstantial factors like luck and wealth as important to getting ahead, and they were much more likely to consider economic redistribution an “essential characteristic of democracy.”
Perhaps the most poignant aspect of the survey results is that they highlight an American disregard for problems the United States is uniquely victim to. Among advanced, industrialized countries, US levels of economic inequality and economic immobility are among those of the worst (see post referenced above, this post, and EAC chapter two). Despite the myriad social and political consequences of US economic problems, Americans appear remarkably misinformed and unconcerned. Meanwhile, the egalitarian measures used elsewhere to alleviate economic ills are revealed by the survey to be anathema in American thought, underscoring the difficulties faced by the current administration in its efforts to restructure the economics of health, taxation, and market regulation.
In discussion of issues like these, and in wider discussions about the rise and fall of international powers, the role of the public consciousness should not be overlooked, for particularly in democracies, popular attitude not only shapes the spectrum of debate, but is itself shaped by the institutions of policy and reform.
Is This The End of the American Century?
An overview of the book, and an interview with the author, appear on the Butler University website
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
--now on Kindle and in paperback!
Sunday, July 26, 2009