American Backlash

By Michael Adams

As president of the market research firm Environics, Michael Adams likes to look at the big picture. He deals in groups and generalities, statistics and trends. And it’s in his skill at composing and then interpreting the big picture that the number-crunching of polling turns into a sometimes controversial art. In American Backlash he takes a look at surveys of American social values that his firm has conducted every four years since 1992, and tries to draw a map of where those values are and where they may be headed.

The surveys Adams bases his conclusions on were not designed to be polls of people’s opinions, but are instead attempts to measure the “deep value structures that underlie their opinions.” This “social values research” proceeds not by asking specific questions about hot-button topics like gay marriage or gun control, but by measuring attitudes toward social values like civic engagement and obedience to authority.

Given the nature of his data, there is a lot of “human interpretation” to go with the number-crunching. That’s where the map comes in. To help illustrate his results Adams has drawn a map of American social values. This map is a square divided into four quadrants. The square is thus defined by two axes. At the top of the square (the vertical axis) is “Authority” and at the bottom “Individuality.” These are fairly obvious terms, and it’s no surprise to find values like “Duty,” “Religiosity,” and “Obedience to Authority” at the top, and “Sexual Permissiveness” and “Flexible Gender Identity” at the bottom.

The horizontal axis is a little harder to figure out, and Adams doesn’t do a great job explaining it. To the right is “Individual Fulfillment” (which sounds confusingly like “Individuality” at the bottom of the vertical axis), and to the left is something called “Survival”. It isn’t clear why Fulfillment and Survival are seen as opposite values, or even what Survival really means in the abstract. It is only once he gets going with his interpretation of the survey results that things get fleshed out.

The first point that Adams has to stress is that this values map really is a big picture. It isn’t a political map of liberal vs. conservative, republican vs. democrat, values. In fact, when it comes to values there is a surprising amount of agreement among voters. But the big picture also includes the values of non-voters. And non-voters are the majority non-party in American politics.

This is important because “the political landscape of the United States belies the trajectory of the country’s social change.” From a political perspective the American electorate is moving in a conservative direction: toward more traditionalism, religiosity, and authority. But Adams’s values data shows the culture at large (the big picture) “becoming ever more attached to hedonism, thrill-seeking, and a ruthless, Darwinist understanding of human competition.” The reason for this discrepancy is the huge number of politically disengaged. According to Adams there really is a culture war in America, but not between progressives and conservatives. “When compared with the values of non-voters, the values of politically engaged Republicans and Democrats look virtually identical. It is between voters and non-voters that the real chasm lies.” And it’s getting bigger. “The values that are showing the strongest growth in America – especially among youth – are the values of the politically disengaged.”

The values of the politically disengaged are located in the lower left quadrant of the values map, the quadrant of “brash individualism and hard hedonism.” Adams could have arranged the map any way he wanted, so one suspects a moral judgment in this. It means the change in American values is going down (away from authority), and backward (toward a most exclusive, Darwinistic, consumption-oriented, thrill-seeking lifestyle). In other words American civilization is in reverse, retreating to the jungle, going straight to hell.

Adams is on to something. From the unilateralism of American foreign policy to winner-take-all “reality TV” game shows like Survivor, Darwin, in the form of social Darwinism, is back. It provides the moral foundation (insofar as it can be called “moral”) for such lower-left quadrant values as “Acceptance of Violence,” “Just Deserts,” “Sexism,” and “Xenophobia.” One does unto others whatever one can get away with in order to survive and prosper. In turn, this culture of competition also translates into a culture of consumption, a struggle for status. Whoever has the most toys wins.

Within this grim big picture there are other smaller pictures. The “American Backlash” of the title is one such smaller picture. This refers to the conservatization of American politics, which was a reaction against the progressivism and hedonism of the 1960s and 1970s. As a political movement conservatism (“the angry -ism”) has been remarkably successful, though, as the big picture makes clear, the culture at large has continued down a path away from conservative values.

Another small picture is the blip after 9/11 upward toward more authoritarian values. But even though he views this as a positive development, whether this trend turns out to be durable is a matter Adams questions.

There are aspects of Adams analysis that could be called into question, and other parts that aren’t fully developed (like the importance of age and how “youth values” might be expected to change), but as an interpretation of American values over the past decade it certainly makes for an informed and provocative read.

Review first published January 14, 2006.

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