Kurt Meyer writes a weekly column for the Nora Springs – Rockford Register, where this essay first appeared. He serves as chair of the executive committee (the equivalent of board chair) of Americans for Democratic Action, America’s most experienced liberal organization.
Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
Robert Kennedy, June 1966
The waters of our civil society are a bit choppy right now. Why? It’s undoubtedly a blend of currents of varying strengths, crossing at various points. The result: social tension, a sense of heightened anxiety, probably the birth pangs of significant societal change, which seems almost inevitable.
I’m looking today at the results of a recent poll commissioned by the Wall Street Journal and the National Opinion Research Center.
The poll found a steep decline in the last 25 years in Americans who regard patriotism as very important to them (from 71 percent to 38 percent), who regard religion as very important to them (from 62 percent to 39 percent), and who regard having children as very important to them (from 59 percent to 30 percent).
Some change can be dismissed by slightly different methodologies or by respondents shifting from “very important” to merely “somewhat important” (different than moving from “very important” to “not important at all”). Nevertheless, these are not signs of a stable status quo. As the Wall Street Journal observed, “priorities that helped define the national character for generations are receding in importance.” No kidding!
I sought more analysis of what’s happening and encountered words like “plummet” and “jarring.” Here’s my sense: First, we’re emerging from an extended pandemic, hungering for a fresh start. But we hit the same old life/work/relationship “potholes” we hoped had been paved over: supply-chain issues, service shortcomings connected to minimal staffing, price hikes, inflation, etc. It all points toward change.
Second, we’ve redirected affections formerly aimed at country, church, and children. Toward what? Money, and its procurement. Survey participants now place increased importance on money, 43 percent compared to 31 percent in 1998. This finding reaffirms Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, indicating we don’t focus on “higher” level matters, like social well-being or personal fulfillment, until base-level needs—shelter, food, clothing, etc.—are satisfied (admittedly, overly simplified).
As one analyst noted, “When you can’t pay the rent or feed your family, when you’re pestered by bill collectors and can’t afford medications, it’s hard to think of anything other than money.” This result may also be grounded in income disparity apparent throughout society. Increased awareness of opulent lifestyles unattainable by most can lead to feelings of inadequacy. Again, powerful incentive for change.
Third, there’s polarization, certainly in politics, but in many realms of society. One interpretation of this poll is quite simple: “If YOUR people are in charge (… of decisions, overall direction, etc.) then I’m opposed; if MY people are in charge, I’m okay.”
When groups are somewhat evenly divided, as our country is politically, roughly half the population might feel limited patriotism. Similar divisions may explain some dissatisfaction with the church. Even children may be a lesser priority when the long-term future of our country—indeed, of the world—seems so uncertain.
So, what can be done? A few suggestions (certainly not a solution). We can always counter macro trends through micro actions. For instance, patriotism isn’t just a feeling, it’s action: literally flying the flag, registering voters, supporting a candidate, and so on.
There are myriad ways to engage with a faith community, including going back to church, or becoming more active in a congregation, especially if you haven’t since before the pandemic.
Finding ways to support children of any age can be extraordinarily rewarding. You undoubtedly know children who might benefit.
Closing thoughts: Our national character has changed. Our collective future is not predetermined. National polls don’t capture small local steps to make the world better, to send out ripples. So, what ripples are you sending?