Americans United on the American Dream, Divided on Social Issues
In order to better understand the real-world impact of a college degree— compared to civic knowledge—on American beliefs, ISI first had to establish a baseline for comparison by determining the average opinions of all Americans regarding our country’s ideals, institutions, and perennial issues of governance and public policy. Upon doing this, it was discovered that the average American strongly believes in the importance of education and the rewards of hard work. Conversely, American opinion is most divided on social and cultural issues.
For this project, ISI surveyed a random sample of 2,508 American adults. In addition to assessing their civic literacy, the survey also asked respondents their opinion (on a 1 to 5 scale) on thirty-nine separate propositions. Respondents stated whether they strongly agreed (5), somewhat agreed (4), were neutral (3), somewhat disagreed (2), or strongly disagreed (1) with each proposition.
The survey also asked respondents numerous demographic and behavioral questions to determine personal characteristics and their educational history, level of civic engagement, partisan/ideological affiliations, religious attendance, and media habits.
The results were then run through multivariate regression analyses, allowing ISI to compare the impact of various factors in a person’s life—particularly their educational attainment and civic knowledge—on their overall attitudes and beliefs. But to begin with, here are some of the more significant findings in terms of the baseline beliefs of the entire U.S. population.
Americans Strongly Believe in Education and the American Dream
The thirty-nine survey propositions were first ranked by the “strength” of average American opinion (see Table 2). Strength of opinion was determined by calculating the difference between the average response to a proposition (somewhere between 1 and 5) and the “neutral” response of 3. The greater the difference—whether in the direction of 5 (strongly agreed) or 1 (strongly disagreed)—the stronger the average opinion. Interestingly:
- The three strongest opinions all involve education. On average, Americans strongly agree that educators should focus on teaching the technical skills for competing in the global economy (No. 1), that a person’s evaluation of a nation improves with his or her understanding of that nation (No. 2), and that colleges should prepare citizen leaders by teaching America’s history, its key texts, and its institutions (No. 3).
- Three other top-ten opinions consider America a unique land of opportunity. On average, Americans strongly agree that with hard work and perseverance anyone can succeed in this country (No. 4) and that the United States is the world’s greatest melting pot where people from all countries can unite into one nation (No. 5). They also agree that America is a model of freedom and justice for the world (No. 9).
Americans Most Divided on Social and Cultural Issues
The thirty-nine propositions were also ranked by the degree to which they divide public opinion (see Table 3). This was done by determining for each response the “standard deviation,” which measures the degree to which respondents’ opinions diverge from the average opinion. As might be expected, none of the thirty-nine propositions perfectly united or divided public opinion. Nevertheless, there were some very clear patterns that emerged from the survey.
Propositions involving social and cultural issues are the most polarizing. Americans are most divided over legalizing same-sex marriage (No. 1), allowing teacher-led prayer in public schools (No. 2), reducing immigration (No. 3), and the availability of abortion (No. 4).
Americans also are divided on some current economic regulatory issues, including whether government should act to curb global warming (No. 6), and the effects of raising the minimum wage (No. 7).
Americans have strong opinions about the documents that are traditionally perceived to be central to the moral and political foundations of the nation, but they also are divided in their opinions on these documents. The average American does not believe that either the Ten Commandments or America’s Founding documents are irrelevant or obsolete (only 20% agreed with both claims). Nonetheless, the relevance of the Ten Commandments and America’s Founding documents also rank among the top ten issues that divide national opinion, ranking No. 5 and No. 10 respectively.
Notably, support for the Founding documents lags among younger Americans. Only 51% of those eighteen to twenty-four—compared to 69% of those forty-five to sixty-four—believe they remain relevant. Regression analysis reveals that as Americans age, they tend to more confidently believe in the relevance of America’s Founding texts.
Overall, what both unites and divides Americans will become quite relevant as we now turn to the findings of this report.