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The Public's Shared Values about the American Dream

David Callahan

We hear so much about polarization these days, that it can be easy to forget that Americans are actually quite unified around certain core values -- most notably, the importance of work, community, and individual responsibility.

That's one finding from interesting new research on the American Dream released this week by Public Agenda and the GALEWiLL Center for Opportunity and Progress.

To be sure, this research shows that the usual divisions are still there. For instance, 60 percent of Republicans said that free enterprise without too much regulation was essential for fostering the American Dream, while just 27 percent of Democrats cited this factor. Over half of Democrats cited as essential "government that creates opportunities for people to get ahead," compared to 39 percent of Republicans. Respondents were also divided over the importance of the social safety net. 

No surprises there. But the research showed Americans on the same page about fundamental values associated with opportunity and success. Nearly all of us, it turns out, believe that a strong work ethic is essential for achieving the American dream: 91 percent of Republicans surveyed said this and 85 percent of Democrats. There is also overwhelming shared belief in the importance of "Parents, family members or other adults who teach values like honesty, responsibility and persistence." 

As well, the concept of community also commands strong bipartisan support. Both Democrats and Republicans cited "A strong community where people look out for each other" as among the most essential ingredients for fostering the American Dream.

This research is helpful for progressive leaders or groups who want to speak to all Americans. It suggests, for example, that ideas and arguments about the economy might properly begin by stressing the deeply respected value of work, and steps we can take to ensure that all Americans get the opportunity to work and that work is properly rewarded with a living wage and key benefits; but also that everyone fulfills their responsiblity to work.

FDR instinctively understood the nearly holy status of work in American culture and justified large swaths of the New Deal in this values frame. Work was essential for human dignity, FDR stressed. Alas, President Obama has been less savy on this front, tending to promote recovery efforts more in the language of macro economics or investment. 

On the other hand, Obama has done a good job at championing the value of community, especially lately as I have noted here. Mutual obligation and shared effort have become big themes in Obama's rhetoric -- and the Public Agenda/GALEWiLL research suggests that he's on the right track. Obama isn't just speaking to the base when he says we need to look out for one another and work together; he's talking to a strong majority of Americans. 

Just to be clear, though, the value of community does not stand in isolation for Americans; it is linked to individual responsibility, and here is where progressives have their work cut out for them. While most of us believe in mutual obligation, we also think that people need to take care of themselves, do the right thing, and not become a drag on others through their selfish choices or lack of effort. 

Yet, too often, progressive arguments focus exclusively on the need for more mutual obligation and forget the individual responsiblity part of the equation. Conservatives make the exact opposite mistake: putting all the onus on individuals and deriding the mutual supports that Americans believe in. 

I argue in my book The Moral Center that would-be majoritarian leaders must recognize that few Americans think in either-or ways about their core values. People want a political party that preaches both mutual obligation and individual responsibility in the same breath. That doesn't sound so difficult, does it?