Among the political commentariat, it is fashionable to condemn the anti-democratic impulses of today’s youth. “Generation Z,” we are told, is intolerant of political dissent. They are hostile to capitalism. They have no respect for civil liberties and due process. They are preoccupied with identity and gender politics at the expense of tangible political goals.
In a recent New York Times column, David Brooks summarized these political beliefs:
… the system itself is rotten and needs to be torn down. We live in a rape culture, with systemic racism and systems of oppression inextricably tied to our institutions. We live in a capitalist society, a neoliberal system of exploitation … Group identity is what matters. Society is a clash of oppressed and oppressor groups. People who are successful usually got that way through some form of group privilege and a legacy of oppression.
Are young folks rebelling against the ‘American Ethos’?
This is not the first time such concerns have been raised. In the 1970s, following Watergate and a decade of political unrest, many pundits wondered if Americans’ commitment to the American creed also was eroding. And, like it is now, most of the evidence for this apprehension was anecdotal.
Enter political scientist Herbert McClosky. Starting in the mid-1970s, he collected data on Americans’ attitudes toward the two “central” pillars of the American creed: capitalism and democracy. Deploying novel survey questions, he asked Americans about their attitudes toward basic civil liberties, due process, economic inequality and the free market.
His findings were published in “The American Ethos,” co-written with political scientist John Zaller.
Their portrait of the American creed was decidedly mixed. On the one hand, they found broad support for ideas of open competition and free enterprise. Most Americans had faith that capitalism was working.
On the other hand, Americans were less in favor of expansive civil liberties. Although a near majority thought it fine for a racist to speak, majorities thought atheists should not be allowed to “make fun of God and religion” or that books that “preach the overthrow of government” should be banned from the library.
McClosky and Zaller also found a big generation gap on both of these scales. Younger people were far more supportive of civil liberties than their elders, but they were far less enthusiastic about laissez-faire capitalism. It wasn’t that young and old disagreed about the American ethos as a whole, they just disagreed about its different parts.
Here’s how we did our research
We wanted to see if these attitudes had changed with time. Between Sept. 25 and Oct. 4, we administered a national survey that replicated many of McClosky’s survey questions. Our survey sample of 1,062 Americans was fielded by Lucid and was weighted to be representative of the U.S. population by age, race, education and sex.
On the whole, our results show some remarkable continuities in the American ethos, although this depends on the particular subject.
When it comes to general attitudes about capitalism, Americans look much as they did 40 years ago. Large percentages think that competition is good, higher salaries should reflect greater abilities, and that getting ahead is mostly a matter of hard work.
The biggest changes came in rising hostility to capitalism. Whereas in 1978, few Americans saw the free enterprise system as “keeping the poor” down, now nearly 18 percent do. A third of Americans also see poverty as the result of “the wealthy and powerful” keeping people poor, a significant increase from the 21 percent who saw this in 1978. In short, support for capitalism remains strong, but populist attitudes about poverty and wealth are also on the rise.
With regards to civil liberties, Americans look remarkably more democratic on the whole than they did a generation ago. For example, 40 years ago, 71 percent of Americans thought atheists should not be allowed to make fun of God; now only 22 percent believe so. And where 50 percent of Americans thought revolutionary books should be banned from libraries in 1978, now only 14 percent agree with this notion. Americans are also less willing to convict criminals based on tainted evidence.
The only instance where Americans have become less democratic is in response to the free speech rights of racists. In 1978, 74 percent Americans thought people at public meetings had the right to “make racial slurs.” Now, only 37 percent agree. On the other side of this question, nearly half of Americans now believe that people making racial slurs should be stopped from speaking, compared with only 14 percent who thought so in 1978.
If we put all these measures together, it looks like overall support for American ethos looks much the same as it did 40 years ago, even if some of the individual elements have shifted.
But what about the generational gap?
From our data, it looks much less severe than 40 years ago. Following McClosky and Zaller, we created two scales using the democracy and capitalism items and then compared the percentages falling into the top tercile for four age categories. This method allows us to compare our data with their published results even if the particular elements within the scales have shifted.
When it comes to attitudes about capitalism, the generational difference looks almost identical to 1978. Younger Americans are still less enthusiastic about laissez-faire capitalism than older generations, although that difference has shrunk: Whereas in 1978, only 16 percent of Americans under 30 supported capitalist values, now 23 percent do.
The really big shift is in regards to democratic values. In the 1970s, older Americans were far less supportive of civil liberties than younger Americans. In 2018, that generation gap has largely disappeared and even reversed: Younger Americans are slightly less enthusiastic about civil liberties than their elders.
These small generational differences cannot be attributed to the single item about speech by racists, either. Younger Americans are not less democratic because they are less democratic toward racists than older folks. Rather, intolerance of the speech rights of racists is high among all age groups.
These findings as casting a different light on the hand-wringing about the political intolerance of Generation Z. Rather than being so different from their parents (as they were in the 1970s), young Americans have largely similar views of democracy as older ones. Moreover, the attitudes of people in their 20s are, on the whole, similar to those in their 30s. And while young people in 2018 may be more hostile to capitalism, they are actually more supportive of capitalism than they were in the 1970s.
When it comes to the American ethos, young people look a lot more like their parents than they did a generation ago.
Eric Oliver (@profericoliver) is professor of political science at the University of Chicago.
Thomas Wood (@thomasjwood) is assistant professor of political science at Ohio State University.
They are co-authors of “Enchanted America: How Intuition and Reason Divide Our Politics.” (University of Chicago Press, 2018).