A Study in Irrelevancy: The "Values Downturn" and the Immigration Debate

By Stephen Steinlight on June 8, 2009

The supposed big news and dominant motif in a survey released by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in May, "Trends in Political Values and Core Attitudes 1987-2009," is Americans are far less concerned with "values" when making political choices than four years ago. Respondents who cite "values" as the main reason for choosing a president declined by more than half from 27% in Pew’s post-2004 election survey to a tiny current low of 10%. In "Values Voters in a Downturn," columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr., boosts the "extremely useful" survey "which has not received enough attention" as descriptive, prescriptive, and predictive, benevolently cautioning Republicans against employing a "culture wars" strategy in opposing Judge Sonia Sotomayor by focusing on "reverse racism" or resorting to anti-affirmative action absolutism by labeling her a "quota queen."

A prominent liberal pundit, Dionne fairly licks his chops over Pew's survey which appears to refute several years of conservative political analysis that portrayed the "liberal elite" as hopelessly and irrevocably out of touch with what matters to ordinary Americans. His op-ed is sprinkled with "gotcha" rebukes to conservative triumphalists that made this case. However, an implicit notion in Dionne's piece that we're witnessing the death throes of a political-cultural tendency – "conservative values politics" – seems hasty and over-determined. Reading too much into the fickleness of the economy and political fortunes, he substitutes self-deluding liberal hubris for the conservative variety. More plausibly, we’re experiencing the cyclical ascendancy of one pole of what is likely an enduring dialectic in American life. Having been in the wilderness so long and flushed with victory, the left now entertains the fantasy it can banish its antithesis there permanently. To avoid the wrath of the Fates, Dionne should consider scribbling "sic transit gloria mundi" on a Post-It and attaching it to his laptop.

Barbaric sociology debunkers have long spouted a favorite maxim: what sociologists do is go to great lengths using cumbersome methodology and an infelicitous pseudo-scientific jargon to tell us what we all already know. The debunkers' collective response to Pew's survey finding that "cultural issues" have lost their traction when the economy is in freefall would undoubtedly be "Duh!" "It's the economy, stupid," as James Carville famously said during Clinton's victorious campaign in 1992. Dionne knows this (even as he reads too much into the findings) and writes: "A funny thing happened on the road to the revival tent. The crash of the economy concentrated the minds of Americans on other things. Moral conflict just isn't what it used to be." It's certainly true that lost enthusiasm for "values" has been especially apparent among many Reagan Democrats – older white working-class voters – because they've suffered most in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. They were already economically foundering because of economic restructuring in an increasingly knowledge-based economy as well as unfair competition with illegal aliens and impoverished immigrants who were driving down wages and worsening working conditions. Karl Marx got it right when he observed that man eats before he thinks. Agonizing over "values" is a luxury reserved for more prosperous times. But better times will come, and renewed debates over "values" will return.

Which is not to say we'll be debating the same "values." Some once burning hot have already turned to ash. Data in Pew survey show many divisions of the culture wars have narrowed markedly as the attitudes of Americans suggest greater convergence – not to mention ambivalence. A strong majority (87%) endorses the belief that American society should promote equality of opportunity and few wish women to return to the kitchen (though "society" is carefully distinguished from government: 65% oppose preferential treatment for disadvantaged minorities). Yet while only 19% believe women should go back to the kitchen, 71% endorse the statement, "I have old-fashioned values about family and marriage." Adhesion to the Protestant Ethic – such as the importance attached to individual responsibility – seems largely unaffected, reflected in the finding that 72% believe poor people are too dependent on government welfare programs. Yet 63% also believe government should care for people who can't take care of themselves, suggesting (though it's hardly news) that people make a clear distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor. Some might also argue the finding that 72% are concerned about welfare dependency is a surrogate for expressing latent hostility or discomfort about race – which is no longer socially acceptable. Still, only 13% of respondents agree with the statement, "I don't have much in common with people of other races." There is also virtually universal support for such things as environmental responsibility and the idea that America should play a leading role in world affairs, though 78% simultaneously believe the government should focus primarily on domestic problems.

Other findings appear so counterintuitive they suggest the "survey effect" is at work: respondents seek to affirm what they assume (correctly in this case) are the pollster's liberal norms. Thus the finding that 87% approve of interracial dating, while certainly welcome if true, seems impossibly high. Its acceptability has surely increased, but a finding that stratospheric crashes head on into empirical evidence. It strongly suggests – at least with regard to our anxiety over how others perceive us – that the left has largely "won" the culture wars. Whatever people really think about an issue, they feel it's incumbent on them to censor their authentic feelings and say what they believe liberal opinion expects of them.

There's little new in Pew's findings; its value lies in providing evidential weight to confirm observations about social trends previously noted in non-statistical formats. The thesis advanced at the height of the culture wars that there's far greater comity among Americans than conflict, as well as growing convergence rather than increasing distance has been argued before in many places, among them in a collection of essays published in 2003 written by liberal, conservative, and moderate thinkers (including one by E.J. Dionne) The Fractious Nation?: Unity and Division in American Life (edited by Jonathan Rieder and myself). Several essays argue the culture wars are not a generalized social phenomenon so much as a media spectacle involving an infinitesimal subset of the population: angry zealots from the conservative punditry and leftist academicians. Others agree with Michael Lind's assessment that the culture wars were an invention – not a product of social or historical forces – a strategy of the financial and political elite to align itself objectively with the underclass in support of a multiculturalism that was both foreign and discomfiting to the "forgotten middle class."

That the raucous culture wars were mostly media hype and their decibel level belied their historicity and importance while drowning out the quieter but far more representative voice of a moderate, politically ambivalent, nonjudgmental centrist American middle class is also the conclusion of an important study by Alan Wolfe, Director of the Boisi Center for Religion and Public Life at Boston College: One Nation After All. Wolfe conducted 90-minute-to-2-hour interviews with 200 middle class Americans in groups of 25 people in eight suburban communities in different regions of the country: DeKalb and Cobb Counties in Atlanta; Brookline in Boston; Eastlake and Rancho Bernardo in San Diego; and Broken Arrow and Sand Spring in Tulsa. The locales are home to a diverse cross-section of Americans in terms of income, social class, age cohort, race and ethnicity, religion and religiosity, and political affiliation. Though the objectivity of the exercise is open to question, Wolfe's methodology permits his respondents the opportunity to get past black and white caricatures of left and right and other artificial polarities and enables them to speak about issues and values with nuance that's unavailable in surveys offering only yes/no choices. Except for a handful of convinced, highly inner-motivated ideologues, what Wolfe encountered was Americans who don't hold absolute or diametrically opposed views, are uncomfortable being judgmental, respect the politics and religion of others, and are loath to see their neighbors as caricatures labeled "permissive, godless decadent liberals" or "ignorant, Bible-thumping parochial bigots." The great majority is not comprised of either True Believers or permissive skeptics and defies easy characterization. But it would be fair to say the study shows most to be pragmatic multifaceted realists who take their deeply felt and lived values, including thoughtfully expressed patriotism, from traditional sources as well as recognize the value of modern self-expression.

How do Wolfe's tolerant – arguably to a fault – nonjudgmental, non-ideological, respectful, commonsensical middle-class Americans from all regions, economic, political, racial, and religious backgrounds respond to illegal immigration? It infuriates them. It elicits outrage. It is perceived as the defilement of a national icon, a grotesque cheapening of the great rite of passage of millions of their forebears who came during the Great Waves. Wolfe notes the difference in their feelings about legal and illegal immigration "is one of the most tenaciously held distinctions in middle-class America; the people with whom we spoke overwhelmingly support legal immigration and express disgust with the illegal variety." The story of legal immigration is cherished, sacred American history, conjoining family memory with the nation’s story. It evokes heart-felt emotion, deep-seated values, and patriotic themes. It conjures the Statue of Liberty and the promise of America to those that came with little, played by the rules, honored its laws, worked hard, and who expected nothing from American except the freedom to raise themselves up through the content of their character.

In an essay Alan Wolfe wrote for the New York Times that appeared while he was in the midst of working on One Nation, After All (the project took two years), "Immigration Angst" (New York Times, July 23, 1997) Wolfe speaks powerfully about the need for our values to be rooted first and foremost in our nation and for our moral sympathies to be extended first and foremost to our fellow citizens. It is not a rebuke to universalism or humanitarianism so much as an honest recognition – one that would be reflected in the opinions of his 200 respondents – that post-nationalism, post-Americanism is neither descriptive of who most middle class Americans are nor should it be prescriptive. He writes, "…Sainthood is for saints, not policy makers. Just because people suffered greatly to get here, and then suffered even more after they arrived, is not by itself reason to allow them to stay. A society that extends its obligations to everyone extends them to no one. So long as some of our fellow citizens are in need – and who can doubt that some of them are? – they must have first claim on our conscience. Sympathy has to be rationed. As much as our hearts go out to people as vulnerable and exploited as the Mexican trinket sellers, our heads must insist that they be returned to their country."

Finally, what does Pew's survey tell us about Americans' attitudes towards immigration and illegal immigration? Is there anything new or noteworthy? The survey displays some of the ambivalence we’ve noted that complicates the stark divisions of culture war dichotomies. But taken as a whole, and focusing not on the teller but the tale, we find that "values" are alive and well, and they explain the views of respondents that favor immigration restriction by a whopping majority as well as see danger to American culture and values represented by current mass immigration. It will also come as no surprise that the survey seeks to elicit support for amnesty – this is, finally, the product of an elite liberal institution – but one can set the intentions of its designers aside (they're obvious enough here and there) and gain a few insights. By posing the most immediate, critical question about immigration policy – the fate of illegal immigrants living in the U.S. – at the very top of the survey – it is the first substantive question about policy asked – while choosing not to ask an additional one or frame it differently – it instantly loads the dice. The question asks: "Do you favor or oppose providing a way for illegal immigrants currently in the country to gain legal citizenship if they pass background checks, pay fine and have jobs?" 63% answer in the affirmative, 34% oppose it, and 3% don’t have an answer.

In surveys conducted by Zogby International and Rasmussen, respondents are given the choice of "attrition," promoting the incremental self-deportation of illegal aliens through better border security and stricter enforcement of immigration laws within the country. The reasonable tone of that question might conceivably have garnered majority support in Pew's survey, especially in light of responses to another (see below). Pew's question inarguably gives respondents a choice; however, the positive response precedes the negative and the balance is tipped towards a "yes" response as respondents are provided several reasons to select it (illegal aliens will perform a variety of task "to earn" legal status). The tone and framing of the question are key. It's not impossible to posit that a question framed as reasonably offering a non-draconian way of removing illegal aliens also might have won a strong majority – had Pew chosen to pose it. (It is also of interest that 59% of respondents selected amnesty in a survey Pew conducted two years ago. Whenever one hears the statistic 59%, it should be noted that every push-poll on this subject undertaken over the last 2-3 years has produced the identical finding.)

A 63% majority in favor of amnesty would appear to lay the matter to rest, but other responses suggest the issue is far from resolved and remains open. Much, much later in the survey – it appears as the second question posed in a subsection of Question 30 – respondents are asked, "Should we restrict and control people coming to live in our country more than we do now?" Fully 73% of respondents approve of this statement, 10 percentage points more than approved the conditional amnesty. This response has very significant bearing on the question about legalizing illegal aliens. To support restriction can easily be translated to mean there should have been greater restriction and border control in the first place, as well as different criteria for admitting immigrants. Were the two immigration questions posed together, it's likely respondents might have hesitated more in affirming the earlier one, and gone back, reconsidered, and adjusted their answer. Also, had the survey asked the question about attrition the two findings would not seem so discordant. Also, a majority of 51% respondents agree with the statement: "The growing number of newcomers from other countries threatens traditional American values and customs."

Pew offers three yes/no questions about immigration, and there are three markedly different responses suggesting more than ambivalence. In light of the respondents' choices to the second two, especially the 73% that favor immigration restriction, it is difficult not to view the figure of 64% favoring amnesty with profound skepticism or look at the survey's methodology without a jaundiced eye.