A Party of Commitment
How the Left and Right taught us to love only ourselves (and our money), and how to reverse the trend
A recent poll shows us what we all already knew: commitment to commitments is declining across the board, and in its place, individualism is on the rise. According to a 2023 phone poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal and NORC, there has been a stunning decline of commitments to nation, God, church, community, and family, and a corresponding rise of valuing money—that is, the one “asset” that can relatively insulate us against the decline of all other relationships. As Tocqueville predicted of liberal democracy, individualism would be its primary fruit: “Not only does democracy make each man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants from him and separates him from his contemporaries; it constantly leads him back toward himself alone and threatens finally to confine him wholly in the solitude of his own heart.”
According to the poll, Americans value, in the aggregate, five “values” ranked in this order:
4. Having Children—30%
5. Community Involvement—27%
The four “values” that involve a developed capacity for commitment, duty, and responsibility to others all rank lower than valuing money. Yet even money, which people ranked highest, registered at less than 50 percent, revealing a society that is hardly able to muster a commitment to anything, even to the resource that can assist us in being relatively free of all our other commitments. A society that can only muster a commitment to the notional freedom that money provides more deeply shows itself to be a society primarily of indifference and exhaustion.
The aggregate data is just a part of the story, however. A more detailed breakdown of the data traces the trends that reveal a rapidly changing American citizenry. The poll has been taken regularly, and as recently as 1998—when there were already widespread lamentations about the declining state of American society—both the ordering and levels of Americans’s commitments was markedly different.
Only twenty-five years ago, a substantial majority of Americans highly valued nation, congregation, religion, community, and family, while well below a majority publicly stated that money was a primary value. We might suspect—with justification—that the stronger one’s commitments to other humans and the institutions we house and institutionalize those relations, the less intense (or essential) is the desire for money. As other commitments weaken, the desperate pursuit for money increases—or, vice versa.
Further breakdown of data reveals something we also already know: the key partisan distinction in American society today revolves around whether we understand that the purpose of life is pursuit of our own interests, or duty, obligation, and commitments to others. Breaking down the 2023 percentages by party discloses the vastness of the division:
The differences are stark, and in one case, the similarity is revealing:
1. Patriotism: R +36%
2. Religion: R +26%
3. Having Children: R +12
4. Community Involvement: D +7
5. Money: D/R =
Aside from “community involvement”—in which Republicans self-report at rates lower than Democrats—Republicans demonstrate markedly higher levels of commitment to values of commitment than Democrats. Even this data point should be taken with a grain of salt, as the word “community” today probably has a somewhat negative valence for Republicans, who likely associate it with Obama-era emphasis on “community organizing.” Anecdotally, conservatives remain active in community life, for instance, in their churches, or through the vast number of private, often religious schools that are being formed in communities around the country. They simply may not register their commitment as one of “community,” but more likely one that reflects commitments to “religion.”
Regardless, the trends are not good. Even the higher rates of commitment to “other-regarding” values among Republicans in 2023 are markedly lower than the aggregate numbers in 1998, while the commitment to money is evidently the primary and equally shared devotion by both Republicans and Democrats. These trends should be deeply worrying to Americans as a whole, but are likely only to be of pressing concern to an overall declining number of Republicans who remain committed to family, nation, community, congregation and God.
At the same time, the poll—while rightly alarming—also should give us some reason for hope, as it suggests a path forward: the prospect of building a “Party of Commitment.” What can reverse these trends? In light of the data, the answer is obvious: begin by fortifying the most elemental of commitments and building from the home to heaven. Start with the family.
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