We started this week with five common assumptions Americans widely share about change in our national character—then we learned from Claude Fischer’s research that we haven’t changed as much as we may think! Continuity is one of the chief conclusions of Fischer’s readable and thoroughly researched book, Made in America. “What seemed socially distinctive about America in the 18th century still remains distinctive in the 21st,” he writes.
Signs of continuity include: Individualism still reigns. Voluntary association—the freedom to enter and exit groups and relationships—is still strong. The desire to accumulate goods was not weaker in the past. A key change is that an expanding circle of people are now able to express these American values. For example, we don’t buy more things now because our acquisitive impulses strengthened; we have more things, and covet more things, because we can afford more and because more choices are offered than ever before.
But some aspects of American character have changed: “The vast expansion of physical and economic security, greater stability and predictability, and the abundance of food, goods, and services,” Fischer argues, “endowed more individuals with more freedom and confidence to plan their own futures, to demand autonomy, and to expand equality.”
We’ve also seen growth in emotional skills, Fischer says. We didn’t become smarter, but we became more knowledgeable psychologically, and picked up skills and tools along the way. More parents, for example, taught their children to reign in their aggressive impulses and develop empathy. More Americans learned how to examine and master their emotions, to check those that damage relationships and nurture those that strengthen them.
All in all, the course of American character has been to reinforce and expand the circle of those who participate in American culture, enabling more Americans to become “American.”
As we close this week’s series, what’s your conclusion?
What continuities do you see in American character?
What changes do you see emerging?
Originally published at www.OurValues.org, an online experiment in civil dialogue on American values.