Long distance observers, and even Americans, would be hard pressed to notice that on almost every single social issue, from womens' rights to racial tolerance, minority rights, immigration, religion, gun ownership and abortion, Americans are more tolerant today than they have been at any point in their history. It's just that their governing and legal institutions have been captured by a fringe minority who are not.
Throughout this century, a growing majority of Americans have become dramatically more liberal in their views and politics, more tolerant, less distrustful of outsiders and difference, and less prone to crime and violence.
As recently as 2016, according to surveys by the Pew Research Center, a majority said that in order to be “truly American,” it was necessary to be a Christian and be born in the United States. Today, for the first time, a majority of Americans – 65 percent – feel that foreign-born or non-Christian neighbours are just as American as anyone else.
Likewise, in the 1990s, 65 percent of Americans felt immigration should be decreased, according to the Cato Institute; today, it’s only 33 percent, and only 9 percent feel there should be none. A majority (72 percent) now believe that immigrants come to America to improve things, and that their ability to immigrate should be a human right.
The belief that people of the same sex should be allowed to marry – a good indicator of wider tolerance – was held by only 27 percent of Americans at the end of the 20th century, according to annual Gallup polls; today, it has hit 70 percent, including a majority of Republican Party voters and of seniors.
As recently as the 1990s, a majority of American households owned a firearm. As of 2016, only 36 percent had a gun, the lowest rate of firearm ownership in U.S. history. This is reflected in support for gun control: 70 percent of Americans feel that restricting gun ownership should take precedence over gun rights.
Violent crime reached a postwar peak in 1991, at almost 760 incidents per 100,000 Americans. By the 2010s, it had plummeted to 360. It rose very slightly during the pandemic, to about 400, but is now falling again. Partly as a consequence, the U.S. incarceration rate has fallen to its lowest point since the mid-1990s.
All these statistics aren’t cherry-picked figures, as it's hard to find any area of values or beliefs where Americans haven’t become sharply more liberal. The New York University sociologist Michael Hout recently examined 50 years of surveyed attitudes and beliefs around 283 issues, and found that on only 5 percent of issues had Americans become more conservative. They became more liberal on the big ones: racial tolerance, the rights of homosexuals, women, religious minorities and atheists.
Americans have become similar to Europeans in their policy views. For example, strong majorities (and even majorities of Republicans) support paid maternity leave and government-funded child care.
On the headline issue of abortion, Americans have become a strong consensus nation: As of this year, a record-low 13 percent say abortion should be illegal, and between 63 and 72 percent support the 1973 Supreme Court ruling Roe v. Wade, which held that governments cannot interfere in the medical choices of women.
Here we see the problem Americans face: As a big majority of them have become more tolerant, their governing and legal institutions have been captured by a fringe minority who are very much not so. And are very vocal too.
The moral of the story? Voters need to keep the likes of Donald Trump out of power. The long term good news is that when the government and the institutions can reflect the opinions and attitudes of its people, all will be right in the country again.
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