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When It Comes To Character And Public Life, Americans Are "Befuddled," U.Va. Survey Shows

December 19, 2000 -- The issue of character has been one of the underlying themes of the recent election.

Indeed, Americans recognize democracy’s need for strong moral character. Yet large sectors of the public reveal confusion and contradiction in their thoughts about character, according to a recent survey conducted by the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

In the fall survey of 1,200 participants, the vast majority agreed, at least in principle, with the founders’ sentiments concerning virtue in a democratic society. For example, 90 percent agreed that "a democracy is only as strong as the virtues of its citizens." Seventy-eight percent rejected the notion that character "is just a nice-sounding word with little real meaning," and in fact 85 percent said that the schools should be involved in teaching values to children.

Yet, thinking coherently about these values does not come easy for many in the survey. For example, although 72 percent agreed with the statement that "all views of what is good are equally valid," 77 percent also agreed that "we would be better off if we could all live by the same basic moral guidelines." In a similar way, 74 percent agreed that "we should be more tolerant of people who adopt alternative lifestyles"; at the same time, 73 percent also said that "it is my responsibility to help others lead more moral lives."

"The ideal of moral character is deeply felt. As a word, it resonates profoundly with the sentiments and intuitions of Americans everywhere. It is not, however, clearly thought through or well understood," said James Davison Hunter, U.Va.’s W. R. Kenan Professor of Sociology and one of the co-authors of "The Politics of Character," a recently published report summarizing the survey findings.

When asked to assess character in the political process, respondents clearly showed cynicism. Nearly half, for example, agreed with the statement "generally speaking, politicians have less character than the average American," though more than half agreed that "a politician can be effective if he has little character."

Seven out of 10 surveyed believed that "most elected officials don’t care what people like me think," and half thought that "people like me don’t have any say about what the government does. Just over 80 percent agreed with the statement, "political events these days seem more like theater or entertainment than like something to be taken seriously."

Seventy-six percent agreed that "our leaders are more concerned with managing their images than with solving our nation’s problems," and 82 percent said the political leaders are more concerned with "winning elections" than with "doing right."

Americans’ thinking about political ethics does not appear to be affected by their own conduct. For example, participants who admitted to lying and cheating had the same beliefs concerning the importance of a politician’s character than those who did not admit to such conduct.

The survey revealed contradictions among the participants when it came to assessing character in political leaders. Forty-one percent, for example, agreed that "Bill Clinton is a man of character;" 59 percent disagreed. However, the younger and more highly educated of the participants were more lenient toward Clinton; 49 percent of all 18-32 year-olds surveyed considered the president a "man of character." Only one-third of the senior citizens agreed.

The survey indicated that the public — at least before the first presidential debate — thought both major candidates had character. Eighty percent agreed that Bush is a man of character, and 74 percent thought Gore had character.

In the "Politics of Character" report Hunter and co-author Carl Bowman, a sociology professor at Bridgewater College, observe that most Americans find character important as rhetoric, but not as something concrete and substantial. "The character ideal is a politically significant symbol, but it serves as a poor guide for citizens in their actual exercise of political judgments or duties," they write.

The survey is an effort of U.Va.’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, which conducts on-going series of public opinion surveys. The surveys address the ideals, beliefs, values, symbols and public rituals that bind people together.

"By conducting on-going surveys, the Institute seeks to chart the significant changes taking place in our political culture and understand more fully the serious challenges posed to both democracy and the culture that sustains it," Hunter said.

Contact: Ida Lee Wootten, (804) 924-6857

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: please contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services


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