It Comes To Character And Public Life, Americans Are "Befuddled,"
U.Va. Survey Shows
19, 2000 -- The issue
of character has been one of the underlying themes of the recent
Indeed, Americans recognize democracys
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 Virginias
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 dont care what people like me
think," and half thought that "people like me dont
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
Seventy-six percent agreed that "our
leaders are more concerned with managing their images than with
solving our nations 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 politicians 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,"
Contact: Ida Lee Wootten, (804) 924-6857