Alexis De Tocqueville once wrote that "America is great because she is good; if America ceases to be good, she will cease to be great." The resilience of freedom, tolerance, free enterprise, and equality under the law in America demonstrate that the first principles laid out by our Founders in the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution have withstood the test of time. And today America is a far more open and tolerant place for minorities of all origins and orientations, and the country finds more consensus across many moral and ethical questions that many would believe. Republicans and Democrats are moving toward the same views on stem cell research, sex-education, and contraception, and they are slowing closing the gap on still divisive issues like abortion and homosexuality.
But we have not been good keepers of our forefathers' promise, demonstrating weak leadership and a mishandled stewardship of our financial system and an economy that is threatening the fabric of America. In a wave of pessimism that has been pervasive throughout the last decade (perhaps the longest running in American history), Americans believe their country is heading in the wrong direction, that our values are weathering, that their generation is worse off than their parents' generation, and that their children will be still worse off. Americans believe that political corruption, too much focus on material things, and the influence of money in politics are weakening our values and standing in the world. They believe that elected officials reflect and represent mainly the values of the wealthy and think the economic system is unfair to middle- and working-class Americans. And they believe that Wall Street is more like a cancer than an engine for economic growth.
Despite all the self-criticism, America's values make sense for a socially maturing country. They have become more tolerant and more open when it comes to lifestyles while rejecting drugs and other easy fixes. They reaffirm the basic values of the Bill of Rights but can see its limits. They expect more from their government and more from their economic leaders, and yet still see a future based on pulling themselves up. They are looking for a fairer society and more secure society and yet reaffirm the right to self-defense. They believe less in God and yet they see clear moral limits everywhere.
Not surprisingly, young people are diverging from their fathers and grandfathers with new attitudes that revolve less around competition and more around equality. It remains to be seen whether this is just another "rebellion at the university" and their views will change as they grow older--or if we are witnessing permanent changes that will transform America.