What Are Shared Values in Community?

by Dante Chinni April 24, 2024

As the nation navigates another tense election year, polls suggest the biggest issues before voters center on culture. Questions around abortion, immigration, and even trade really focus on what kind of nation voters want to live in — what do they value?

The American Communities Project delved into this question in its 2023 fragmentation survey with Ipsos, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Respondents were asked whether a variety of institutions shared their values.

The big finding: A lot of agreement, but agreement that seems built on skepticism and disillusionment. Across all the 15 community types that the ACP studies, there is little belief that any of the nation’s big institutions — big business, entertainment, the news media, and the federal government — share their values.

That’s a problematic finding in any survey. It suggests a lot of distrust. But considering the stark differences in the Project’s types (from small-town Rural Middle America to the dense Big Cities), it’s a surprising finding as well.

The same survey showed those 15 community types had markedly different opinions on issues such as guns, families, and faith — dissimilarities that clearly indicate different values. Yet, when people in those same communities looked at the nation’s big powerful institutions, the level of disapproval was surprisingly uniform.

What’s going on in the data? What we’re seeing may be akin to the uniform responses on the question of whether the nation is headed in right direction or off on the wrong track. That is, when people are asked about these big, complicated institutions, they focus on the things they do not like about them and disapprove of their values. (For instance, “federal government” may be heard as “Republicans” by some respondents and as “Democrats” by others.)

Regardless, the numbers are remarkable.

For all the groups and institutions below, the essential question was, “Do you think that the people who lead the following institutions or groups mostly share your values and views, or do they mostly have different values and views from you?”

The Entertainment Industry

Hollywood and the larger entertainment industry has long been a source of political controversy. Artists and filmmakers can sometimes push boundaries and lawmakers often push back. We saw a fight like this last year in Florida between Disney and Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who accused the company of being too “woke.”

But the entertainment and movie industries don’t have huge support in the poll. In every one of the Project’s 15 community types, the number of people saying those industries “mostly have different values” far outweighs the number saying the industries “mostly share your values.”

The most urban and left-leaning types, the Big Cities and Urban Suburbs, are the most likely to see shared values, but the number for each is still below 30%. In nine of the 15 types, 50% or more say the entertainment and music industries mostly have different values.

The News Media

At this point, the news media are a well-known target of derision across the United States. Even as people increasingly burrow in with sources they trust, those same people tend to be critical of news outlets they feel represent “the other side.” Think of the partisan viewing differences between, say, Fox News and MSNBC.

Those attitudes certainly feel like the animus behind the “shared values” figures here.

Only one community type, the Big Cities, is above 20% on the idea of “mostly share your values.” And every community type is 50% or higher on “mostly have different values.”

The Federal Government

The shorthand for understanding the nation’s two big political parties is often described this way: One party favors using government power and policy, and one tries to limit the use of government. But again, on the question of shared values, it’s hard to find a lot of support for the federal government.

The Big Cities, which tend to vote heavily Democratic, are the most likely to have voters who say the federal government mostly shares their values, at 20%, but that’s a pretty low number. And 55% in Big Cities say the federal government mostly has different values. In 14 of the 15 types, 60% or more of respondents hold that view.

Big Business

What about the other side of the great American political divide — big business? The numbers are no better.

For decades, much of the rhetoric around American politics focused on business and taxes. The private sector has often been hailed as the source of “job creators” and, of course, as the economic engine of the nation. People on the political right, in particular, have been seen as allies of big business. Yet, the “shared values” numbers across the board in the ACP community types are quite low on big business.

The highest “shared values” number in any type is just 13% and that number shows up in the Big Cities and Urban Suburbs, communities that tend to vote Democratic, but also urban communities that tend to be the home of big businesses and their workers. It’s also worth noting that some of the most solidly Republican voting community types, the Evangelical Hubs and Working Class Country, have some of the highest numbers for “mostly have different values” when it comes to big business: 70% or higher.

Bright Spots?

That’s a lot of dour feelings across many kinds of places. Is there any institution or group with whom people feel they share values? Yes, across the 15 community types, people say they feel a sense of shared values with small or local business. (Note, the survey only asked this question in 13 of the 15 types because of time limitations.)

The responses on small and local business are the mirror image of the others. At least 50% in every community type say those business mostly share their values. While fewer than 20% say small or local businesses mostly have different values.

Again, that’s a pretty impressive amount of agreement, and it likely seems to be driven by one factor, proximity.

Most of the groups or institutions on the 2023 survey are big, faceless entities. What is the “entertainment industry” or “big business”? Those phrases can lead people to think about a lot of people, places, and things, many entities people may not support.

When respondents hear the phrase “local business” they may have a certain business or business owner in mind — people they know and with whom they have spent some time.

And that really gets to the heart of what the Project is measuring on this question and others. Ultimately, the ACP is exploring the realities people live in and how it can be hard to see outside our own bubbles, realities we have reinforced with choices about where we live and what media we consume.

“Local businesses” are entities that live within our respective bubbles, so shared values are easier to find. Outside our bubbles, trust is harder. And in a nation of 330 million people, that can be a problem. Personal and community bubbles can feel comfortable and safe, but they are not all-encompassing.

Vol. 3 2020-2021

Deaths of Despair Across America

The American Communities Project is undertaking a 30-month study of Deaths of Despair in its 15 community types.

Learn More