Flying Colors: Americans Face the Test of September 11

Exactly what happened to America last fall? In focus groups I have conducted since September 11, I have been constantly amazed at the number of people who watched live on television as the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center. All were deeply shaken by the sight of hundreds of innocent men and women dying in an instant. When the two towers collapsed, the horror was magnified and forever etched in people’s minds.

In the hours and days after the attack, however, Americans saw something else—something surprising that would give them strength, make them proud, and show the world what this country is made of. Average Americans, suddenly forced into horrific situations, simply did their jobs and, in doing so, became true heroes. They were there when the country needed them.

Comments from focus groups conducted for the Ripon Society capture this changed attitude toward America: “I think everybody banded together. Everybody was an American and we all just worked together.” The revelation appears to have been startling. In the back of many people’s minds, doubt had lingered as to whether this generation of Americans had what it takes to stand up to a tough challenge, the way the “Greatest Generation” did in World War II. One focus group participant put it this way: “I think it’s made me more grateful to be an American. I have never been patriotic, but I felt it for the first time really. My father was a Holocaust survivor who lived through hard times. My grandfather was a World War II veteran. And I think this is really our first test, although we haven’t really had to do anything personally. This is really the first thing that has happened to my generation, the first terrible thing that we’ve really had to confront.”

Before September 11, Americans harbored many doubts about themselves. Television, newspapers, radios, and magazines depicted a vain and self-centered society where average Americans made little or no individual contribution, where the exchange of ideas had been reduced to television screaming matches, and where politics had become ideological food fights intended to score partisan points rather than solve people’s problems.

September 11 radically changed the political environment, at least for average Americans. Many surveys just before September 11 found Americans growing less certain about the direction of the country as the recession began to take its toll on the public’s optimism. According to the August 29-30 New Models survey, 40 percent of the country thought we were headed in the right direction, while 44 percent thought we were headed off on the wrong track.

So logic dictated that after the attack in September, people’s attitudes toward the direction of the country would likely become worse. Reporters, politicians, and pundits all predicted a terrible economic shock, and when the stock market reopened a week after the attacks, their forecast seemed on the money as stock values plunged. But the “direction of the country” numbers didn’t follow Wall Street’s negative path. Instead, optimism surged. An October 25-28 CBS/NY Times survey showed that people felt the country was headed in the right direction by a two-to-one margin. A sense of pride in who we are as a country and as individuals overcame negative economic news in an unprecedented way. People saw that the heroism of New York’s firefighters, police, and emergency personnel was more important than stock prices. The freedom that for many had been an abstract lesson in a civics class suddenly took on real meaning. Americans found themselves measuring their lives and their country not in economic terms but in values like family, friends, and community with a newfound respect for each other. This new sense of community and bonding together as a people has created a unique opportunity for increased civic activity and involvement.

Following the horrific scenes of terror, people began talking with each other, asking questions most had rarely, if ever, asked themselves. Who are we as a country? Do we have good values? What does it mean to be an American? What does freedom mean? What is our responsibility as a nation and as individuals? What is really important to me personally? Are there good and evil in this world? That conversation resulted in four significant shifts in public opinion.

First and foremost, as people found a renewed faith and pride in their fellow Americans, patriotism surged. The spirit that swept America was not just a typical “rally round the flag” reaction to threats against the nation and its people. It sprang, in large part, from the country’s sudden realization that we liked who we were as a people—a feeling that has generated a new sense of community.

Second, people turned away from cynicism and moral relativism. They began to believe once again in the concepts of right and wrong, of good and evil. For decades, the media, politicians, academicians, and other leaders shied away from moral judgments. Actions, good or bad, were often presented in ambiguous terms, rarely in black or white but in shades of more “comfortable” gray. September 11 changed that. Moral clarity replaced moral relativism for millions of Americans.

The third major shift was a new focus on key values. Before September 11, most Americans’ political attitudes were usually determined by their views on specific issues, whether prescription drugs or education or foreign affairs. After September 11, issues were seen through a new value-driven prism as Americans reassessed their values and their priorities. As a Ripon post-September 11 study found, the American public underwent a fundamental change. They no longer judged the state of the union solely in economic terms as they had for decades but moved to a more value-driven estimation, which, in turn, changed the traditional right track/wrong track measurement from an issue question to a value-driven question.

Finally, the American public rejected partisanship. This trend away from ideological or partisan problem solving was under way before September 11. After September 11, however, the country saw the two parties and the two ideologies come together and get things done. Now Americans know the two parties can work together, and they expect it.

Most Americans understand that the nation faces “a clear and present danger” here at home and overseas. Yet, as the right track/wrong track data showed right after the terrorist attack, the challenges of September 11 reinvigorated the optimistic spirit of America in a way we hadn’t seen in more than half a century.

Today, after weeks of corporate scandals and a battering in the stock market that has devoured the retirement and college savings of millions of Americans, the right track/wrong track results have finally moved into the negative column. But it took a near-historic downturn and an assault on two key values—retirement security and the ability to fund their children’s college education—to do it. And as recent Winston Group surveys have shown, unlike negative right track/wrong track environments in the past, people aren’t blaming either party for the market’s economic woes, and a majority is generally optimistic about the long-term future of America.

This newfound resiliency, even in the face of serious economic troubles and continued terror threats, confirms that the American people’s reassessment of values and newfound sense of community since September 11 are neither shallow nor temporary. Is this a great country or what?