Jason Bristow’s take on my latest book, American Backlash: The Untold Story of Social Change in the United States, bore the title “Advancing the Values Debate.” I was intrigued, but when I saw that American Backlash was being reviewed alongside Edward Grabb and James Curtis’s Regions Apart: The Four Societies of Canada and the United States, and read Mr. Bristow’s ﬁrst sentence (“There are at least four reasons to study Canada-U.S. comparative values”), my heart sank. My last book, Fire and Ice: The United States, Canada and the Myth of Converging Values, was about Canada-U.S. comparative values. This book, American Backlash, is not. Mr. Bristow’s review was thoughtful and informed, but I feel that the analysis of my most recent book suffered by virtue of the frame within which it was carried out.
The most important issues raised in Mr. Bristow’s review as far as American Backlash is concerned are that “conclusions based solely on quantitative values tend to wilt under close historical examination” and that politics is the most meaningful expression of a culture. Mr. Bristow complains that values research is ahistorical and that there is “an arid detachment between the ﬁndings and the richness of experience they purport to represent.”
Here I would like to distinguish among different kinds of data used in my work. My colleagues and I begin with quantitative surveys of social values, but take great pains to put the values we ﬁnd among various kinds of Americans (men and women, young and old, residents of various regions) in the context of these Americans’ behaviour as citizens, employees, parents, consumers and spiritual beings. Some of these contextual data are found in census data and some in the work of other pollsters and social scientists.
When it comes to the interpretation of all these quantitative data (not just our own values data, but data on behaviour, consumption and so on), we make interpretive leaps into the worlds of history, literature, and popular culture. In effect, we move from the quantitative realm (of data collected by professionals) to the qualitative realm (of cultural phenomena and artifacts that constitute the environment in which we all live). We begin with values but we sure do not end there. I believe that vacuum-values, values never expressed in behaviour, do not exist and would not be very interesting if they did.
Like Mr. Bristow, I am fascinated with the political. For many people, however, political participation is an insigniﬁcant part of life. Voter turnout in U.S. presidential elections has been approaching half (at 60 percent, 2004 was a notable exception). While not everyone votes, everyone does have values—and values have an important hand in leading both voters and non- voters to their behaviour.
There is no question that a society’s politics can be very telling. But to focus on political outcomes to the exclusion of other kinds of sociocultural analysis is akin to sitting in a Toronto City Council meeting debating what Toronto is all about—and asking someone to close the door because Caribana, the Gay Pride Parade and the crowds of Kensington Market are making too much noise outside. For nations as for individuals, there is simply more to life.