Charting the Most Important Findings in American Life in 2021
My Top 10 Most Compelling Charts and Figures in 2021
It’s been an incredibly busy year—the first full year the Survey Center on American Life has been up and operating. We’ve conducted surveys that identified concerning levels of support for political violence, the religious tinge to conspiracy theories, and a nationwide friendship recession. I’m grateful to everyone who follows our work. If you value this work, please tell your friends or family members to subscribe to this newsletter, or follow us on Twitter and Facebook. There’s lots more to come in 2022!
To round out the year, I’m sharing my top 10 list of the most revealing and arresting charts documenting changes to American life in 2021. Although many of these are based on our own survey work, we do not have a monopoly on producing insightful charts and compelling visualizations, so I included a few other sources as well.
#1 American Men Experience a Friendship Recession
Our top finding of the year may have inspired the Saturday Night Live skit “Man Park," in which men in relationships finally find an outlet for their obsession with IPAs and Marvel movies, besides their wives and girlfriends. Jokes aside, our research found that American men are facing a severe decline in social support, particularly in their number of close friends. As we note in our analysis: “Thirty years ago, a majority of men (55 percent) reported having at least six close friends. Today, that number has been cut in half. Slightly more than one in four (27 percent) men have six or more close friends today. Fifteen percent of men have no close friendships at all, a fivefold increase since 1990.”
#2 White Evangelicals Embrace Political Conspiracies
Whether it’s voter fraud in the 2020 election or QAnon, white evangelical Protestants appear distinctly likely to embrace conspiracy theories. Even among Republicans, white evangelical Protestants have shown a greater propensity to traffic in specious claims, such as the belief that Antifa was primarily responsible for the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. This may partially be due to the lack of exposure white evangelical Protestants have to people whose politics differ from their own. White evangelical Republicans are far more likely than other Republicans to live in a political bubble.
#3 An Acceleration of America’s Religious Decline
It’s probably time to stop thinking about America’s declining religious landscape as a slow-moving demographic change. The Pew Research Center revealed a drop of 12 points in Christian identity over the last 10 years. Twenty-nine percent of Americans are now religiously unaffiliated. This is a massive, culturally-redefining shift moving at freight-train speed, and is definitely a trend to watch in 2022.
#4 An Education Gap in Community Activity
As the cost of college skyrockets, many Americans have been left pondering the efficacy of a college education. While tuition and salary potential are at the forefront of most college debates, the benefits of a degree are not purely financial. Americans with a college degree are also afforded a host of social benefits. In fact, college graduates are much more active in their communities compared to those with no college education. And given the often-stark financial disparities between those with a degree and those without, it is notable that the education divide is apparent in public community spaces, such as libraries and parks, too.
#5 A Belief and Belonging Paradox?
Religious doubting is far more common among Americans with more years of formal education. Less than half (44 percent) of Americans with a post-graduate education say they are certain that God exists, while 59 percent of those with no college education express certainty in God’s existence. Despite this gap, college graduates are actually more likely to belong to a church or congregation, a divide that has grown larger in recent years.
#6 The Power of Political Diversity
In “Our Radicalized Republic,” FiveThirtyEight’s Maggie Koerth and Amelia Thomson-Deveaux show that political diversity may matter more than racial diversity in changing the way white Americans perceive racial discrimination. They write: “many Americans (particularly white Americans) float in circles where they never have meaningful interactions with people of different racial or ethnic backgrounds.” But they note that “it’s a lack of political diversity that, perhaps surprisingly, seems to have the biggest impact on views on issues like race. Republicans who knew a Black person in their close social circle didn’t have more progressive views on racial discrimination than other Republicans. But Republicans who were friends with a Biden supporter responded to questions about race very differently.”
#7 What it Means to Be a Best Friend
Our social lives may have taken a beating this year, but there were still some bright spots. Even amidst a friendship recession, most Americans can still count on their best friend during tough times. Fifty-nine percent of Americans report having someone they consider to be their best friend. But what does this label mean? What does it take for someone to become your best friend? We asked the public this very question and allowed them to answer in their own words. It turns out that dependability and longevity are key. When we asked those with best friends to describe why this person is their best friend, the word “always” occurred more frequently in the responses than any other.
#8 Politics, Peer Pressure, and Vaccines
Throughout the past year, the COVID-19 vaccine became a divisive partisan issue. Even now, Republicans are far less likely to have gotten vaccinated than Democrats, and Trump-voting counties are faring far worse in the pandemic than those that supported Biden. But it’s not all about politics—the people in our lives play an incredibly important role in the decisions we make, particularly when they affect the people around us. I wrote in FiveThirtyEight earlier this year that having a close friend who is vaccinated greatly increases our own odds of getting the vaccine. This is true for Republicans and Democrats alike. “Ninety-three percent of Republicans whose friends were at least partially vaccinated had also been vaccinated. By contrast, only 19 percent of Republicans with just a few or no friends who were partially vaccinated said that they had gotten the jab.”
#9 Republicans and Democrats Actually Agree About Race in Public Schools
The debate over Critical Race Theory (CRT) reached a fever pitch in 2021, featuring prominently in the Virginia Governor’s race. But despite the fierce public debates over CRT in school board meetings across the country, we found that most Americans generally agree on how sensitive issues, such as race, should be taught in public schools. Overwhelming majorities of Republicans and Democrats believe that students should learn that many of the founders were slave owners, about the mistreatment of Native Peoples by the federal government, and about Japanese internment during World War 2. There is also bipartisan agreement about whether students should learn that slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War.
#10 Church Membership Falls Below Majority
The COVID-19 pandemic sent many churches and places of worship scrambling to figure out how to manage remote worship. Despite some impressive efforts and innovative approaches, the pandemic may have taken a toll on church rosters. In 2021, Gallup reported that for the first time, less than half (47 percent) of the public reports belonging to a church, synagogue, or mosque. Although in-person activities will begin again at some point if they haven’t already, it’s not certain whether membership rolls will ever recover.
If you enjoy charts and data visualizations but don’t want to read through a 30-page report, check out the new feature on the Survey Center’s homepage: Facts & Figures. We will be introducing new charts and visualizations every week accompanied by a brief explanation.