A person’s life can be shaped in very particular ways by the specific set of moments in history that he or she has lived through. And, according to new data, Americans believe that one such event had a bigger impact on their lives today—and on the country as a whole—than any other.
The vast majority of Americans asked to name important historic events in their lifetimes rated the attacks that took place on Sept. 11, 2001, as one of the most significant such moments, in a new survey conducted by Pew Research Center in partnership with A+E Networks’ HISTORY channel for the documentary This Is History: 2016, which airs on Dec. 19.
The survey asked respondents to list 10 historic events that occurred during their lifetimes that they thought “have had the greatest impact on the country.” In response, 9/11 was listed by roughly 76% of the public — including majorities of men and women, in every region of the country and across every generation surveyed (Millennials, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Silent Generation). The poll was conducted between June 16 and July 4 and sampled 2,025 adults.
However, when the lists are collated by race rather than age, region or gender, a difference does emerge: while the Sept. 11th attacks topped lists made by white respondents, the 2008 election of President Barack Obama topped lists made by African-Americans, though by a small enough amount that the two events were essentially tied. The runner-up among all respondents was the election of Barack Obama to the presidency (listed by 40%).
The data also reveal that a person’s age at the time of the event in question can shape their opinion of its significance—perhaps an unsurprising finding given that the poll specifically questioned respondents about events they had personally lived through.
“The survey finds that Americans are primarily bound together by their generation and the major events that occurred during their formative years,” the report states. “For the oldest Americans, the Silent and Greatest generations, that unifying event is World War II. For Baby Boomers, the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the Vietnam War are defining moments. For Millennials and Gen Xers, the 9/11 terror attacks and the Obama election leads the list by a greater margin than for other generations.”
In addition, the fact that Republicans and Democrats alike listed 9/11 as one of the most significant events—despite likely divergent opinions on policy solutions to fighting terrorism—represents “a fragile base of unity in the middle of our political polarization,” argues Claudia Deane, Vice President of Research at Pew Research Center.
“We’re not divided in what we think is important,” she says. “We’re just divided in what we should do about it.”
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