American Patriotism in 2010

How patriotic are Americans? The answer is simple and straightforward. Americans love their country and aren't afraid to say so. Americans would rather live in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world, and they still believe the fundamental structure of our democratic system is sound. But American patriotism is not of the knee-jerk or blind variety. They are vocal in their criticisms, and right now, are deeply dissatisfied and frustrated with the way things are going in the country.

Patriotic attitudes are generally very stable. In a question Gallup asked in January 2001, 87% said they were "extremely" or "very" proud to be American. When Pew repeated the identical question last year, 86% gave that response. In 2001 and 2009, only 1% said they were "not at all proud." The 9/11 tragedy produced more overt displays of patriotism and heightened sentiment, but responses soon returned to the norm.

When the Pew Research Center asked people last year to agree or disagree with the statement "I am very patriotic," 54% "completely" agreed with it and another 34% did so "moderately," for 88% overall agreement In 1987, when Pew asked this question for the first time, 89% agreed. Pew notes that there has been little variation in responses in more than a dozen iterations of the question.

Two new polls this week show that around two-thirds of Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country today, and many other surveys reveal deep anxiety. But the fundamental structure seems sound to most people.

There are some interesting differences among subgroups in the population. Young people are less likely than older ones to express strong patriotic sentiment. Patriotism, in other words, may come with age. Black Americans' attitudes have become more positive about many aspects of society since Barack Obama became president, but there has been little change in the willingness of blacks to express strong patriotism. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say they are very patriotic.

Pollsters also ask people about the patriotism of their countrymen. In a Pew question from 2010, one-third said they were more patriotic than their fellow citizens, but a clear majority, 59%, said they were about as patriotic. Only 6% considered themselves less so.

Americans' patriotism is steadfast in part because they believe they have the best system of government in the world. In 2007, during the divisive Iraq war, a pollster asked people about the statement, "Whatever its faults, the United States still has the best system of government in the world." Eighty-one percent agreed. That response is very similar to the one ABC got when it first asked this question in 1992 (85%).

Americans are very critical today of the performance of many of our central institutions. Two new polls this week show that around two-thirds of Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country today, and many other surveys reveal deep anxiety. But the fundamental structure seems sound to most people.

In his travels in the United States in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville described America as exceptional, or qualitatively different; the surveys bear this out. In World Values Surveys, Americans are more likely than people in most other countries to say that they are very patriotic, and more people in the U.S. than elsewhere say they prefer to live in their home country.

In 1948 Gallup asked people whether they would live in another country if they were free to do so, and only 3% said they would. In a 2009 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics question, 7% said another country would be a better place to live than the U.S. Ninety percent said the U.S. was the best place to live. Not a bad run.

A 1983 question from The New York Times that hasn't been repeated since asked people whether you actually have to do something to be patriotic or whether it is enough to love one's country. One-third said a person had to do something, but two-thirds said it was enough to love one's country. When asked what kind of acts would be demonstrations of patriotism, large majorities answered voting, joining in the singing of The Star Spangled Banner and serving in the military or on a jury.

After 9/11 around 80% of Americans told pollsters that they flew the flag. A few years later around 60% gave that response. A shock like 9/11 can produce more intense patriotism, but the ordinary everyday variety of American patriotism appears very durable indeed.

Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.

Photo credit: istockphoto/BRANDON JENNINGS

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