Fewer Americans Believe America is the Greatest Country- Why?
I started this blog in 2016. On or around each July 4th I have commented upon the holiday and the United States of America. In perusing my earlier posts, I found that I the troubles facing our country while pointing out its strengths and successes. Those posts were “the glass is half full” variety, attempting to encourage my fellow citizens to get past our current struggles.
As I was researching a topic for 2022, I stumbled upon some interesting information. My generation of millennials is less patriotic than preceding ones, as Pew Research reported way back in 2013. It’s a stark contrast between us and our parents or grandparents, who not only are more patriotic but more direct about it. Interestingly, 11% of millennials believe that the U.S. is the greatest country in the world, much less than Gen X at 48%, Boomer at 50%, and Silent Generations at 64%.
Allow me to play armchair psychologist and postulate why. The further you go back, the less technology you have, leading to less information, less travel and less exposure to other cultures. By default, humanity tends towards in-group favoritism, and with fewer ways to challenge the assertions of your own government whether you want to or not, the values instilled in childhood and through the education system remain strong.
Let’s look at each generation polled in turn.
The Silent Generation (Americans born between 1928 and 1945) was raised by the so-called Greatest Generation, witnessing the Allied Victory in WWII very young. Immediately afterward, the Cold War began, with intense propaganda designed to set the U.S. against the Soviet Union and its leader “Uncle” Joe Stalin, our friend during WWII. The United States emerged as the undisputed global superpower with the fading of the British Empire, Europe blown to ruins, Latin America struggling with its own demagogues and dictators, vast swaths of Asia and Africa throwing off colonialism and Japan rebuilding.
The Baby boomers (Americans born between 1946 and 1964 or so) had a semi-idyllic childhood in the 1950s, provided you were middle class and white, with some exceptions for some minorities. By the time many Boomers reached double digits, teenage years or adulthood in the 1960s, the Civil Rights, Second Wave Feminism, Gay Rights, Hispanic/Chicano and Anti-War movements cracked the “Greatest Country Ever” argument. It wasn’t possible to ignore the suffering and underprivileged, a storm that had been under the 50’s deceptive calm. The Silent Generation who had fought, suffered and died for their country struggled to accept criticism from their offspring and the country’s youth, some of whom had more freedom and less responsibilities at college, experimenting with sex, drugs rock and roll.
Gen X (roughly consisting of Americans born in the early 1960s to early 1980s) witnessed the U.S.’s triumph over the Soviet Union as young adults, much like the Silent Generation’s front row seats to U.S. and Allied victory in WWII. The main existential threat to the United States had been defeated, shortly followed by the prosperous 90s, which saw a technological boom in the Internet and the creation of many companies. Although the so-called Culture War heated up, by and large the 90s were stable as Gen Xers pursued their careers and families.
Finally the much maligned Millennials (roughly consisting of Americans born in the early to mid 1980s to mid 1990s) had a prosperous initial 10–15 years of life, then 9/11 happened. The War on Terror and the Great Recession were anything but idyllic. Millennials became the guinea pigs for older generations’ mismanaged policies, at the same time the Internet, cell phones, air travel and other developments made the world even smaller. For instance, many Millennials, including myself, lived or worked in other countries whereas that would have only been possible in the military, Peace Corps or through family years ago. Furthermore, Millennials are quite educated yet struggle to achieve the American Dream, lagging behind previous cohorts in home ownership, wages, etc. arguably due to factors beyond their control.
As the Highland Park shooting this July 4th demonstrates, America seems like a less safe country for Millennials than it was for past generations due to the rash of violent mass shootings since the 1990s. Thankfully, another plot in Virginia was foiled, but it’s hard to get away from the feeling you aren’t safe anywhere anymore. These attacks came on the heels of Roe v. Wade’s overturn and several other massacres, which puts a bad taste in many millennials’ mouths.
In conclusion, why fewer Americans today than in the past believe the U.S. is the #1 country in the world is due to multiple factors:
1. Development of other nations. In 1945, the United States was like your friend who had a growth spurt in elementary school. He or she was far ahead of the pack, but by high school, their achievements don’t seem as impressive with many rivaling height and athleticism.
The Human Development Index (HDI) provides an empirical basis for this. Developed in 1990, the HDI “is a summary measure of average achievement in key dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life, being knowledgeable and have a decent standard of living. The HDI is the geometric mean of normalized indices for each of three dimensions.” In 1990, the HDI for all the countries in the world was .6, medium development. In 2019, it had risen to .737, high development. Can you imagine how low the HDI would have been in the early to middle 20th century?
2. Development of technology. When you have more tools at your disposal, it’s inevitable that many learn more and challenge taught beliefs. Of course the Internet, cell phones and the like can and do certainly spread misinformation, having access to them in a democratic society is a “genie out of the bottle” moment- it’s very hard to go back to the way things were before.
This technological boom is on the level of the printing press back in the 15th century. Before the printing press, printing a book was a painstakingly slow process done by hand, often by the educated and religious. With the invention, books could be copied and spread much quicker. Only three generations after its creation, what happened in Christian Europe? The Reformation, producing the many splinters of Christianity today and changing the trajectory of Western civilization. Pre printing press, many more believed in the Catholic Church’s moral supremacy. Afterward, not so much. To me, there’s a parallel with the U.S.
3. Earlier generations’ mistakes. As much as the old like to gripe about the young, and the young snipe back in kind, the old make decisions whose impact will outlive them. The Vietnam War, the War on Terror, the Great Recession and so forth affected subsequent generations far more than the decision makers, which ties into the final point.
4. Struggling more and achieving less. Younger Americans are typically more educated than older ones, and struggle to get a nice paying job, a home and a family. My father, a Boomer, has talked many times about the high paying manufacturing jobs he got without a college degree in the 70s and 80s. It’s far easier to be patriotic when you have a decent income and can get ahead early in life.
So what’s the takeaway? Aside from being inherently interesting to some, hopefully this analysis makes it clearer why there’s such a divide in this country.
We have to understand before we can heal the divide.