Here's How Americans Feel About How Great America Is

March 28th 2015

Kathleen Toohill

American exceptionalism: it’s a term embedded in the American consciousness, yet when it comes to the question of how America differs from other countries, few rely on evidence-based answers, instead falling back on platitudes about freedom and democracy. Recently released data from the Pew Research Center illuminates at least part of the answer to this question—Pew's report demonstrates a number of significant divergences between the level of optimism and determinism among Americans as compared to the citizens of 43 other nations.

These statistics could be considered somewhat surprising, given data that indicates stagnant economic mobility, rising costs of higher education, and a widening wealth gap. But this attitudinal trend holds fast even for Millennials—as ATTN: covered last month, Pew reported that American Millennials possess more of a sense of agency and optimism than European Millennials. Pew found that only 43 percent of Americans agree with the statement that "success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control," while anywhere from 48 to 63 percent of Millennials in six European countries agreed with this statement.

According to Pew's March report, 57 percent of Americans are more likely to disagree with the statement that “success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control,” as compared to, for example, only 27 percent of Indians and 31 percent of Germans who disagree with this statement. 

Additionally, 73 percent of Americans believe that the importance of “working hard to get ahead in life” ranks as a ten on a scale of one to ten. On the other hand, only 28 percent of Indonesians and 60 percent of United Kingdom residents ranked working hard as a ten out of ten in importance.  

Americans Stand Out on Individualism

“The differences between America and other nations have long been a subject of fascination and study for social scientists,” writes George Gao in the introduction to Pew's March report, “dating back to Alexis de Tocqueville, the early 19th century French political thinker who described the United States as ‘exceptional.’ Nearly 200 years later, Americans’ emphasis on individualism and work ethic stands out in surveys of people around the world.” 

While America’s history and form of government are undeniably intertwined with a propensity toward a belief in hard work and the self-made man, the concept of American exceptionalism is loaded and ambiguous and often connotes a belief in American superiority. The tendency of Americans to emphasize their differences from citizens of other nations can pose a wide array of problems, from refusal on the part of many politicians to bluntly address the ways in which American society isn’t measuring up (for example, mass incarceration or the gender pay gap) to a growing movement to revise American history and whitewash its less flattering elements.

The dangers posed by exceptionalist thinking.

American Dream

The phrase “American exceptionalism” often appears in the midst of grandiose language suggesting that America is peerless among nations, language which has little room for nuance or subtlety. Here’s the Republican National Committee’s take on American exceptionalism:  "Professing American exceptionalism – the conviction that our country holds a unique place and role in human history – we proudly associate ourselves with those Americans of all political stripes who, more than three decades ago in a world as dangerous as today’s, came together to advance the cause of freedom." 

The statement continues: "While the twentieth century was undeniably an American century – with strong leadership, adherence to the principles of freedom and democracy our Founders’ enshrined in our nation’s Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and a continued reliance on Divine Providence – the twenty-first century will be one of American greatness as well."

What potential problems lurk within this language (besides a misplaced apostrophe)? Optimism is certainly not a negative personality trait, whether for an individual or a society, and neither is confidence. But taken too far, optimism becomes blindness to shortcomings and confidence becomes arrogance. Modern American exceptionalism is often narrow-minded, loath to acknowledge faults, and quick to champion victories, no matter on whose backs these victories were achieved.

On the other side of the aisle, President Obama famously addressed the subject of American exceptionalism in a 2009 news conference when he said he believed in American exceptionalism "just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." This answer drew criticism for years from Republicans for being watered-down support. It was even an issue three years later during the president's 2012 re-election campaign against Mitt Romney.

Last year, however, the president gave an unequivocal endorsement of American exceptionalism: 

"I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being. But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it is our willingness to affirm them through our actions."

A New York Times op-ed from 2012 describes American exceptionalism as an “opiate” that often prevents honest dialogue about our country’s failings, especially in the lead-up to a presidential election. In it, Scott Shane lists numerous less-than-rousing statistics about America. Shane imagines a hypothetical presidential candidate, having discarded his or her rose-colored glasses, using these statistics in a speech:

"How far would this truth-telling candidate get? Nowhere fast. Such a candidate is, in fact, all but unimaginable in our political culture. Of their serious presidential candidates, and even of their presidents, Americans demand constant reassurance that their country, their achievements and their values are extraordinary." 

Shane pointed readers towards the blog “Ranking America,” which illustrates how America stacks up against other nations in a wide range of categories. A post from January 2015, based on Pew data, ranks America 19th out of of 44 countries in terms of the percentage of people who reported that they were “satisfied with the way things are going.” A mere 33 percent of Americans reported satisfaction, as compared to, for example, 59 percent of Germans.

It may be that Millennials are more attuned to America's shortcomings than members of older generations —a Pew study from 2013 found that only 32 percent of Millennials think that America is the greatest country in the world, as compared to 48 percent of Gen X, 50 percent of Boomers, and 64 percent of the Silent Generation.  

William Galston argues in The Wall Street Journal that the United States does, in fact, differ from other developed nations in one significant way: religion. Galston writes, "The durability of American religious belief refutes the once-canonical thesis that modernization and secularization necessarily go hand in hand."

Galston’s argument, which references Pew data indicating that 73 percent of American adults believe that Jesus was born to a virgin, suggests that enduring Christianity is the characteristic that is most unique about our nation.

Exceptionalism and history: then and now.

American Flag Kid

In a Los Angeles Times op-ed, Columbia history professor Karl Jacoby argues that, although Alexis de Tocqueville found America exceptional in the 1830s, largely because of its lack of feudal tradition, he also "worried that the nation's fixation with egalitarianism encouraged mediocrity and anti-intellectualism.”

The specific phrase “American exceptionalism,” writes Jacoby, originated in the 1920s, “as American leftists, many of them associated with the Soviet-led Communist International, struggled to explain why the United States, the world's leading industrial economy, had not embraced communism, as the Marxist theory of history would seem to predict. For those who used it, the phrase was a term of derision, suggesting that there was something defective about the U.S. that prevented it from ushering in a glorious proletariat revolution.” 

This term, now often used interchangeably with “American superiority,” has become the rallying cry of those who want to change the AP American History curriculum. The proponents of the altered curriculum want, among other things, to de-emphasize the negative effects of policies such as Manifest Destiny (the 19th century's relentless charge westward at the expense of existing native populations) and instead focus on Manifest Destiny’s “democratic aspects.”  

“Many times, history has been used as a tool of indoctrination, designed to teach blind authority to the powers that be,” writes Jacoby. “It would be sad if today's renewed preoccupation with American exceptionalism ends up sacrificing the freedom it purports to be preserving for a similarly fixed and incurious vision of the world.”

When it comes to evaluating America's past and present, seeing the world in black and white, or through rose-colored glasses, can impede honest evaluation—you may even find that shades and nuance enrich, rather than detract from, the whole picture.