Politics, patriotism, and government reform

Recent polls examine how Americans see their nation

Created date

September 27th, 2019
Recent polls examine how Americans see their nation.

Recent polls examine how Americans see their nation

With the 2020 election a year away, it’s far too early to predict who will be up or who will be down next November. It is equally difficult to gauge which direction the country is headed in. 

On everything from health care to immigration to trade, Americans are divided, but they do agree on one thing…the country is in dire need of government reform. 

Dissatisfaction with government has been an enduring crowd-pleaser along the campaign trail—especially for the minority party. Historically speaking, Republicans strongly favor government reform when Democrats are in power while Democrats demand reform when the GOP is on top. 

However, as the 2020 election approaches, even this long-standing convention has been upended. According to the Brookings Institution, most of Americans, regardless of party affiliation, geographic location, gender, or race, believe that our current system needs to be changed. 

At a presentation about the study he wrote, NYU professor Paul Light said, “We have seen a very clear change in demand for reform over the last 10 to 15 years. In 1997, when the question ‘How much reform does the federal government need?’ was first asked, about 37% said, ‘Very major.’ In the latest survey, that number had risen to the low 60 percentile.” 

The question that emerges from this study is what kind of reform does the public want to see? For some, reform means smaller government and fewer services. For others, reform means expanding the role of government. 

As Light sees it, this question will be central to the upcoming election. 

Why is reform needed?

Another survey conducted by the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research echoed the findings of the Brookings report. It found that 54% of those surveyed believe the government needs major reform, with another 12% saying they believe our current system needs to be completely overhauled.

“The poll reveals that voters do not trust government to follow through, and it’s not meeting their expectations. This lack of trust and lack of performance relates to larger concerns about the state of American democracy,” says William Howell, professor of American politics at the University of Chicago. “While Americans broadly think that government should play an active role in attending to our nation’s challenges—including terrorism, promoting economic and job growth, addressing climate change, and improving access to health care—few voters are satisfied with its performance. There’s a real opening here for political candidates to address people’s desire for systemic change.”

American pride

There is little doubt that this general dissatisfaction with government is impacting how Americans feel about their country. A Gallup poll released in July showed that American patriotism is at an all-time low. 

In 2003, 70% of respondents said they were extremely proud to be an American. In 2019, only 47% of respondents felt that way. 

When you look at the numbers by age group, older people expressed much more pride than younger people, with 63% of people over the age of 65 saying they are extremely proud. 

Only 24% of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 felt proud to be American.

As for what makes them proud, 91% of respondents are proud of the nation’s scientific achievements, 89% are proud of the U.S military, and 85% are proud of American culture and arts.

Only 32% said they were proud of the American political system. 

A question of trust

What’s at the heart of all these negative viewpoints? For many, it’s a question of trust. A Pew Research Center survey found that three-quarters of respondents said they believed that trust in the American government is shrinking. 

“Many people no longer think the federal government can actually be a force for good or change in their lives,” said one Pew survey respondent. “This kind of apathy and disengagement will lead to an even worse and less representative government.”

Sixty-nine percent believe the federal government withholds important information from the public, and 61% say the news media ignores important stories. 

“As a democracy founded on the principle of e pluribus unum,” said another Pew respondent, “the fact that we are divided and can’t trust sound facts means we have lost our confidence in each other.”

On the bright side, however, 84% of respondents believe that confidence in the government can be rebuilt, and 68% say that doing so is very important.

One Pew respondent put it this way: “Trust is the glue that binds humans together. Without it, we cooperate with one another less, and variables in our overall quality of life are affected.”