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Young Love of Country

The numbers say it all: Younger Americans are a lot less proud of their country.

Karlyn Bowman, Stephanie Dodd

In a Harvard Institute of Politics (IOP) poll of young people taken in the spring of 2020, more 18–29 year olds identified themselves as a “patriot” (33 percent) than identified themselves as a “capitalist” (29 percent), a “democratic socialist” (26 percent), or a “socialist” (15 percent). In another question in the poll, 62 percent of 18–29 year olds said they considered themselves “very” or “somewhat” patriotic, while 37 percent said they were not.

The pollsters’ standard category of 18–29 year olds includes the youngest millennials and the oldest members of Gen Z.

In another survey, done in the fall of 2020, the IOP asked young people whether they were proud or embarrassed to be American. As Table 1 shows, 48 percent of 18–29 year olds said they were very or somewhat proud, while 28 percent were somewhat or very embarrassed. Young whites (54 percent) were more likely than young Blacks (41 percent) and young Hispanics (44 percent) to describe themselves as “proud.” Young men were more likely than young women to describe themselves as “proud,” and a chasm separated young Republicans, with 84 percent “proud,” from Democrats, with 33 percent “proud.”

Table 1

Proud or Embarressed?

Q: Which of the following best describes you (18-29 year olds)?

Note: Online sample includes respondents from a probability-based panel and non-probability opt-in panel.
Source: Havard Institute of Politics/Ipsos, September 23-October 11, 2020.
18-29 Year Olds All Whites Blacks Hispanics Democrats Republicans
Very proud 29% 35% 23% 25% 15% 63%
Somewhat proud 19% 19% 18% 19% 18% 21%
Neither proud nor embarrassed 22% 17% 31% 28% 24% 10%
Somewhat embarrassed 17% 18% 14% 13% 26% 5%
Very embarrassed 11% 10% 12% 11% 16% 2%

Patriotism isn’t a subject that most pollsters inquire about regularly, and many questions are of the broad “How-patriotic-are-you?” variety. The few long-term trends that we see on these broader questions from pollsters like Gallup and Pew generally show that young people are less likely than their elders to profess patriotism.

The Pew Research Center, in fourteen identically worded questions between 1987 and 2012, asked people about the extent of their agreement with this statement: “I am very patriotic.” In each case, young people were less likely than their elders to agree, although agreement was strong for all groups. In 1987, 83 percent of 18–29 year olds agreed that they were very patriotic; in 2012, the last year in which the question was asked, 78 percent agreed. Professed patriotism rose briefly for all age groups after the Gulf War in 1991 and again after 9/11.

Since 2001, Gallup has asked people a five-part question about whether they are extremely, very, moderately, only a little, or not proud at all to be an American. In that time, intense pride has dropped for all age cohorts; but in the past few years the drop has been especially steep for the young. There is some indication from the polls that the sharp decline among young people in recent years is related to Donald Trump. In a summer 2020 Yahoo News/YouGov online poll, more young people than members of any other age group said he made them embarrassed about America. In that year’s fall IOP poll, when young people were asked in an open-ended question why they were proud or embarrassed to be an American, the surveyors coded “Trump/Trump’s leadership” as one of the top responses.

Although the data are too limited to allow us to say why young people are less likely than their elders to be patriotic or to express patriotic sentiments, the surveys provide some hints. In the Yahoo News poll, 34 percent of 18–29 year olds described themselves as patriotic; 30 percent did not. After that, there was a straight age progression of positive patriotic sentiments. The “patriotic” responses for 30–44 year olds were 52 percent “yes” and 39 percent “no,” respectively. For 45–64 year olds, it was 71 and 13 percent; and for those 65 and over, the numbers were 83 percent to 8 percent.

Significantly, far more young people answered “not sure” than did any other age group.

Positive feelings about patriotism may increase with age. In Gallup’s 2020 data, seniors, some of whom had been the young radicals of the 1960s generation, were the most patriotic age segment. Beginning with the Cold War, the baby boom generation has watched a resilient country confront and surmount many challenges.  In contrast, the youngest of the millennials and the oldest of Gen Z have not lived through quite so many experiences that could prompt patriotic sentiment.

People’s place in the life cycle may also contribute to young people’s generally less robust patriotic sentiment. When you’re young, you are eager to see change and want action to address problems. In the Yahoo News poll, when people were asked which of two phrases best described what patriotism meant to them, young people were more likely than any other age group to choose “pushing America to be a better country” and least likely to choose “loving America just the way it is.”

Yet another possible explanation comes from the milieu that young people inhabit. In the Yahoo News poll, when asked whether they would describe America as an “exceptional country” worthy of “universal admiration” or as a country “with its own strengths and weaknesses, much like other countries,” 18–29 year olds were least likely to choose the former; instead, 69 percent chose the latter.  In contrast, 63 percent of those aged 30–44 chose a country like any other, as did 57 percent of 55–64 year olds and only 49 percent of those 65 and older.

Young people today are part of a global youth culture linked in terms of music, movies, fashion, and tech. Previous generations’ views about borders and nations may seem old-fashioned and out of date. Similarly, millennial and Gen Z Americans are much more racially and ethnically diverse than their elders; it is possible that expressions of patriotism are not as robust for younger people who are foreign-born or have roots in other cultures.

The young often lead change. Being aware of the current demography and attitudes of the millennial and Gen Z generations is important, since these features will continue to anchor them as they grow older. What we don’t know and what makes generational profiles difficult is how their attitudes may change—and how the world may change them—as they age.

Karlyn Bowman, a baby boomer, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Stephanie Dodd, a member of Gen Z, is an intern at AEI and a senior at Duke University.


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