Polls are, at best, a snapshot of how the public thinks at any given time and we can take or leave them at times. Yet a couple of recent studies by the Pew Research Center show an interesting peek into the American psyche.
The first showed the number of Americans who think the United States “stands above all other countries” has fallen to 28 percent from 38 percent three years ago. Now, 58 percent say the U.S. is merely “one of the greatest countries.”
This from a people who have thought themselves unique from the start. No other nation has formed from such a diverse group of expatriates, who set a new standard of liberty and self-government on an expansive continent teeming with natural resources and beauty.
Yet many Americans now don’t believe we’re that big of a deal. That even goes for those who wave the flag hardest; the Pew poll showed only 37 percent of Republicans believe our country remains great, down 15 points from 2011.
Much of this likely is political. If the guy in the White House or those controlling Congress don’t meet some folks’ views of what America should be, they feel the whole national endeavor is compromised. Many believe President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats have violated the ideals we hold dear. Many Democrats felt the same when George W. Bush and the GOP held power.
While a good chunk of the electorate may disagree with the party in power at any given time, it’s a shame to see partisan politics trump patriotism. Even when the people in charge don’t measure up, we can take solace in the fact our Constitution ensures a transfer of power soon enough.
A divided America also has a somewhat subjective view of freedom: freedom “from,” as one side believes, and freedom “to,” from the other camp.
Pew shows Americans’ satisfaction with their freedom down 12 percentage points, 36th in the world. Thus, the nation that founded the very idea of modern liberty now isn’t sure it’s still practiced here.
The study also showed only 15 percent of young Americans, ages 18 to 29, believe their nation is superior to others. That’s a drop of 27 percent in three years.
So if we can blame the ebb and flow of politics for why many are down on the Red, White and Blue, at least temporarily, why is the younger generation so pessimistic about their country?
A second Pew poll might shed light on that. It found that 10 percent of U.S. residents are completely disengaged from politics, referred to as “bystanders.” People in this group have not registered to vote, do not follow government or public affairs news and have not contributed to a political campaign. It comes as little surprise to find that most of them are young, 38 percent under age 30. Nearly a third are Hispanic or foreign born.
When polled as to what topics interest them most, bystanders aren’t really into government, business or political news, but they do love stories about celebrities and entertainment, and 35 percent are considered video or computer “gamers.”
On the surface, this would confirm the stereotype of the millennial “slackers” more focused on self-absorbed forms of leisure than taking part in more grown-up interests in society at large. Whether fair or not, it’s clear from the Pew study that a large percentage of younger Americans aren’t as civic-minded as their parents and grandparents.
No doubt, the fact older Americans vote in greater numbers is reflected by policies that cater specifically to the needs of their generation. The squeaky wheels get the grease.
So what’s the takeaway from this? Are younger Americans failing their country or is it the other way around? If our political system encouraged and rewarded their participation, would more of them get involved? It’s likely many have dialed out of the process because of that lament we hear so often: “My vote doesn’t matter.”
We need to make their efforts matter again, and again lift our nation to a special status in their eyes. We get out of it what we put in, no more.
For those in Georgia, that begins with Tuesday’s primary runoff election. Granted, there aren’t a lot of races on the ballot; Hall County has one contested Republican seat on the school board, an important post in determining education policy and spending. And note that the runoff was determined by only a few votes in the May primary, proving all votes indeed count.
There also are runoffs for the GOP nominee for the U.S. Senate, in both parties for state school superintendent and scattered other Congressional and local races statewide. For those who believe our national leaders have let us down, here is a chance to do something about it and choose a different direction.
We still believe the United States is an exceptional nation, home to a high standard of living, one that can rise even higher. Our political disagreements are, to some degree, an offshoot of our freedoms and our willingness to discuss our views openly and fully. But when the dust settles, we need to come together to keep our homeland strong.
Someday, that generation of video game players is going to take over as American leaders. Let’s all do our part to stay engaged now and in the future so the country we hand to them is still the exceptional place most of us believe it to be.