Polls Show Americans Downcast About State of the Country

Two recent polls whose release bracketed an Independence Day celebration shattered by yet another mass shooting show a United States in which trust in major institutions has fallen to all-time lows.

Fewer citizens report being extremely proud of their country than at any time in the past 20 years.

Together, these two surveys — both conducted by the Gallup organization — paint a picture of a country that seems to have lost some of its confidence not just in specific institutions but in itself more broadly.

The first of the surveys, released last week, found that only 38% of respondents reported feeling “extremely proud” of being American. That’s down 5% from a year ago, and down 20 percentage points from 2009, when 58% described themselves as extremely proud. As recently as 2003, the percentage reached 70%.

However, an additional 27% of current respondents reported being “very proud” of their country, meaning that in total, 65% of respondents had significantly positive feelings about being American. Still, that figure was down considerably from past measurements. In 2004, for example, the combined percentage of Americans reporting they were “extremely” or “very” proud of their citizenship stood at 91%.

Partisan differences

According to Gallup’s data, Republicans have consistently reported feelings of extreme pride in their country at higher rates than Democrats and independents. That  remained the case in this survey, with 58% of Republicans indicating extreme pride, 34% of independents, and just 26% of Democrats.

Democrats in this year’s poll were above their lowest level, 22%, which was recorded in 2019. But Republicans and independents both reported extreme pride at the lowest level in the 21 years Gallup has been asking the question.

In general, men were more likely than women to report feeling extremely or very proud to be American, by a margin of 72% to 60%. The response was also significantly different across age groups. A full 80% of those 55 and older reported being either extremely proud or very proud. Among those between 35 and 54, the percentage was 64%. For those between 18 and 34, however, the total was just 48%.

Declining trust in institutions

On Monday, Gallup released its annual survey of Americans’ confidence in society’s major institutions, including the federal government, the military, schools, businesses and other key sectors of society. The news was not encouraging.

The poll, according to Gallup, recorded “record low” confidence across society as a whole. Across the 16 categories polled, the survey showed sharp declines in 11, moderate declines in four more, and one unchanged. Confidence did not increase in any of them.

The sharpest decline was in people expressing either “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the presidency, which fell from an already low 38% last year, to just 23% this year. The 15% drop matches the decline found in other polls in President Joe Biden’s approval ratings over the same period.

Supreme Court confidence

The next largest decline was in confidence felt in the Supreme Court. Last year, 36% of respondents said they had either “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the high court. This year, the figure fell to 25%.

The poll was conducted before the Supreme Court issued a spate of controversial rulings, including the elimination of a constitutional right to abortion, the overturning of a New York law restricting the ability of individuals to carry concealed firearms, and blocking the Environmental Protection Agency from taking some measures to regulate greenhouse gases.

It is difficult to estimate how much those rulings would have affected the court’s ratings, because while they were decried by many on the political left, they were also praised by many on the political right. A leaked draft of the Supreme Court abortion decision had been released prior to the poll, which may also have affected the results.

Other institutions

Congress remains the institution Americans trust the least, with those expressing high levels of confidence falling from 15% last year to single digits — just 7% in 2023.

The police (45%), the medical system (38%), organized religion (31%), banks (27%) and the criminal justice system (14%) all saw their ratings decline by 6% year over year.

The survey also showed a decline in trust in journalism organizations. The percentage of respondents reporting high levels of trust in newspapers fell to 16% from 21% last year. Things were worse for television news, with high levels of confidence falling to 11% from 16%.

The only institution that did not see a decline in the public’s confidence was organized labor. But even there, the news wasn’t exactly good, as the confidence level sat at just 28%.

‘Decrepit’ politics

John Halpin, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning think tank, told VOA in an email that the Gallup findings are representative of a long-term trend.

“This is not just a recent phenomenon,” he wrote. “Americans have concluded that many of the major institutions in American society are either corrupted or rotten and have failed to address the country’s biggest challenges. The 2008 financial crisis, the war in Iraq, economic and regional inequality, and the rise in extremist politics have all contributed to a heightened sense of institutional decline.”

The “decrepit state of our politics” is the biggest driver of negative feelings about the country, Halpin said.

“Americans have little to no faith that the two major political parties are capable of brokering some consensus course to get us back on track and fix a range of problems from inequality and poverty to immigration and crime,” he said. “One party comes in and does a few things that make their voters happy but leaves others steaming mad. Then it switches for a while with the roles and emotions reversed.”

Narrative competition

Ian Rowe, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank, told VOA he believes much of the decline in citizens’ sentiment about the U.S. is due to a dominant cultural narrative that focuses on the country’s flaws.

In recent years, he said, “There’s been a pretty strong drumbeat that the country is inherently oppressive, certainly based on race or gender or other superficial characteristics. So, I think that narrative is taking its toll.”

To counteract that trend, he said, “Those of us who have a counter opinion need to have the courage to actually say these things out loud. That America’s institutions are important, still matter, and to some degree, have the tools of self-betterment and self-renewal built within them.”

He added, “That’s why we’ve been able to move from the Declaration of Independence at a time of slavery to the Constitution, to the amendments, the Bill of Rights. All of these things have allowed the country to continue to improve, and I think more of us need to stand up for that.”