Are America’s Best Days Behind Us?

NEW YORK , N.Y. – November 17, 2010 – As we near the end of the first decade of the new millennium, it’s a good time to take stock of Americans’ feelings about the United States’ past, and how they see its future. While strong majorities say that living under a system of guaranteed individual freedom, hard working people, allowing people to own private property and giving people the chance to go freely from one place to another were major contributors in making America great (between 71% and 76% of Americans say so for each), fewer U.S. adults agree that these will be major contributors to making America great in the next 10 years (between 58% and 68% say so for each).

These are some of the results of The Harris Poll of 3,084 adults surveyed online between October 11 and 18, 2010.

In fact, of the 24 attributes discussed, Americans believe that the majority of what made America great in the past will be of less importance in the future. More specifically:

  • Americans feel that various forms of diversity, openness and inclusion made America great in the past-two thirds say so for giving every race and creed an equal chance to get ahead (65%) and over half say so for people of different racial and religious backgrounds (58%) and people of different ideas representing the rights of others (54%). Fewer Americans, however, say that these will make America great in the future (57%, 50% and 48% say so, respectively).
  • Additionally, despite many Americans relying on technology to lead their daily lives, fewer adults say that frequent technological innovations and industrial know-how and scientific progress will be as major a contributor to making America great in the future (59% and 60%), as they were in the past (64% and 67%).
  • One of the most surprising changes, is that, despite some Americans’ sour feelings regarding jobs being sent abroad and the notion that our country is falling behind other nations, the majority of Americans say hard working people and free unlimited education to all qualified will be less important to America’s future, than it was in making America great in the past (these attributes dropped by 7 and 4 percentage points, respectively).
  • While it’s clear that, of the list provided, the majority of Americans think that most attributes will be less significant to making America great in the future, there are a few notable exceptions. More Americans say that being able to get along with other countries will be a major contributor to making America great in the future (47%) than say it was a factor in the past (43%).
  • And, possibly related to the idea of international diplomacy, more Americans say that outstanding political leaders will be of greater significance to making the country great in the future (41%) than said so about the past (33%).
  • Lastly, America’s recent financial crisis which resulted in taxpayers bailing out several big businesses and many Americans losing their jobs, might be the catalyst for more people saying that a government that regulates business abuses (36%) and one that looks after the less fortunate (35%), will be more important going forward, than they were previously (31% and 34% respectively).

Although most Americans say that many of the attributes which helped make America great in the past will be of less importance in the future, there is a difference by age. Younger Americans show much more skepticism or disbelief that what made America great in the past, will continue do so in the future, compared to what older Americans say. Although younger adults tend to be more green than those older these days, just over a third of those 18-33 (35%) say that rich natural resources will help make America great in the future, compared to fully seven in ten older Americans, 65 and older, who say the same (70%). Similarly, only a third of Echo Boomers, or those 18-33, say that living in a healthy physical environment will make America great in the future (33%), compared to 62% of Matures, 65 years and older, who say this. Older Americans also place more significance on having a system of free and uncontrolled views, media and communication, than do younger Americans, as well as say that military strength and success will be a major contributor to the United States’ future success, more so than younger Americans say the same.

So What?

The question about what makes America great was first asked 35 years ago in 1975. When the data from 1975 is compared with the current results, a trend emerges. In 1975, larger majorities said that many of the attributes made the country great than say so currently, and that number drops even further when today’s adults discuss the next 10 years. Younger Americans’ perspective that the attributes will be less significant going forward further supports this trend. However, the meaning here can be debated. On the one hand, the trend might indicate that America’s best days are in the past. However, a more optimistic perspective might speak to a changing and increasingly complicated world where some of what’s important today was not conceived of or thought about 35 years ago, and other components are more inter-related and complex than they once were.

 

TABLE 1A

MAKING AMERICA GREAT

For each item, do you feel this was a major contributor in making America great, a minor contributor or hardly a contributor at all?

Base: All adults

Major contributor

Minor contributor

Hardly a contributor at all

Not at all sure

%

%

%

%

Living under a system of guaranteed individual freedom

76

12

3

9

Hard working people

72

15

5

8

Allowing people to own private property

72

16

4

8

Giving people the chance to go freely from one place to another

71

16

5

8

Industrial know-how and scientific progress

67

18

4

10

Military strength to keep the country from being invaded and conquered

66

19

6

8

Giving every race and creed an equal chance to get ahead

65

20

7

9

Frequent technological innovations

64

22

5

9

Rich natural resources

61

24

6

9

Having a system of free and uncontrolled views, media and communication

59

24

8

9

People of different racial and religious backgrounds

58

24

9

9

Free unlimited education to all qualified

56

22

12

10

People of different ideas representing the rights of others

54

27

9

10

Having industry and business under private control

52

26

10

11

Allowing the mass of people to share a high standard of living

52

26

11

11

Having high quality products and services for the people

52

31

7

10

Living in a healthy physical environment

49

31

10

9

Success in fighting wars

46

32

11

11

Being able to get along with other countries

43

35

13

9

Developing an interesting, exciting, and creative cultural life

41

36

13

10

Allowing unions to raise workers’ living standards

35

34

20

11

A system of government that looks after the less fortunate

34

36

21

10

Outstanding political leaders

33

36

19

13

Having a government which regulates business abuses

31

38

19

12

Note: Percentages may not add up to 100% due to rounding


TABLE 1B

MAKING AMERICA GREAT

For each item, do you feel this was a major contributor in making America great, a minor contributor or hardly a contributor at all?

Summary of those saying major contributor

Base: All adults

Total 1975

Total 2010

Generation

Echo Boomers (18-33)

Gen. X (34-45)

Baby Boomers (46-64)

Matures (65+)

%

%

%

%

%

%

Living under a system of guaranteed individual freedom

85

76

63

71

86

86

Hard working people

87

72

54

69

81

89

Allowing people to own private property

87

72

57

69

78

88

Giving people the chance to go freely from one place to another

83

71

58

67

80

81

Industrial know-how and scientific progress

90

67

49

65

76

85

Military strength to keep the country from being invaded and conquered

80

66

45

60

77

88

Giving every race and creed an equal chance to get ahead

74

65

54

62

68

76

Frequent technological innovations

NA

64

48

63

72

78

Rich natural resources

91

61

40

57

72

79

Having a system of free and uncontrolled views, media and communication

76

59

45

57

65

72

People of different racial and religious backgrounds

62

58

50

54

65

63

Free unlimited education to all qualified

75

56

45

51

61

72

People of different ideas representing the rights of others

77

54

48

52

57

63

Having industry and business under private control

70

52

37

51

57

70

Allowing the mass of people to share a high standard of living

69

52

41

52

55

65

Having high quality products and services for the people

66

52

37

50

59

63

Living in a healthy physical environment

78

49

37

50

54

61

Success in fighting wars

71

46

36

44

52

57

Being able to get along with other countries

73

43

33

43

46

55

Developing an interesting, exciting, and creative cultural life

47

41

37

40

40

50

Allowing unions to raise workers’ living standards

53

35

28

37

37

39

A system of government that looks after the less fortunate

48

34

28

35

36

41

Outstanding political leaders

55

33

26

34

34

40

Having a government which regulates business abuses

63

31

26

32

31

37

Note: Percentages may not add up to 100% due to rounding; In 1975 these questions were asked via telephone; NA signifies this was not asked that year.

 

TABLE 2A

MAKING AMERICA GREAT IN THE FUTURE

In the next 10 years, do you think each of these items will be a major contributor to making the country great, a minor contributor or hardly a contributor at all?

Base: All adults

Major contributor

Minor contributor

Hardly a contributor at all

Not at all sure

%

%

%

%

Living under a system of guaranteed individual freedom

68

15

6

12

Hard working people

65

16

7

12

Allowing people to own private property

60

21

7

12

Industrial know-how and scientific progress

60

22

6

12

Frequent technological innovations

59

23

5

12

Giving people the chance to go freely from one place to another

58

22

9

11

Military strength to keep the country from being invaded and conquered

57

21

9

13

Giving every race and creed an equal chance to get ahead

57

22

9

13

Having a system of free and uncontrolled views, media and communication

53

25

9

13

Rich natural resources

52

27

8

13

Free unlimited education to all qualified

52

23

11

14

Having high quality products and services for the people

52

27

9

13

People of different racial and religious backgrounds

50

27

11

12

Living in a healthy physical environment

48

30

9

13

People of different ideas representing the rights of others

48

28

10

14

Being able to get along with other countries

47

30

10

13

Having industry and business under private control

47

28

12

14

Allowing the mass of people to share a high standard of living

45

30

11

14

Success in fighting wars

41

28

16

14

Outstanding political leaders

41

26

17

15

Developing an interesting, exciting, and creative cultural life

36

35

16

13

Having a government which regulates business abuses

36

33

16

14

A system of government that looks after the less fortunate

35

32

19

14

Allowing unions to raise workers’ living standards

28

29

28

15

Note: Percentages may not add up to 100% due to rounding


TABLE 2B

MAKING AMERICA GREAT IN THE FUTURE

In the next 10 years, do you think each of these items will be a major contributor to making the country great, a minor contributor or hardly a contributor at all?

Summary of those saying major contributor

Base: All adults

Total 1975

Total 2010

Generation

Echo Boomers (18-33)

Gen. X (34-45)

Baby Boomers (46-64)

Matures (65+)

%

%

%

%

%

%

Living under a system of guaranteed individual freedom

83

68

54

64

74

83

Hard working people

78

65

48

66

72

81

Allowing people to own private property

82

60

42

58

67

77

Industrial know-how and scientific progress

86

60

44

57

66

78

Frequent technological innovations

NA

59

46

59

64

74

Giving people the chance to go freely from one place to another

80

58

42

54

68

72

Military strength to keep the country from being invaded and conquered

73

57

38

51

67

78

Giving every race and creed an equal chance to get ahead

76

57

47

53

61

68

Having a system of free and uncontrolled views, media and communication

74

53

42

51

57

65

Rich natural resources

79

52

35

50

60

70

Free unlimited education to all qualified

75

52

43

51

54

66

Having high quality products and services for the people

64

52

39

46

57

69

People of different racial and religious backgrounds

58

50

41

46

55

59

Living in a healthy physical environment

74

48

33

46

55

62

People of different ideas representing the rights of others

77

48

43

46

47

60

Being able to get along with other countries

77

47

38

46

51

59

Having industry and business under private control

67

47

36

44

49

63

Allowing the mass of people to share a high standard of living

67

45

34

43

49

56

Success in fighting wars

61

41

31

41

45

52

Outstanding political leaders

53

41

33

41

41

55

Developing an interesting, exciting, and creative cultural life

48

36

32

36

35

44

Having a government which regulates business abuses

65

36

30

36

38

42

A system of government that looks after the less fortunate

53

35

28

37

35

42

Allowing unions to raise workers’ living standards

42

28

25

32

26

31

Note: Percentages may not add up to 100% due to rounding; In 1975 these questions were asked via telephone; NA signifies this was not asked that year.

 

TABLE 3

PAST AND FUTURE COMPARISON

Was a major contributor

Will be a major contributor

Change

%

%

%

Living under a system of guaranteed individual freedom

76

68

-8

Hard working people

72

65

-7

Allowing people to own private property

72

60

-12

Giving people the chance to go freely from one place to another

71

58

-13

Industrial know-how and scientific progress

67

60

-7

Military strength to keep the country from being invaded and conquered

66

57

-9

Giving every race and creed an equal chance to get ahead

65

57

-8

Frequent technological innovations

64

59

-5

Rich natural resources

61

52

-9

Having a system of free and uncontrolled views, media and communication

59

53

-6

People of different racial and religious backgrounds

58

50

-8

Free unlimited education to all qualified

56

52

-4

People of different ideas representing the rights of others

54

48

-6

Having industry and business under private control

52

47

-5

Allowing the mass of people to share a high standard of living

52

45

-7

Having high quality products and services for the people

52

52

0

Living in a healthy physical environment

49

48

-1

Success in fighting wars

46

41

-5

Being able to get along with other countries

43

47

+4

Developing an interesting, exciting, and creative cultural life

41

36

-5

Allowing unions to raise workers’ living standards

35

28

-7

A system of government that looks after the less fortunate

34

35

+1

Outstanding political leaders

33

41

+8

Having a government which regulates business abuses

31

36

+5

 

Methodology

This Harris Poll was conducted online within the United States between October 11 to 18, 2010 among 3,084 adults (aged 18 and over). Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online.

All sample surveys and polls, whether or not they use probability sampling, are subject to multiple sources of error which are most often not possible to quantify or estimate, including sampling error, coverage error, error associated with nonresponse, error associated with question wording and response options, and post-survey weighting and adjustments. Therefore, Harris Interactive avoids the words margin of error as they are misleading. All that can be calculated are different possible sampling errors with different probabilities for pure, unweighted, random samples with 100% response rates. These are only theoretical because no published polls come close to this ideal.

Respondents for this survey were selected from among those who have agreed to participate in Harris Interactive surveys. The data have been weighted to reflect the composition of the adult population. Because the sample is based on those who agreed to participate in the Harris Interactive panel, no estimates of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.

These statements conform to the principles of disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.

The results of this Harris Poll may not be used in advertising, marketing or promotion without the prior written permission of Harris Interactive.

J38848

Q880, 885

The Harris Poll® #141, November 17, 2010

By Samantha Braverman, Project Researcher