The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Americans love their country, but it’s a surprisingly tough love

An Indian worker wears an American flag before it is hoisted up a flag pole in New Delhi, India, Friday, Jan. 23, 2015. India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi has invited U.S. President Barack Obama to be the first American president to attend India’s annual Republic Day festivities marked on Jan. 26. (AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal)

American presidents and politicians at-large agree: America is an exceptional nation. But passionate and often-personal debates spring up over what exactly makes America special.

Do Americans see their country as a "shining city on a hill" projecting freedom around the world, as Ronald Reagan described in his famous 1989 speech? Or is this image of the nation nothing but "air-brushed history," with America's greatness instead epitomized by hard-won struggles for freedom like civil rights marches in Selma, Ala., as President Obama articulated in his speech earlier this year.

[How Obama has used his presidency to redefine ‘American exceptionalism’]

For answers, we turn to the 2014 General Social Survey (GSS). And it turns out Americans' views of their country's exceptionalism are nuanced -- and not nearly as divided by partisanship as one might expect.

Most Americans share Obama's self-critical view of the nation's history, with seven in 10 agreeing with the statement, "The world would be a better place if Americans acknowledged America's shortcomings." The feeling was not intense -- just 17 percent "strongly agreed" with the statement, but only 8 percent disagreed with the view. The "agree" side of these results might be overstated due to the question format, but the lopsided agree-disagree margin clearly indicates the prevailing view.* Perhaps surprisingly, the survey found little partisan, age or racial divide on whether Americans should acknowledge the nation's faults.

Americans also see their country as a flawed nation today; 64 percent agree that, "There are some things about America today that make me feel ashamed of America," while 18 percent disagree. This question brings out sizable racial differences. Seventy percent of whites say some things in America make them ashamed, compared with 61 percent of African Americans and 43 percent of Hispanics.

Americans are fiercely positive about their country on one count. In total, 84 percent would rather be a citizen of America than any other country in the world. Intensity runs hot, with 59 percent "strongly" agreeing with this view -- far more than felt strongly that America should apologize for shortcomings or be ashamed for things today.

What about America as a "shining city on the hill?" Roughly two-thirds of Americans surveyed by the GSS say they are very or somewhat proud of America's political influence in the world, but a 2013 Pew Research Center survey found "promoting democracy around the world" ranked as a far lower policy priority than protecting the nation from terrorist attacks or from losing jobs. The same survey found most Americans see the U.S. as less important and powerful than 10 years ago, but also that a record high saying America should "mind its own business internationally."

While Obama has offered a distinctly different view of American exceptionalism than past Republican presidents, the GSS questions on these issues reveal few partisan differences. Roughly 7 in 10 Democrats and Republicans agree the world would benefit if America acknowledged its shortcomings, between 60 and 66 percent are ashamed of some things in America, and huge majorities would rather be U.S. citizens than any other country.

There are some partisan differences beneath the surface. Republicans' views have fluctuated over the past two decades when it comes to whether they are ashamed of things in America. In 1996, 60 percent of Republicans felt ashamed of some things in America, but that dropped to 44 percent in 2004 and then rose again to 66 percent in 2014. One potential factor is the president's political party, with Republicans voicing less shame when George W. Bush was in office. Yet the opposite effect is not apparent for Democrats, whose agreement on the question has hovered between 60 and 64 percent whether Clinton, Bush or Obama was president.

And partisans differ in intensity when it comes to whether America is the best country to be a citizen. More than eight in 10 Republicans "strongly agree" they'd rather be U.S. citizens than anywhere else, compared with just more than half of Democrats and independents.

The 2014 General Social Survey was conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago through in-person interviews from March through October among a random national sample of U.S. adults. Results for questions reported are based on 1,271 respondents with an error margin of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. Data were analyzed by the Washington Post.

*Poll nerd note: These results are based on questions that use an agree-disagree format, which are sometimes subject to "acquiescence response bias," a tendency of respondents to "agree" with statements in an interview out of politeness or as a way to complete the survey with less effort.

Question wording

(How much do you agree or disagree with the following statements?) The world would be a better place if Americans acknowledged America’s shortcomings.

(How much do you agree or disagree with the following statements?) There are some things about America today that make me feel ashamed of America

(How much do you agree or disagree with the following statements?) I would rather be a citizen of America than of any other country in the world

Response categories:

  • Agree strongly
  • Agree
  • Neither agree nor disagree
  • Disagree
  • Disagree strongly
  • Don't know

Respondents who said they "Don't know" for a given question were included in the base of answers, but not shown in charts.