The Washington Post polling team is celebrating Independence Day the best way we know how: by combing through the latest surveys of what Americans say they think about their country and patriotism.
We came away with an image that is largely negative or deteriorating. Americans are less proud of their country and the way its democracy works, and they show persistently weak trust in government and many major institutions. Republicans are generally more positive about the country than Democrats, an unsurprising dynamic with President Trump in the White House.
But Americans are not all downbeat; positive ratings of the U.S. economy are at their highest levels in more than a decade, and a growing share says the country’s best days are ahead.
Trust in government near historic lows
According to the latest figures, an almost historically low share of Americans say they trust the government to do what’s right, and a majority has an unfavorable opinion of Congress. In both cases, Republicans have more positive views than Democrats.
Pew Research Center found in December 2017 that 18 percent of Americans say they trust the government in Washington “always” or “most of the time.” That compares with 73 percent who said the same of the government when the National Election Study began tracking the question in 1958. Trust began to erode in the ’60s and ’70s and reached a 30-year high soon after the 9/11 attacks, but it fell to just over 20 percent in the early Obama administration and has barely budged since.
While partisans are usually more trusting of government when their party controls the White House, the December Pew survey found Republicans and Republican-leaning independents were only slightly more likely to trust government today (22 percent) than Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (15 percent).
Congress’s reputation in particular continues to linger in the dumps, with a Gallup poll this month finding 19 percent of Americans approve of the way it is handling its job. That’s up from the low teens at some points last year, in part because of more positive ratings among Republicans.
A record low say they’re 'extremely proud' to be Americans
The share of people who say they’re “extremely proud” to be Americans is plunging. A Gallup poll found a record-low 47 percent of Americans who said they were “extremely proud” of the United States, down from a peak of 70 percent in 2003. That doesn’t necessarily mean people are not proud of their country — indeed, an additional 25 percent of adults say they are “very proud” and 16 percent are “moderately proud,” while 7 percent say they are “only a little proud” and 3 percent report being “not at all proud.”
But the share who report being intensely proud has fallen dramatically, and there’s a strong partisan nature to the decline, with Democrats driving the sharp drop in passionate patriotism during the past five years. In 2013, 56 percent of Democrats said they were extremely proud, but that fell to 47 percent by 2015 and to 32 percent in the latest survey. Republicans expressed higher levels of pride to begin with — 71 percent in 2013, and this year a similar 74 percent say they are extremely proud of the country.
The decline has also been sharp along generational and racial lines. A third of those 18 to 29 years old said they were “extremely proud,” down from 55 percent in 2013, compared with a narrow three-point shift among seniors over the same period. Likewise, nonwhites have become 14 points less apt to be extremely proud of the United States (from 47 percent to 33 percent), twice the size of the drop among whites (from 61 percent to 54 percent).
Record high lacks pride in way democracy works in America
At the same time that extreme pride in being American is decreasing, the share of Americans saying they are not proud of democracy in this country is increasing. Last fall, a Washington Post-University of Maryland. poll found 36 percent of Americans saying they were “not proud” of the way democracy works in the United States. That was twice as high as the General Social Survey found in 2014, when 18 percent said they were not proud, and four times as high as in 2002 (9 percent).
The poll showed a greater partisan divide than in past surveys, with Democrats significantly more likely to say they’re not proud of the way democracy works in America (41 percent) than Republicans (24 percent). Shameful sentiment was not limited to Trump critics, though, with a quarter of Americans who approve of Trump saying they lack pride in the country’s democracy.
Majority says Trump doesn’t respect democratic institutions
Trump has been criticized for violating customs followed by past presidents, and the public is skeptical that Trump respects the country’s democratic institutions and traditions. According to a June Pew Research Center poll, 6 in 10 Americans said Trump has “not too much” or “no respect at all” for the country’s democratic institutions and traditions.
Attitudes split strongly along party lines, with 87 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents saying Trump has little or no respect for democratic institutions while a 70 percent majority of Republicans say Trump does respect them. Still, a quarter of Republicans say Trump does not respect democratic institutions and traditions much or at all.
Most Americans still trust the military, small business and police. But not much else.
The same three institutions have maintained high confidence among a majority of Americans in Gallup’s historical polling, but all other institutions pulled in confidence from under half of Americans. A Gallup poll in June found majorities of Americans said they had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the military (74 percent), small business (67 percent) and the police (54 percent). But less than half the public reported confidence in 12 other institutions gauged in the survey, including “the church or organized religion” (38 percent), the U.S. Supreme Court (37 percent) and public schools (29 percent).
Slim majority say the country’s best days are ahead, particularly on the economy
But Americans see some sunny skies ahead. According to a June Gallup poll, 55 percent of Americans say the country’s best days are ahead, up from 47 percent in late 2012.
Optimism peaks at nearly 7 in 10 Republicans (69 percent), though nearly half of Democrats (47 percent) agree. Democrats’ optimism has fallen from 2012, when President Barack Obama was in office. A meager 24 percent of Republicans said the same, roughly one-third as many as say this today.
The country’s improving economy is a bright spot. A CNN/SSRS poll last month found 66 percent rating the U.S. economy as very or somewhat good, similar to the past six months but up from 48 percent in late 2016 and dramatically higher than in mid-2014, when 41 percent saw the economy in a positive light. Asked how they expect the economy to be one year from now, a slightly smaller 59 percent thought it would be good.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.