Are you proud to be American? It’s a seemingly simple question, but also a loaded one. And myriad factors could impact the answer—including how old the person being asked is.
Polling shows there’s a patriotism gap between older and younger Americans; generation Z and Millennials are less likely to say yes to the question of national pride than those born in the decades preceding them.
Sixty-seven percent of 1,424 U.S. adults in I&I/TIPP polling said they were extremely or very proud to be American when asked between June 30 and July 2, during the build-up to Independence Day.
But among those aged 18 to 24, just 36 percent said the same, with 35 percent in that age bracket stating they were only slightly or not at all proud to be American.
Ipsos polling of 1,026 people between June 25 and 28 showed a similar pattern. Overall, 69 percent said they were proud to be American. This figure was boosted by Gen X and Baby Boomers, with 71 percent and 84 percent respectively saying they were.
Among Millennials, however, just 52 percent said the same. Of those in Gen Z, 58 percent were proud to be America. It is a majority in both younger brackets, but there is a clear generational divide.
It raises an obvious question: Why do younger people feel less proud than their elders?
Ophelie Jacobson is a reporter for Campus Reform, an activist group that calls itself a “conservative watchdog to the nation’s higher education system.”
Jacobson, who is studying at the University of Florida, asked young people in Washington, D.C. if they were proud to be an American for a recent Campus Reform video, which Fox News later reported on.
The first person in the clip told her they “feel embarrassed to be an American every day,” and referenced “racist history, colonization” and “currently just what’s going on with politics and the cops.”
Jacobson, who described herself as “a proud American,” told Newsweek it was “discouraging to see how unpatriotic so many young people are these days.”
America’s Racial Reckoning
The United States is experiencing a reckoning with its past; debates around racism and racial injustice have gained traction. These discussions were spotlighted by widespread protests following high-profile killings of Black Americans, such as George Floyd.
Such incidents and fiery talk of systemic racism—as well as personal experience of injustice in modern America—may be impacting younger generations’ feelings about the country, dampening any inclination to feel proud.
Newsweek spoke with younger people who expressed on social media unhappiness with the U.S. to ask why they do not feel proud to be American. All asked not to be named, a request granted in what is a febrile and at times violent political climate.
“Learning real American history has made me ashamed to be American,” Twitter user @blackoutvulture, who is 31, tweeted on July 11.
“Learning real American history has made me ashamed to be American. I’ve long since detested my heritage, but I have come to despise the country I find myself stuck in. How can anyone learn about this country and feel proud? It confuses and sickens me.”
Speaking to Newsweek, they explained further how they feel about the U.S.
“We were not created as a country with black and indigenous rights in mind, yet even stating something as basic as that makes me the enemy to millions of Americans who think I merely hate this country blindly,” they said.
Asked what they think about people being proud Americans, they referred to patriotism as “little more than successful brainwashing.”
“People proud of this country have been sold an alternate reality and have no desire to question what they’ve been taught,” they said.
“What is there to be proud of when millions of us these last couple years have just learned about the Tulsa race massacre and the long since celebrated holiday of Juneteenth; two very important pieces of history that have been purposely repressed?
“It demonstrates our lack of a full historical education, and should be something every American can agree on as wrong to withhold from school children.”
They continued: “A big issue I have with our society in general is lack of a proper thorough education of our history and how we overlook or even get rid of the bad.
“I believe it allows our prejudices to continue to exist, yes, by way of not addressing them and leaving bigotry uncritically examined.”
Campus Reform’s Jacobson said that “race and racism were the most common issues that people brought up to me,” adding: “I can’t say I’m surprised at this because our society is obsessed with these concepts.”
The Education War
How America’s past should be taught in schools is an intensely contested subject and a major battleground in the ongoing culture war that divides the nation.
The New York Times 1619 Project, which describes its aim as to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative,” proved controversial. Former President Donald Trump rallied against the 1619 Project while in office and pushed for an alternative initiative to counter it.
More recently, disputes have erupted online and in local communities over the purported teaching of critical race theory in schools, with angry parents descending on school board meetings in opposition to it.
Steven Smith, the author of Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes and a professor at Yale University, told Newsweek that shifts in how children are taught to understand the past have altered their perceptions of America as they become adults.
“If students are taught from an early age that America is a country founded on genocide and created to perpetuate slavery—and this has become the ideology of much secondary and higher education canonized today in the NYT‘s ‘1619 Project’—then patriotism will seem nothing more than an expression of bigotry and moral blindness,” Smith said.
“Students today learn copiously about our national failings—perhaps a corrective to an older triumphalist picture of American history—but not enough about our ideals and aspirations.
“The names of our national heroes have been erased from schools and public buildings and their statues have been removed. Patriotism requires that we have something to look up to and the current school curricula have become a cure worse than the disease.”
To some, particularly conservatives, where once there might have been a debate about whether America is living up to its founding values—principles with which nearly everyone agreed regardless of their personal politics—the values themselves are now being brought into question through the education system.
Jacobson believes what is happening on college campuses is to blame.
“Young people are developing these anti-American sentiments in the classroom. I have spoken to dozens of college students both on and off camera and when I ask them where they develop their ideas and beliefs, they say college,” Jacobson said.
“Disdain for America is only growing stronger. It seems like every day, we are seeing more examples of people who will go to great lengths to show just how ashamed they are to be American.”
She said the fact that these students are able to enjoy higher education is a reason to be a proud American. It is just one of the many opportunities they are afforded by living here: “The bottom line is: These students don’t understand how privileged they are.”
Two of the people in her video said that college had shaped their feelings about being American. One spoke of “lots of liberals just preaching to the choir,” but also said college had “opened her eyes” on some topics, such as the justice system and zoning laws.
It’s not just age and education shaping opinion on national pride. It’s people’s financial situations, too.
Research shows a growing wealth divide between the generations. According to a Bloomberg report last year, Millennials own just 4.2 percent of the nation’s wealth. Boomers hold some 10 times that and controlled substantially more—21 percent—when they were the same age as Millennials are now.
Underlining this generational wealth divide is sharply rising living costs, with the average apartment rental price surpassing $1,200 for the first time after a 10 percent increase in the first half of 2021 alone.
Newsweek spoke with another Twitter user, who also asked their real name not be used, after they wrote earlier in July: “I hate being American. I hate this country. I hate that I was born here. It’s s***.”
The 21-year-old, who lives in South Carolina, is aware that while some on social media agree with them about having pride in America, many others take issue—sometimes fiercely—with any unpatriotic sentiment.
One Twitter user, for example, wrote on July 20: “Anyone that says they are not proud to be American should lose thier [sic] job, thier [sic] home and all the luxuries they have and be put on a plane to a socialist country for 6 months. Then ask them how they feel!”
Speaking to Newsweek, the South Carolinian expanded on their reasoning for hating their life in the U.S. Economic issues were central to their anger, including rent costs because they “work 40+ hours a week to barely afford a shitty apartment.”
“I’m giving up. It doesn’t matter how hard you work, the government here is just trying to get working-class people either into the military or in jail,” they said.
“They take your income in the form of taxes and put it towards the military and police officers putting people in jail for stupid shit. Don’t get me started on insurance here.
“If you ever lived on a salary of $15-20k a year in this country all this isn’t news to you.”
There is also the cliché that you become more right-wing as you age. And there’s some truth to this dynamic. Older people are simply more inclined to feel patriotic after the passage of time.
“In general, we see that people become more conservative as they get older. Patriotism can be linked with conservatism,” Francesco Duina, a professor of sociology at Bates College and author of Broke and Patriotic: Why Poor Americans Love Their Country, told Newsweek.
“It isn’t necessarily that this younger generation is less patriotic than previous young generations. People’s views change as they get older.”
The experiences of older generations that are not shared by younger people could also be a force behind the gap. Many older people can look back on certain major events that occurred early on in their lifetime and feel an acute sense of pride.
Smith, of Yale University, told Newsweek: “An earlier generation could take genuine pride from the fact that it fought a war to defeat fascism and save democracy or that America fought another war—the Cold War—to defeat communism without firing a shot. These have now begun to appear as relics from the past.
“The 21st century has not exactly provided any comparable experience that can serve as a source of national pride. Beginning with the attack on the Twin Towers, the failed war in Iraq, the economic crisis of 2008, and now the COVID pandemic is it any wonder that Millennials and Gen Z’ers don’t feel they have anything to be patriotic about?
“The current generation thinks in terms of global causes like ending racism and halting global warming but these have become decoupled from any sense of national purpose.”
This global outlook may be another reason why those younger Americans feel less of a connection to the U.S.—because they are more able to be connected elsewhere.
“In general, the younger generations are more in touch with global events, they travel more, they read more international news. Compared with older generations, they’re more global, if you will,” Duina, of Bates College, told Newsweek.
“If you’re aware of news from all over the place then you craft your identity not necessarily so much around the nation you’re from.
“Then there’s awareness of how the U.S. is in the world—there’s more information and more room for questioning. It used to be more limited—your world was your country.”
Clive Webb, a professor of modern American history at the U.K.’s University of Sussex, similarly suggested to Newsweek these new global connections may have had an impact by allowing Americans to see how the world thinks of them.
“This is an untested thought, but in an age of instant global communication it is also worth asking whether Americans are more acutely aware of how the rest of the world perceives them?” Webb said.
“The internet has collapsed distance across space and time, allowing Americans to learn instantly what others think of them. The global reputation of the U.S. took a hammering under Trump and any American sensitive to political issues will be conscious of that.”
America on the World Stage
Some may be using this moment to reflect on the belief in “American exceptionalism” that underpins the country’s patriotism.
“Like, Americans really do grow up thinking this is the greatest country in the world, and you just kind of take that as fact because you’re like ‘at least we’re not Mexico or Russia’ or whatever,” the 21-year-old quoted earlier said.
But Webb said skepticism of America’s status is not necessarily confined to younger people. “What I think is important is the relative decline of U.S. status in the world. That affects Americans across the generations though,” Webb told Newsweek.
“Domestic factors include the partisan nature of U.S. politics, which leads to endless gridlock and a loss of faith in the capacity of elder politicians to get anything done.
“Look at issues where young Americans have organized in protest but politicians have failed to effect reform, such as gun control and BLM.
“Above all is the issue of the environment. The U.S. is the leading polluter in the world and under the Trump administration withdrew from the Paris accord. So, I think there is some sense of anger and shame on the part of—again, not only—younger Americans.”
What Is Patriotism?
The question of what patriotism entails in 2021, and what it means to be a proud American, could affect how people respond when asked about their own national pride. People may perceive patriotism to mean, or be associated with, different things.
Gallup polling showed that overall pride in being American hit a low in 2020, with a slight uptick in polling this year—though numbers remain significantly lower than at the start of the century.
“Maybe what has changed is what people think of as patriotic,” David Waldstreicher, distinguished professor of history at The Graduate Center, City University of New York, told Newsweek.
“Today it might be like asking someone if they identify with flag-waving Trump supporters. in 1992 it would have meant do you support the Gulf War. At other times it probably meant more simply, do you love the USA.
“I also think it is even harder to measure the cynicism and disillusionment in the past which was not surveyed or recorded.”
Webb, of the University of Sussex, noted that the same historical events that are a source of national pride for many are reasons to be skeptical for others.
“I don’t subscribe to the curmudgeonly arguments about the younger generation being self-obsessed and politically apathetic,” Webb said.
“Indeed, I think there is a danger of being ahistorical in arguing that young people today are less patriotic. Those who came of age in the years after Vietnam and Watergate certainly had good reason to challenge uncritical devotion to their country.”
Ultimately, the notion of patriotism itself—of tying yourself emotionally to one place and making it a definitive characteristic of your personality—is something younger people are less beholden to than those born before them.
“I think patriotism is outdated to some of them,” Duina, of Bates College, said. “They’re not as connected to their place as older generations. Even though physically they may be in a place, their mind is all over the place.”