Some fans at Olympic games have been known to complain about the chest-thumping, U-S-A! U-S-A! nationalism the American fans display. (But at least there are no complaints about American soccer hooliganism!) Our national pride appears in so many other situations as well – flag-waving parades, the national anthem before almost every gathering, and so on – that it would seem that Americans are unusually proud of their country.
It is one of the complaints some European visitors had of Americans even 200 years ago, that these upstart bumpkins were too full of themselves. (I’ve put a short list of sources on Europeans’ views of Americans at the end of this post.) Here is a case where stereotype and social science converge: Americans today are number one when it comes to asserting that their’s is the best damn country in the world.
The International Social Science Programme (ISSP – which I have cited before) involves survey research institutions in dozens of countries asking representative samples of their populations the same questions. A couple of times the ISSP has had its members ask questions designed to tap respondents’ pride in their countries. Tom W. Smith, director of the American General Social Survey and one the leaders of the ISSP, has recently analyzed and reported those data (here). Americans really are different.
One set of questions asked respondents how much they agreed or disagreed with five statements such as “I would rather be a citizen of [my country] than of any other country in the world” and “Generally, speaking [my country] is a better country than most other countries.” The most recent time such questions were asked was 2003-04. Smith gave about three dozen nations national pride scores ranging from 5 to 25 based on how proudly their people answered those five questions. The chart below shows how respondents from the affluent, western democracies answered.
Americans were #1 in claiming to be #1. (If one includes all the countries in the ISSP sample, only one, Venezuela, scored higher than the U.S. in national pride.)
What’s to be Proud About?
In another set of questions, the ISSP researchers asked interviewees how proud they were of their countries in each of 10 specific areas ranging from their democracy and political influence in the world to their sports and arts.
On 6 of the 10 topics, American respondents averaged the highest national pride scores among the affluent western countries. They were a close second to Canadians in “fair and equal treatment of all groups in society,” second to the Irish in the arts, fifth in sports pride, and 10th of 17 in being proud of their “social security system.” Basically, Americans were unusually proud of their country across the board, except for social security. (Experts would probably argue that even scoring 10th on social security would be an exaggeration.)
Does Pride Cometh?
Most Americans feel, these and other data suggest, that such expansive pride is a good thing. (Recall the flack candidate Barack Obama got for not wearing a flag pin, for not being proud enough.) Some might even say that if you aren’t, in Lee Greenwood’s words, “… proud to be an American (where at least I know I’m free / And I won’t forget the men who died / who gave that right to me),” then the door is open and you’re free to go somewhere else.
I suspect that many Europeans, on the other hand, feel that such national pride is just too close to the sort of ferocious nationalism that plunged their continent into many, disastrously bloody wars for centuries. Flag-waving probably makes many of them nervous.
Pride in one’s country can unite a people. American nationalism probably helped heal the massive breach the country had suffered during the Civil War and the regionalism that lingered for decades. Pride can probably drive a nation to accomplish much.
At least one potential down side ought to be noted, however: We believe that we are #1 almost across the board, when in fact we are far below number one in many arenas – in health, K-12 education, working conditions, to mention just a few. Does our #1 pride then blind us to the possibility that we could learn a thing or two from other countries?
Claude Fischer is the author of Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character. The article above was originally published in Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.
Views of America from Europe
- Evans, J. Martin. 1976. America: The View from Europe.
- Handlin, Oscar and Lilian (eds.) 1997. From the Outer World.
- Lawson-Peebles, Robert. 1993. “America as Interpreted by Foreign Observers,” Pp. 269-79 in Mary Kupiec Cayton et al (eds.), Encyclopedia of American Social History.
- Woodward, C. Vann. 1991. The Old World’s New World.