Is the United States the greatest country in the world?
The Fourth of July arrives at a moment of reckoning, a time that a deadly pandemic rages, racial protests are in the streets, the economy has plunged into recession and a brutal presidential re-election race looms.
It’s easy to understand why many Americans feel embattled by the present and concerned about the future.
A USA TODAY/Suffolk Poll taken just before the holiday that celebrates the nation’s independence finds a sharp divide on that question along partisan and ideological lines. The assertion of American exceptionalism – the idea that the USA is a distinctive and distinctively admirable creation – is one that has animated commentators since Alexis de Tocqueville nearly two centuries ago.
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At this moment, one-third of those surveyed, 32%, called the United States “the greatest country in the world,” and another 28% said it was “one of the greatest” – a 60% majority asserting American greatness.
The country “faces some tough challenges and we need to address them,” acknowledged Patrick Dohogne, 56, a construction-company executive from Hartland, Wisconsin, who was among those polled.
But, he added, “There’s a lot of opportunity for people here, more so than most of the other nations in the world. So from that standpoint, I think we’re still a pretty darn great country.”
Not everyone was as sanguine: 12% of those surveyed said the United States was “an average country” and one-fourth, 24%, said it “has fallen behind the other major countries of the world.” Three percent said it was “one of the worst.”
“We haven’t lost the, ‘Look at us as the greatest power in the world, the greatest country in the world,'” said Neomi Reid, 75, a retiree from Cincinnati. “But we have lost some of our power. We have lost some of our footing in other countries, those countries that really depended on the United States for good information, for good directions, and we don’t have that anymore.”
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Dohogne is a Republican who plans to vote for President Trump in November; Reid is a Democrat who plans to vote for former vice president Joe Biden.
They illustrate the partisan split on this question. Almost 9 of 10 Trump voters, 87%, said the United States was the greatest or one of the greatest countries in the world. Almost 6 in 10 Biden voters, 59%, said it was average, has fallen behind, or is one of the worst.
Among other demographic factors, there was also a difference along racial lines. Whites were more likely than Blacks to say the United States was “the greatest country,” 35% compared with 20%. Blacks were more likely than whites to say the country had “fallen behind,” 35% compared with 22%.
On this question, as on others in the survey, attitudes toward the current president seem to be shaping views. A solid majority of Republicans and conservatives said the United States is the greatest country in the world. They like the direction Trump has taken the nation during his 3½ years in office. (His 2016 campaign slogan was “Make America Great Again,” creating a MAGA acronym now ubiquitous on Trump paraphernalia.)
But Democrats and liberals are alarmed by many of Trump’s actions. They believe the country is moving in the wrong direction.
In the survey, two-thirds of Americans, 67%, said the country was on the wrong track; just 20% said it was headed in the right direction. In a head-to-head match-up, Biden led Trump by 12 percentage points, 53%-41%, although the president had a significant edge in the enthusiasm of his supporters.
The USA TODAY/Suffolk poll of 1,000 registered voters was taken by landline and cell phone on June 25 through 29. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
Jacob Walker, 44, a political independent from Auburn, California, saw the approaching holiday as a moment for reflection.
“I think we’ve never been as great as we thought we are, think we’ve always had a shadow that we haven’t recognized,” the school administrator said in a follow-up phone interview. “Yet at the same time, our ideals are really good ones. One of the things that I really liked about the Fourth of July is that, you know, most countries celebrate independence like when they win a war.”
But this holiday celebrates the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
“That’s a declaration of a concept that all humans are created equal,” he said. “That’s pretty powerful, and even if we don’t live up to that, it still, we have an ideal.”