November 23, 2015

Beyond Distrust: How Americans View Their Government

9. Views of the nation, how it’s changing and confidence in the future

The public continues to express mixed opinions about the United States’ standing in the world. About half (52%) say the U.S. is “one of” the world’s greatest nations, while 32% say it “stands above” all others. Relatively few (15%) say there are countries that are better than the United States.Views of U.S. global standing and confidence in the nation's future

Most Americans are not highly confident in the nation’s future. Fewer than half (45%) express quite a lot of confidence in the future of the U.S. Overall confidence in the future of the U.S. is at about the same level as it was 20 years ago, but is substantially lower than during the 1970s.

Opinion about the United States and its future prospects are associated with other attitudes about government. The small minority of Americans who have little or no confidence in the nation’s future (15% of the public) are more likely to feel angry with the federal government than are those who feel more optimistic about the future of the U.S.

As recent Pew Research Center surveys have found, more Americans say immigrants strengthen the country (53%) than say they are a burden on the United States (38%). And most (57%) say the country’s increasing ethnic diversity makes it a better place to live. Attitudes about immigrants and growing ethnic diversity also are linked to views about government: Anger with the federal government is more widespread among those with negative views of immigrants and increased diversity than among those with more positive attitudes.

U.S. standing in the world, confidence in the future of the country

As in the past, there are wide age and ideological differences in views of the United States’ world standing.Wide age and partisan differences in views of U.S. standing in the world

While roughly half or more across age categories take a middle-ground view – that the U.S. is one of the greatest countries – older adults are more likely than younger people to say that the U.S. stands above all other nations.

Among those 65 and older, 45% say the U.S. stands above other nations, the highest share of any age group. Just 19% of those under 30 say the same. By contrast, young people are much more likely than those 65 and older to say there are other nations better than the United States (25% vs. 6%).

Nearly half of conservative Republicans and Republican leaners (48%) say the U.S. stands above all other nations – by far the highest share among ideological groups. No more than about a third of those in any other group (32% of moderate and liberal Republicans) view the United States’ global standing so positively.

Just 17% of liberal Democrats say the United States stands above all other nations, the lowest percentage among ideological groups. Most liberal Democrats (60%) say the U.S. is among the world’s greatest nations, while 22% say other nations are better than the United States.

Young adults less likely to have 'quite a lot' of confidence in U.S. futureConfidence in the future of the U.S. is lower today than it was in the mid-1970s. For example, a 1975 survey by Gallup found that 60% had quite a lot of confidence in the future of the U.S. The share expressing a lot of confidence in the future of the U.S. fell to 48% in 1994 and is at about the same level today (45%).

More Republicans than Democrats view the United States as “exceptional” – standing above all other nations – but fewer Republicans express strong confidence in the nation’s future.

Half of Democrats and leaners say they have quite a lot of confidence in the nation’s future, compared with 40% of Republicans and leaners.

Young adults – who have a less positive view of the U.S.’s global standing than do older adults – are also less likely to have a high degree of confidence in the nation’s future. Just 38% of those younger than 30 have quite a lot of confidence in the future of the U.S., the lowest of any age group. Among those 50 and older, about half have a lot of confidence in the nation’s future.

Feelings of political efficacy and confidence in the nation’s future

Overall, people who feel like they can influence politics and government express greater confidence in the nation’s future than do those who say they have less ability to influence government.

Among people with a relatively high degree of “political efficacy” – those who say their vote matters and that ordinary citizens have the capacity to affect government – 57% have quite a lot of confidence in the future of the U.S.How feelings of political efficacy are linked to confidence in nation's future

Among those who respond affirmatively to only one of the political efficacy questions – that is, they say either that voting matters or that citizens can influence government, but not both – 40% have a high degree of confidence in the nation’s future. And among those with low efficacy (those who respond negatively to both questions), just 32% have quite a lot of confidence.

This pattern holds within both parties. Republicans and Republican leaners with high political efficacy are more likely to have quite a lot of confidence in the country’s future (52%) than are those with medium (35%) or low (29%) levels of political efficacy.

Similarly, 62% of Democrats and Democratic leaners with high political efficacy have a lot of confidence in the country’s future compared with 46% of those with medium levels of efficacy and 35% of those with low political efficacy.

Views of the nation’s future and opinions about government

People who are most confident about the nation’s future have much less animosity toward the federal government than do those who are less confident.

Frustration is the public’s dominant feeling toward government, irrespective of people’s confidence about the nation’s future.Those less confident in U.S. future far more likely to express anger toward federal government

Nonetheless, among those highly confident in the future of the U.S., 29% are “basically content” with the federal government, while only about half as many feel “angry” (15%).

The most intensely negative feelings toward government are seen among those with little or no confidence in the country’s future (15% of the public): Just 6% in this group say they are content with the federal government, while 39% say they are angry. This level of anger is more than twice the level seen among those who have a lot of confidence in the country’s future (15%).

Views of the roots of the country’s success

There are substantial differences of opinion about the factors behind the nation’s success. About half say the U.S. has been successful more because of its ability to change, while 43% attribute the success of the United States more to its adherence to long-standing principles.Country's success based on ability to change or reliance on principles?

There are wide partisan differences on this question. Six-in-ten Republicans and Republican leaners (60%) say the country’s success has more to do with its reliance on principles than its ability to change (including 70% of conservative Republicans and leaners). By contrast, a 66% majority of Democrats and Democratic leaners say the country has been successful more because of its ability to change; this view is even more widely held among liberal Democrats and leaners (74%).

These attitudes also differ sizably by age. By nearly two-to-one (65% to 33%), those younger than 30 say the U.S. has been successful more because of its ability to change. Those 50 and older are divided: 48% attribute the country’s success more to its reliance on principles, while 44% link it more to its ability to change.

Views on the reasons for the country’s success are tied to a range of opinions toward the federal government. In general, those who see the country’s ability to change as the bigger reason for its success are more likely to hold positive views of government than those who say reliance on principles is the bigger reason why the U.S. has been successful.

Among those who say the country has been successful because of its ability to change, more say they are basically content with government (26%) than say they are angry (15%); 57% say they are frustrated. By contrast, among those who say the country has been successful because of its reliance on principles, more express anger toward the federal government (30%) than say they are basically content (14%), while 54% say they are frustrated.Views on reasons for U.S. success tied to attitudes toward government

Half of those who cite change as the bigger reason for the country’s success say the government often does a better job than people give it credit for, while 47% say it is almost always wasteful and inefficient. Views are much more negative among those who cite reliance on principles as the bigger reason for the country’s success: Fully 71% in this group say the government is almost always wasteful and inefficient, and just 28% say government does a better job than it gets credit for.

A similar pattern is seen on a general question about the scope of government. Most (59%) of those who credit the ability to change for the country’s success say government should do more to solve problems. Those who say reliance on principles is the main reason the country has been successful take the opposite view: About two-thirds (65%) say government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals.

The relationship between views of the country’s success and views of government are statistically significant within both political parties.

Views of diversity, immigrants and government

On balance, the public takes a positive view on immigrants and increasing diversity in the United States.

Overall, 57% say having an increasing number of people of many different races, ethnic groups and nationalities makes the United States a better place to live, compared with just 8% who say it makes the country a worse place to live and 34% who say it doesn’t make much difference either way.Most say racial, ethnic diversity makes U.S. a better place to live

About two-thirds of Democrats and Democratic leaners (65%) say diversity makes the U.S. a better place to live, while 30% say it doesn’t make much difference and just 5% say it makes the country a worse place to live. Republicans and Republican leaners are less positive: Most (52%) say diversity makes the country a better place to live, compared with 35% who say it doesn’t make much difference and 10% who say it makes the U.S. a worse place to live.

Across demographic groups, those with a post-graduate degree (76%), college graduates (72%), Hispanics (63%) and younger adults under age 50 (61%) are among the most likely to say diversity makes the U.S. a better place to live.

Views also tilt positive when it comes to overall assessments of immigrants’ impact on the country today. Overall, 53% say that immigrants today strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents, while fewer (38%) say that immigrants today are a burden on the country because they take jobs, housing and health care.

There are wide differences on this question across partisan and ideological lines. Nearly eight-in-ten (79%) liberal Democrats and leaners and 63% of conservative and moderate Democrats and leaners say that immigrants strengthen the country through their hard work and talents, rather than burdening the country.More see immigrants as a strength rather than a burden for the country

Among conservative Republicans and Republican leaners, more say that immigrants today are a burden on the country (57%) than say they strengthen it (31%). Moderate and liberal Republicans and leaners are divided: 45% say they think immigrants today are a burden, while about as many (44%) say they strengthen the country.

There also are wide differences across age groups. Those ages 18-29 are more likely to say immigrants strengthen rather than burden the country by a 69%-26% margin. Among those 65 and older, slightly more view immigrants as a burden (47%) than say they strengthen the country (42%).

Hispanics hold highly positive views of immigrants. About eight-in-ten Hispanics (81%) say they think of immigrants as strengthening the country, while just 14% say they are a burden. Views of immigrants are much more mixed among blacks (52% strengthen vs. 40% burden) and whites (46% vs. 44%).

These overall assessments on how diversity and immigrants impact the country are connected to feelings toward government.

Those who view the impact of diversity and immigrants on the country negatively are more likely to express anger toward the federal government.

Among those who say immigrants strengthen the country, just 13% say they are angry with government. Anger is more than twice as high among those who view immigrants as a burden on the country: 34% say they are angry with the federal government.Anger at government higher among those who view immigrants as a burden

A similar pattern is seen in views of diversity. Among those who say diversity makes the country a better place to live, just 17% say they are angry with the federal government. This percentage rises to 24% among those who say diversity doesn’t make much difference in the country either way and reaches 42% among those who say an increasing number of people of many different races, ethnic groups and nationalities make the U.S. a worse place to live.