US belief in national exceptionalism collapses

Donald Trump promised he would make America great again. Instead he has presided over a significant collapse in belief in American exceptionalism.

While the rest of the western world (other than fellow travellers like Morrison and Howard) has always been conscious of what really makes the US exceptional – racism and limited democracy; constant waging of war; appalling health care for poorer citizens; worker exploitation; religious extremism; massive inequality; organising coups and assassinations in nations around the world; torture of prisoners; and the ignorance, hypocrisy and myopia which allows many citizens to deny it all. …and to add to that list of the exceptional, The Economist (20 June 2020) reported that the US is one of only 13 countries (along with Venezuela and Syria) where the maternal mortality rate increased between 2000 and 2017.

Yet in the US it has been almost treasonous to suggest it is not the greatest country in not only the world but also in history. However, the attitudes of Americans are changing – as demonstrated by a number of recent surveys – and reality is starting to penetrate.

The Washington Post has reported (23/6/2020) on a COVID-19 Social Change Survey by social scientists at Northwestern University. It is a daily nationally representative of US public opinions, behaviours and attitudes to the pandemic and broader issues. The survey shows that belief in US superiority is plummeting. When asked whether the US was better than other countries in various areas responses included: in the area of criminal justice only 29% thought the US was better; as far as the economy 43%; health care 30%; and, workers well-being 33%.

As for what people might do about it Beth Redbird, a Northwestern sociology professor and principal investigator for the survey, said: “In times of great crisis, we can realize our institutions are not working for us. Maybe we decide it’s time to change institutions we’ve taken for granted.”

The Gallup organisation, in surveys taken this month, has also found that American pride is on a downward trajectory and has reached the lowest point in two decades of Gallup measurement.

“American pride has continued its downward trajectory reaching the lowest point in the two decades of Gallup measurement. The new low comes at a time when the U.S. faces public health and economic crises brought on by the coronavirus pandemic and civil unrest following the death of George Floyd in police custody,” it said.

Although a majority of adults in the U.S. still say they are ‘extremely proud’ (42%) or ‘very proud’ (21%) to be American, both readings are the lowest they have been since Gallup’s initial measurement in 2001.

At the same time, 15% of Americans say they are ‘moderately proud,’ 12% “only a little proud’ and 9% ‘not at all proud.’ No doubt this lower 21% will be a priority for Trump and the Republicans to prevent from voting in November or indeed ever.

The survey also found that only 20% of Americans are satisfied with the way things are going in the US while presidential approval fell back to 39%.

Since 2016, the extreme pride measure is at its lowest among several demographic subgroups that have been consistently less likely to express extreme pride over the years. They include adults aged 18-29, women, college graduates and non-whites.

But it also depends on whether you have red or blue eyes. In 2019 there was a record 54 point gap between Republicans and Democrats who were extremely proud to be Americans. The gap is narrower this year — 43 points — because of the decline in Republican pride but is still much larger than in the past. Extreme pride among whites has fallen below 50% for the first time and among non-whites it is 24%.

Meanwhile the George Mason University 4C and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication has been researching similar territory with emphasis on trust in a survey from April this year.

The survey report “Estimated (the) percentage of Americans in all 50 states who ‘somewhat’ or ‘strongly trust’ different sources of information about COVID-19.

“Trust in different media sources…… is much more varied. Local TV is the most trusted media source, with 82% of Americans saying they somewhat or strongly trust their local broadcasts. Many fewer people trust national media networks (CNN, 57%; MSNBC, 52%; and FOX News, 52%,” the report said.

“Local and state government officials are the most-trusted government source (74% and 72%, respectively). Members of Congress (55%) are trusted by far fewer Americans, and President Trump is the only source trusted by fewer than half of Americans (48%) for information about COVID-19.”

If you think the State-level figures would be skewed by whether they come from red or blue states the “data also indicate that there is less geographic variation in trusted sources than one might expect given the increasing partisanship in general and around COVID-19 in particular. In fact, the range of variability in levels of trust across all 50 states is no more than 4 percentage points for any source.”

And before Australians get too complacent on questions of trust Transparency International Australia’s research found that 85% of Australians thought that at least some Federal politicians were corrupt.

The research also found that: “Trust and confidence in all levels of government fell in the last year, to 46% for federal and state levels and 51% for local government nationally”

There were continued low levels of experienced bribery (less than 2%), but high concerns about officials or politicians using their position to benefit themselves or family (62%) or favouring businesses and individuals in return for political donations or support (56%).

“A nine point increase since 2016 in perceptions that federal members of parliament are corrupt (85% at least ‘some’ corrupt, 18% ‘most/all’ corrupt) – placing them on par with state parliamentarians and worse than local officials” was another finding.

Meanwhile, across the ditch there is a different factor at work – one which has even impressed the ultimate cynical and ruthless political hack, Alastair Campbell, who was allegedly the model for the Malcolm Tucker character in the trilogy of films about the Blair years.

About the lack of trust in leadership around the world he said: “At the other end of the empathetic scale, could any other leader have stood at a government lectern and talked directly to children about how yes, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny were key workers, but they might not be able to get everywhere because they were so busy in these challenging times?” The other end presumably being Boris or Trump.

Noel Turnbull is retired and blogs at http://noelturnbull.com/blog/

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Noel Turnbull is a blogger who has had a 40-year-plus career in public relations, politics, journalism and academia.

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