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July 04, 2014 12:32 PM Different Kind of Patriotism

By Ed Kilgore

Today’s Independence Day must-read is from political scientist Lynn Vavreck at The Upshot, about generational change in how Americans express affection for their country.

Measures of American patriotism over the last several decades are found in the American National Election Study (A.N.E.S.), the nation’s longest-running data collection on political attitudes and behavior. Started in 1948, the A.N.E.S. is funded by the National Science Foundation, and the interviews are done in person every four years, in the homes of nearly 2,000 randomly selected Americans.
When you see the American flag flying, the A.N.E.S. asks, how good does it make you feel? People can choose from categories that range from “extremely good” to “not good at all.” In 2012, 79 percent of Americans responded with extremely or very good. Only 7 percent said slightly or not good at all.
There is also a question asking how people “feel about this country.” More than 95 percent of Americans either love or like their country, with 70 percent saying “love it” and only one-third of one percent saying “hate it.” Sixty-one percent say that being an American is “extremely important” on a personal level. Only 1.5 percent say it is “not at all important.”
There are small differences in levels of patriotism across political parties, between men and women, and among racial groups, but these patterns pale in comparison to the differences across generations, with overt patriotism shifting down with age. Here’s a striking example: 81 percent of the Silent Generation (those who are 69 to 86 years old in 2014) love America while only 58 percent of millennials (18 to 33 years old) feel the same….
Seventy-eight percent of the older generation consider their American identity to be extremely important. That drops to 70 percent for baby boomers (50 to 68 years), 60 percent of Generation X’ers (34 to 49 years), and only 45 percent of young adults define themselves this way. And while 94 percent of the Silent Generation say that seeing the U.S. flag flying makes them feel extremely or very good, only 67 percent of millennials muster the same affection.

But when it comes to substance rather than symbols, the youngsters come across rather differently:

[T]he A.N.E.S. data show millennials to be extremely supportive of the ideals and values of democracy, if not the symbols of America. In particular, equality stands out.
The A.N.E.S. asked respondents whether they agreed or disagreed with six statements about equality. One of them was: “It is not really that big a problem if some people have more of a chance in life than others.” People who agree with the statement are saying that the differences in people’s prospects aren’t terribly problematic for American society. Only 28 percent of Americans agree with that statement; 21 percent neither agree nor disagree. Half think it is a big problem that some people get more of a chance in life than others.
The difference between millennials and the Silent Generation on this question is 20 points. While 42 percent of the older generation thinks unequal chances in life are not a big problem, only 20 percent of millennials do. As for the reverse, only 37 percent of the Silent Generation think unequal chances are a big problem compared to 57 percent of young people.
In general, millennials have more appetite for egalitarian principles than older people. They may look less patriotic than the rest of America at first glance, but coming of age in the era of globalization and being a more racially diverse generation may simply mean that traditional symbols of American democracy hold less meaning for this cohort. Milliennials may be less devoted to the symbols of America, but they are no less devoted to democratic ideals.

So are the millenials more or less patriotic than their predecessors? It depends on whether you consider equality essential to what it means to be an American. The Tea Folk clearly don’t.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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