How does it feel being an American today? We posed this open-ended question to nearly 3,000 survey respondents March through May 2023, including 422 U.S. service members, past and present. A qualitative analysis of survey respondents’ answers offers insight into the American experience in this moment as we head into summer 2023.
The good, the bad, and the ugly
Some respondents say that being an American today feels great—amazing, even—but those expressing purely positive feelings are in the minority. Many more Americans have conflicted feelings about their national identity, and a large swath of respondents has only negative things to say about what it feels like to be an American right now.
Five primary themes emerged from survey respondents’ answers.
1. Pride and gratitude: Many individuals expressed pride in their country, its history, and its values, despite their concerns about current events.
2. Fear and anxiety: Across the partisan spectrum, Americans are feeling fearful about the direction of the country, with deep concerns about the current political climate and what it means for the future. Many people cite issue-specific anxieties over things like crime and violence (especially gun violence and political violence), immigration, and an inability to keep up with rising costs.
Some Americans’ fear is based on who they are, who they love, or the color of their skin.
3. Frustration and anger: Americans are feeling frustrated and angry over perceived corruption among elected officials, politicians’ abuses of power, and a sense that their interests are no longer fundamental drivers of governance.
4. Disappointment and embarrassment: Many individuals expressed embarrassment or shame about the U.S. and disappointment that the country is not living up to its ideals.
5. Desire for unity and hope for the future: On the left, right, and center, many Americans want more unity, less political polarization, and express optimism for our nation’s future despite concerns about the current state of affairs.
Past and present service members have a global lens
Those who served or are serving currently in the U.S. military feel stronger pride in being an American than those who haven’t served, likely because of their active role in defending the country and protecting our interests. Service members—current and former—are also more likely to view what it’s like to be an American from a global perspective, saying things like the U.S. may not be perfect but we have a lot of good things going for us here relative to other nations. They feel “lucky” to be American and not some other nationality.
Older Americans long for the past
Many older Americans, particularly those 65 and older, are feeling nostalgia for the past, comparing their current experience as an American to that of bygone decades. They say that being an American today doesn’t feel as good as before.
Many different experiences, many common threads
The results of this analysis underscore the diversity and complexity of the contemporary American experience but also highlight shared emotional realities that exist among broad subsets of the population. Messages and communication strategies can increase their effectiveness by resonating with these emotions and the underlying values that drive them.
After the majority of our surveys, we direct respondents to a follow-up survey comprising topical questions, known as Common Questions. This qualitative analysis is based on responses to this Common Questions survey. The responses were not weighted for representativeness. This data was collected from 49 states (all states except Hawaii) and the District of Columbia from March 29th, 2023 to May 21st, 2023.
For more information, please contact Betsy App at [email protected].