July 3, 2015

America divided on the secret to its success

Why Has U.S. Been Successful? Younger Adults Point to Its Ability to Change. Compared with those in many other countries, Americans stand out for their patriotism. But public opinion surveys show that Americans disagree over what’s behind their country’s success.

Pew Research Center’s political values survey has consistently found that overwhelming majorities agree with the statement “I am very patriotic.” In 2012, 89% of Americans agreed with this statement; the share agreeing has never fallen below 85% in the survey’s 25-year history.

But when asked whether the United States owed its success more to its “ability to change” or its “reliance on long-standing principles,” 51% of Americans attributed the country’s success to the former, while 44% pointed to the latter.

The question was one of many measures about the U.S., its future and its global standing we examined for our 2014 Political Typology.

Most Millennials and Generation Xers associated the country’s success with its ability to change: About six-in-ten Millennials (61%), who were ages 18-33 in 2014, and 54% of Gen Xers (ages 34-49 that year) said this was more what made the U.S. successful.

Wide Idealogical Gap Over Factors for U.S. SuccessBaby Boomers (ages 50-68) were more divided – 46% linked America’s success to its ability to change, while nearly the same share (48%) said it is due to its reliance on principles. The Silent generation (ages 69-86) was the only one in which a majority (54%) perceived America’s reliance on principles to be the reason for its success, with 39% attributing it to the ability to change.

There were substantial partisan and ideological differences in opinions about why the U.S. has been successful. By a 77% to 20% margin, liberal Democrats attributed the nation’s success to its ability to change. By almost the same margin (73% to 22%), conservative Republicans linked the success of the United States to its adherence to well-established principles.

There also were racial and ethnic differences in attitudes toward America’s success. Whites were divided, with 47% attributing America’s success to its ability to change and a nearly equal share attributing it to a reliance on principles. Minorities were more likely to credit the success to the ability to change, with 64% of blacks and 58% of Hispanics supporting this view.

Topics: Baby Boomers, Generations and Age, Millennials, Political Party Affiliation, Political Typology

  1. is an intern focusing on U.S. politics and policy at Pew Research Center.

  2. is an intern focusing on U.S. politics and policy at Pew Research Center.


  1. Rhonda12 months ago

    They are two different things when referred to in politics at least. Relying on principles is code for traditional conservatism, and ability to change is code for progressive. In other real world applications our principles can guide us through changes, which would clearly make sense. But this is all word play. It is interesting to see the results, older white men make up the majority of the conservative party and mostly chose principles. Younger people and minorities are mostly aligned with progressives and chose ability to change.

  2. earl kirkman12 months ago

    Oh please, talk about false choices. How about being based on slave labor? That was a big factor, or stealing a continent loaded with natural resources and killing it’s existing inhabitants? But you can disguise those as the ability to change, noooo problem.

    1. X112 months ago

      There’s no such thing as a “false choice.” Only propositions are true or false.

  3. Jim Lokey12 months ago

    Very interesting.

  4. Toby Hill12 months ago

    Why can our success be both change and principles, not either or but both /and.

  5. Frank James12 months ago

    @Cam, granted, it is a weird question to ask but that’s probably what makes it an interesting one to ask. Because it’s a question people probably haven’t encountered before, it probably gets them responding in ways that may give a more accurate reading of their sentiments than another, more typical question might. It certainly has revealed generational and racial differences in responses. So that seems like valuable information to have.

  6. Cam12 months ago

    It’s kind of a weird question to ask. Reliance on principles and ability to change are far from mutually exclusive. If I were asked that question, I wouldn’t know what to answer.

    1. Jack Hanke12 months ago

      Agreed. I would have answered “reliance on principles” myself – but I tend to see flexibility and pragmatism as two of those principles, which pretty much accounts for “ability to change.”

    2. Packard Day12 months ago

      Cam, I concur, with your observations but then again, I am strongly ambivalent both ways.