Patriotic, honest and selfish: How Americans describe … Americans
The American public has shown itself to be quite critical in its views of politicians and the federal government, expressing low levels of trust in both. Yet a recent Pew Research Center survey of attitudes about government also finds that Americans pull no punches when assessing the strengths and weaknesses of their fellow citizens.
The public gives the “typical American” a mixed assessment when asked about specific traits. Most (79%) agree that the term “patriotic” describes the typical American very or fairly well, and majorities also view the typical American as “honest” (69%) and “intelligent” (67%).
However, just over two-thirds (68%) say the term “selfish” also applies to the typical American very or fairly well, and half of the public says that the typical American can be aptly described as “lazy.”
In general, younger people tend have more negative views of the typical American than do older adults. Millennials, who are highly critical of members of their own generation, are especially likely to see the typical American as lazy: 63% say that term applies at least fairly well, compared with no more than about half in older age cohorts.
It’s worth noting, however, that in a separate Pew Research Center survey released today, few Americans call themselves “lazy.”
When it comes to politics, the public also is self-critical: Just 34% say they have “very great” or a “good” deal of trust and confidence in the political wisdom of the American people. Fully 63% have “not very much” confidence or “no confidence at all.”
These views have changed dramatically since 2007, when a majority (57%) had at least a good deal of trust and confidence in the American people’s political wisdom. The decline has come among both Democrats and Republicans: Just 37% of Democrats and Democratic leaners have at least a good deal of confidence in the public’s political wisdom, as do 36% of Republicans and Republican leaners, down from 57% and 61%, respectively, eight years ago.
However, even as the public readily acknowledges the shortcomings of Americans, a majority nonetheless see themselves as better able than politicians to solve the nation’s problems.
Most Americans (56%) acknowledge that the big issues facing the country lack clear solutions. Yet a comparable majority (55%) says that “ordinary Americans” could do a better job than elected officials of solving the country’s problems. Only about four-in-ten (39%) say elected officials could do no better than the politicians.
The belief that ordinary people are superior problem-solvers is particularly widespread among the minority of Americans (22%) who say they are angry with the federal government. Among those angry at government, 73% say ordinary Americans could do better than politicians. That compares with 53% of those who are frustrated, but not angry, with government and 40% of those who are basically content with the federal government.
Samantha Smith is a research assistant focusing on U.S. politics and policy at Pew Research Center.