July 1, 2016

How the public views the secret to America’s success

Compared with many other countries in the world, Americans stand out for their patriotism. But 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% agreed with this statement; the share agreeing had never fallen below 85% in the survey’s 25-year history.

Why has U.S. been successful? Younger adults point to its ‘ability to change’But when asked whether the U.S. owed its success more to its “ability to change” or its “reliance on long-standing principles,” 51% of Americans attributed its success to the ability to change, while 43% pointed to reliance on long-standing principles.

The question was one of many measures about the country and its future we examined for our 2015 survey on government performance. For most Millennials and Gen Xers, the country’s success was associated with its ability to change. About six-in-ten Millennials (62%), ages 18 to 34 in 2015, and 51% of Gen Xers (then ages 35 to 50) said the U.S. had been successful because of its ability to change.

Boomers (ages 51-69 at the time) were more divided: 45% said it was due to America’s ability to change while nearly the same share (49%) said it was due to its reliance on principles. Members of the Silent generation (ages 70-87) were also split: 43% said America has been successful because of its ability to change while 46% say it is due to its reliance on long-standing principles.

Wide ideological gap over factors for U.S. successThere were substantial partisan and ideological differences on this question. By a 76% to 20% margin, liberal Democrats attributed the nation’s success to its ability to change. By a similar margin (72% to 24%), 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 48% attributing America’s success to its ability to change and a similar share (46%) attributing it to a reliance on principles. Minorities were more likely to accredit the success to the ability to change, with 61% of blacks and 57% of Hispanics supporting this view.

Note: This is an update of a post originally written by Camila Rey and Sofi Sinozich, former interns at Pew Research Center, and published on July 3, 2015. 

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

  1. Photo of Samantha Smith

    is a research assistant focusing on U.S. politics and policy at Pew Research Center.


  1. Anonymous1 year ago

    Wow, one question? And it wasn’t a question that I was expecting.
    But it does indicate that a majority of Americans are pretty ignorant.

  2. Anonymous1 year ago

    They change their ideals successfully. Hence the success .

  3. Anonymous1 year ago

    The US military has lost a lot of credibility, and for good reason.

  4. Vic Volpe1 year ago

    Culturally as well as institutionally we have never been a status quo nation. Our ability to change is what makes the American experience unique in history.

  5. Rhonda2 years 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.

  6. earl kirkman2 years 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. X12 years ago

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

      1. Anonymous1 year ago

        Maybe he means false dichotomy. As Rhonda points out, principals can guide change, so they’re not mutually exclusive.

  7. Jim Lokey2 years ago

    Very interesting.

  8. Toby Hill2 years ago

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

  9. Frank James2 years 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.

  10. Cam2 years 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 Hanke2 years 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 Day2 years ago

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