America First?

New UMD Critical Issues Poll Report Shows National Identity on the Decline for both Republicans and Democrats

President Trump championed the “America First” theme during the 2016 presidential campaign and in his first year in office. However, a UMD analysis of three national polls conducted between November 2015 and November 2017 reveals American national identity is on the decline among both Republicans and Democrats. When comparing responses to polls taken in November 2015, October 2016 and November 2017, analysts found American national identity has declined since 2015 within both parties by roughly the same degree (9-10%). Still, the latest poll shows that national identity remains the stronger identity for all Americans (44%), with Democrats nearly evenly divided between national and cosmopolitan identities.

In the November 2017 Critical Issues Poll, respondents were asked to name the identity that was most important to them from a list that included being a citizen of the U.S., a follower of their religious faith, their gender, a citizen of the world, or a member of their race or ethnic group. Among Republicans, 53% selected their American identity as being the most important – a decline from 62% in 2015; and 33% selected religious identity, a rise from 24% in 2015. Democrats were evenly split between their American identity (35%) and their cosmopolitan identity (34%); compared with 45% and 27%, respectively, in 2015. Democrats were also more likely than Republicans to select gender, but neither race nor ethnicity was a popular choice among any of the groups polled.

Overall, Democrats were almost five times more likely than Republicans to say that being a citizen of the world was their most important identity (34% of Democrats said this compared to only 7% of Republicans). Republicans were also almost three times more likely than Democrats to say that religion was their most important identity with 33% of Republicans saying this and only 12% of Democrats choosing religion. Neither race nor ethnicity were popular choices among either party.

“The results compared with 2015 are somewhat surprising, given that Trump the president and the candidate has pushed the ‘America first’ theme for two years,” said Professor Shibley Telhami, Director of the UMD Critical Issues Poll. “The decline of the number of Democrats who identify themselves as a citizen of the U.S. first is not surprising; but the similar decline among Republicans is striking, most of which appears to account for the increase in religious identity among Republicans.”

The identity divide is also apparent when looking at both age and gender, Telhami noted. For example, millennial Republicans were almost four times more likely to say their American citizenship is more important than their cosmopolitan identity (41% v 11%). With stories of sexual harassment and assault dominating the media, the report also delved into issues of identity across gender. Analysis revealed that Democratic women were almost three times as likely as Republican women to select gender as the most important identity.

Perceptions of the American Dream

The Critical Issues Poll report also looked at the concept of the American Dream and whether it is the circumstances of one’s birth or hard work that is the major determinant of success in the United States. A large partisan divide exists over this issue: 82% of Republicans believe that hard work is the main determinant of success whereas only 43% of Democrats said this. Although the report shows partisanship is the principal identity dividing Americans, age is also a factor that divides the population. Millennials (respondents aged 18-34) who identify as both Republican and Democratic, are around seven percentage points more likely to say that the circumstances of one’s birth determines success as opposed to hard work. These results show a growing generational split. Whether one identifies as a citizen of the U.S. or of the world also plays a factor in their belief about the American Dream. While Republicans generally believe that hard work is the most important factor, Republicans who identify as a citizen of the world are almost twice as likely as those identifying as an American citizen to believe that it is the circumstances of one’s birth rather than hard work that lead to success (31% v 16%).

“It is easy to just revert to partisanship as an overarching explanation for differences in opinions about important issues and leave it at that,” said Associate Professor Stella Rouse, Associate Director of the UMD Critical Issues Poll. “However, as our poll findings show, other identities cut across the partisan divide to provide a more complex understanding of American attitudes. We see this in the way generational identity, for example, affects perceptions about the American Dream, above and beyond partisan differences.”

Other issues explored by the Critical Issues Poll report include the opportunity for upward mobility, support for confederate monuments and NFL protests. The full report can be accessed here.  

For further information, including previous polls, click here, email, or call 301-405-6734.

Methodology: The survey was carried out November 1-6, 2017 online from a nationally representative sample of Nielsen Scarborough’s probability-based panel, originally recruited by mail and telephone using a random sample of adults provided by Survey Sampling International. The national sample was 2,000, including a down-weighted oversample of 1,042 among 18-34 year olds. Responses were weighted by age, gender, income, education, race, and geographic region using benchmarks from the US Census. The survey was also weighted by partisan identification. The margin of error is 2.19%.


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