June 6, 2006

Two Americas, One American

The differences that divide us are much smaller than those that set us apart from the rest of the world

by Andrew Kohut and Bruce Stokes

In their new book, America Against the World, Pew Research Center President Andrew Kohut and journalist Bruce Stokes explore findings from the Pew Global Attitudes Project’s series of international surveys that highlight the role American values play in the worldwide rise in anti-Americanism in the 21st century. In the following excerpt, the authors examine the question of whether partisan divides have undermined the concept of a coherent American nation, distinctive in its core beliefs from other nations around the world.

Ample data and analysis paint a portrait of America as a nation unified and exceptional in its optimism, individualism, patriotism, religiosity, and faith in technology. But is this a fair representation of the opinions and values of a large, very heterogeneous country. Is there another America of substantial size and importance ignored in this depiction? Perhaps one peopled by cadres of closet Europhiles?

Quite so, contends the British academic and columnist Timothy Garton Ash. In his most recent book, Free World, Garton Ash argues that there are in fact “two Americas,” whose borders track the “red-blue” divide now familiar from election-night TV maps. Moreover, he maintains that “blue” America — those more liberal states, primarily on the two coasts — often turn out to be a “quite European shade of pink.”1

In a similar vein, political scientists Ronald Asmus, Philip P. Everts, and Pierangelo Isernia assert that “the real gap across the Atlantic is between American conservatives and the European mainstream.” Analyzing findings from a 2004 survey sponsored by the German Marshall Fund, they trace the source of this gap to different attitudes on key international issues: the importance of NATO and the United Nations; the use of force as a foreign policy tool; and the impact of the invasion of Iraq on the terrorism threat.2

No doubt, political divisions between Americans have sharpened in recent years, with national security issues emerging as a major focal point of partisan differences. Pew Research Center polls have demonstrated the rapid dissipation of the spirit of unity that prevailed in the country — and indeed across much of the world — in the wake of the September 11 attacks. By some measures, the gaps between American political parties on issues such as the war on terror and the use of military force are greater than in any earlier period covered by systematic polling. The most that can be concluded from the Pew data is that the views of Democrats, and to a lesser degree independents, are somewhat closer to the French, Germans, Italians, and, especially, the British than they are to Republicans with respect to select national security issues — though not with respect to the use of force. Partisan divisions are also clear with regard to the efficacy of government and the breadth and depth of the social safety net. Still, after American opinions are sliced and diced and compared to European views, the data do not support the notion that either members of the Democratic Party or residents of the coastal regions of the country would feel more at home on the other side of the Atlantic.

Core Values

Alan Wolfe had it right, by and large, when he concluded that Americans are One Nation, After All, as he titled his 1998 book. The well known sociologist spent two years conducting lengthy interviews with 200 middle-class Americans in eight communities spread across every region of the country. His sample was small but his findings are remarkably in tune with those that emerge from Pew’s large surveys.3

Yes, there are value differences, Wolfe found, between policemen and firemen in Massachusetts, retirees in a gated West Coast retirement community, African Americans in Georgia, Latinos and Asians in California, and southern whites in the Bible Belt. Views on family structures, women in the workplace, immigration, race, and welfare do vary, but the differences are more of degree than of kind, and both are further from the cultural elites of the left or the right than they are from each other. The same is true in comparing these diverse Americans to Europeans.

Among the most striking findings is Americans’ bipartisan consensus on personal optimism. Americans virtually lead the world as the most satisfied wealthy people. There is no significant difference between Republicans and Democrats in expressed contentment with their lives. On an index of progress keyed to per capita income, in which respondents rated their lives five years in the past, at the present, and five years into the future, Americans lead all peoples by a wide margin. In this case, Democrats are even more optimistic than Republicans. (Chart 10.1)

Americans from both political parties are also strongly individualistic. Personal independence has long been the cornerstone of the American character. In the early 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville noted in a trenchant and enduring observation that Americans’ “complete independence, which they constantly enjoy in regard to their equals and in the intercourse of private life, tends to make them look upon all authority with a jealous eye, and speedily suggests to them the notion and the love of political freedom.” True to these sentiments, Americans consider themselves among the freest people in the world. Fully 24% say that they have a great deal of freedom, according to the World Values Survey. By contrast, only 13% of Germans, 12% of Britons, and 9% of Spaniards and Italians consider themselves very free.4

With this sense of independence comes a uniquely American sense of personal empowerment and responsibility. Two in three Americans reject the idea that “success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control.” Americans’ belief that they control their own destiny has actually increased slightly over the last decade and a half. Republicans are somewhat more likely than Democrats, by a margin of 78% to 61%, to hold individuals primarily accountable for their lives. But the proportion of Republicans and Democrats with this view exceeds the proportion of respondents in all European countries surveyed, with the closest correspondence among Britons (48%) and Germans and Italians (both 31%).

Americans’ religiosity also distinguishes them from Europeans, regardless of party affiliation. In a survey conducted in 2002, more than six-in-ten Republicans and virtually the same proportion of Democrats agreed that belief in God is necessary in order “to be moral and have good values.” More recently, a 2004 survey found somewhat smaller numbers, with about half of both Republicans and Democrats subscribing to this view, and in both surveys, slightly fewer than half of independents equated religion and morals. But even this proportion was far higher than in much of Europe, where in 2002 only one-in-three Germans and a mere one-in-eight of the French said they saw belief in God and morality as inextricably linked. The Americans who thought most like these secular Europeans were highly-educated Democrats and independents with a college degree or better. Only three in ten among these groups saw a necessary tie between religious faith and morals.5

On the question of the importance of religion “in your own life,” Republicans were, by and large, more religious than Democrats, while independents were the most secular. However, all three groups scored well above the European averages, with 66% of Republicans, 55% of Democrats, and 48% of independents saying that religion is very important in their lives. The numbers of Europeans rating religion of high personal importance in the same 2004 survey ranged downward from 33% of the British to 11% of the French. Within the U.S. political parties, the only important regional variation in religiosity is among Southern Democrats, 71% of whom believe religion is very important. The relatively large numbers of African Americans remaining in the Democratic Party in the South may explain this figure.6

Views on homosexuality do reflect a considerable partisan divide among Americans, but also a substantial disagreement with Europe. Democrats and independents were significantly more likely than Republicans (59% and 52%, versus 38%) to agree that “homosexuality is a way of life that should be accepted by society.” But these rates are still well below European acceptance levels, which ranged from 72% in Italy to a high of 83% in Germany. (Chart 10.2)

Some regional variance in Americans’ attitudes toward homosexuality exists along the “red/blue” divide. Two-thirds of Democrats in the Northeast, and slightly more in the West, believed society should accept homosexuality, levels which approached European views. In the Midwest and South, significantly fewer Democrats agreed (57% and 50%, respectively). Education is also a factor influencing Democrats’ attitudes: 83% of those with a post-graduate degree took a tolerant view of homosexuality, which was quite near the rate of acceptance among highly educated French and Germans. Republicans, on the other hand, whatever their educational level, differed little in their views about homosexuality.7

Source: Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 2005

Views on Government and the Social Safety Net

Rugged individualism is a much prized and storied virtue In the United States, bound up with both Americans’ self-image and foreigners’ perception of the American character. With such a go-it-alone heritage, it should come as no surprise that eight-in-ten Americans believed that if people don’t succeed in life it is because of their own individual failures.

On this issue, the views of Democrats and independents are indeed closer to those of Europeans than they are to those of Republicans. In 2002, barely one-in-ten Republicans blamed society for the plight of poor people, while nearly three-in-ten Democrats and one-in-four independents put the primary onus on society. The French agreed with the Democrats, as did one-in-five Germans and Britons. While divisions on this question show little regional variation and so do not map along the “red-blue” divide, 45% of Democrats with a college degree or more said society is at fault for people’s poverty — in this case a much greater tendency to blame society than prevails in Europe.8

Note: Question was worded, “Now I’m going to read you a list of issues facing people in our society today. For each, please tell me if it is something you think people like you should feel entirely responsible for, or if it is something people like you should expect the government to help with.”

Other “quasi-European” tendencies among Democrats were identified in an exploration of intergenerational attitudes toward Social Security and the safety net conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates in 1997. Democrats were somewhat closer to Europeans in assigning government the responsibility for seeing that individuals save enough to maintain their standard of living in retirement, for ensuring that old people do not retire into poverty and, especially, for ensuring that “no one lives in poverty.” But when respondents were asked whether “people like you” should feel “entirely responsible” for providing food, clothing, and housing for their children under age 18, Democrats were far closer to Republicans on average (79% and 89% agreed, respectively) than to Europeans (57% agreed). The level at which independents agreed was precisely the average for Americans as a whole: 82%. A more recent poll in 2005 backed these findings. Indeed, it is noteworthy that on nearly every question regarding social issues, independents — who are the controlling center of American politics — stand squarely between the two parties and thus also to the right of Europeans.9

The National Security Divide

As mentioned earlier, a number of commentators see a widening gap on national security between “red” state Republicans and “blue” state Democrats. For example, Asmus, Everts and Isernia argue that “[t]he real gap across the Atlantic is between American conservatives and the European mainstream.” They point to “the existence of a strong ‘hawk’ minority centered in the Republican Party that believes that military power is more important than economic power and that war is, at times, necessary to obtain justice.” Pew’s data support this analysis to a large degree. All Americans are certainly more willing to use force than most Europeans, and significant partisan differences are found on these issues.10

In 2004, almost nine-in-ten Republicans agreed that “the U.S.-led war on terrorism is a sincere effort to reduce international terrorism.” Independents were more skeptical, with two-thirds agreeing. Democrats, however, were doubtful, with barely more than half accepting the war as sincere. In Europe, British views were very close to those of Democrats, but the continent was more dubious, with only one-third of the French and three-in-ten Germans agreeing. Most striking was that the gap between Republicans and Democrats was double that between Democrats and Germans: a 36-percentage-point “red-blue” spread versus a 17-percentage-point trans-Atlantic difference.11

Republicans also took a far dimmer view of the United Nations than did Democrats. Merely 21% agreed that the United States “should have UN approval before it uses military forces to deal with an international threat” compared with 57% of Democrats, 64% of the British, 63% of the French, and 80% of Germans. Again, the gap between the American partisans is much greater than that between Democrats and Europeans. Republicans, as well as independents, also held a less favorable view of the United Nations overall than did Democrats, with the Democrats supporting the international body at virtually the same rate as the Germans and the French.

Republicans were also more inclined than Democrats to use military force “to deal with threats to world peace.” In this case, however, the partisan gap was not nearly so great. In a 2002 survey, 92% of Republicans said they completely or mostly agreed with military intervention in such situations, compared with 77% of Democrats. Here Democratic views were closest to those in Great Britain, where 81% of the public supported the use of military force, but far more bellicose than those in Germany, where only 54% of those surveyed supported military force. Even among Democrats in the Northeast, the putative hotbed of liberal pacifism, support for military action against threats to world peace was 72%.12

On the Middle East, a sensitive issue in U.S. politics, Democrats fell midway between Republicans and Europeans on sympathy for Israel. Six-in-ten Republicans, compared with slightly more than four-in-ten Democrats and independents, said they sympathize more with Israelis than with Palestinians. Only two-in-ten Europeans agreed.

Republicans, once the major isolationist party in the United States, have in general become more internationally minded and activist since September 11. However, relatively few members of either party believe that the nation should be “the single world leader.” The proportion of Republicans holding that view actually declined slightly in the past few years, from 19% in pre-attack September 2001 to 14% in 2004. But Republicans were more likely to agree in 2004 that the United States should be the “most active of the leading nations” in the world: 40% supported this role for the country, compared with 26% three years earlier. (By contrast only 22% of both Democrats and independents subscribed to that view in 2004, down from 28% among Democrats in 2001; the view among independents was unchanged between those years.)

Source: Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 2004

Along the same line, Republicans are now less likely than Democrats to believe that America “should not think so much in international terms but concentrate more on our own national problems and building up our strength and prosperity here at home.” Fully 55% of Republicans in 2004 still favored focusing more on the home front, but that response level was markedly lower than the 75% of Democrats who favored a domestic focus. Significant differences on this question were found within both parties according to educational level. The internationalist outlook was supported by fewer than three-in-ten Republicans with a high school education or less compared with more than half of both Republicans and Democrats with college or post-graduate degrees.

Republicans were also far more inclined than Democrats, by a 19-percentage-point margin, to believe the United States “takes into account the interests of other countries around the world” (85% versus 56% in 2004). But even here, where the partisan division was sharp, the American outlook was significantly different from the viewpoint in Europe, where as few as 32% of respondents believed that the United States is mindful of other national interests. Only Democrats with post-graduate degrees were as dubious as Europeans about American concerns for other countries.13

Still, it is easy to overstate the durability of the “red-blue” divide even on the international issues that have become so contentious in recent political debates. Foreign policy differences between American political parties have often been influenced by perceptions of the man in the White House. During Bill Clinton’s tenure, Republicans were inclined to criticize American interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Somalia. With Republicans in firm control of both the presidency and Congress, the U.S. government took a tougher line on foreign policy even before the September 11 attacks. Whether it will endure if there is a change in Republican political fortunes is not certain.

Moreover, there are many other international issues on which partisan differences are slight. On the matter of “promoting democracy in other nations,” a building block of Bush administration foreign policy, Republicans were only slightly more likely to rate it as a top priority than were Democrats or Independents in an August 2004 Pew survey. When respondents were examined by party, region, and education, the group that recorded the highest level of support for promoting democracy was, surprisingly, Democrats with a high school education.

Moreover, more than 80% of both Democrats and Republicans believed it would be “a good thing…if the European Union becomes as powerful as the U.S.” Such support for a stronger Europe registered not far below the 90%-and-upward recorded in European countries. And little separates Republicans and Democrats on the question of whether “the U.S. and Europe should remain as close” as in the past on diplomatic and security affairs: 51% of Republicans and 61% of Democrats agreed. In comparison, only 40% of Britons, 36% of Germans, and a mere 21% of the French favored remaining as closely tied to America.14

So even as partisan differences have escalated in the United States in recent years, the divisions among Americans are not great enough to contend that there is no coherent American point of view on many issues. Certainly with respect to core personal values, the differences in the United States are minimal across partisan, regional, and class lines when compared against European views. Democrats, as members of America’s left-of-center party, stand closer than Republicans to the publics of the social democracies of Western Europe when it comes to the role of government in society and the extent of the social safety net. Nevertheless, Democrats as a whole are more conservative than Europeans. The same is true with respect to the national security issues that have been so polarizing in the United States during the Bush years.

In this regard, it is worth emphasizing that the divide between Republicans and Democrats on the use of force to protect the country revolves around how to use force, not whether to use it. The gap between parties on America’s leadership role in the world is not huge. And despite their loyalty to President Bush, Republicans endorse his call for promoting democracy around the world only marginally more than do Democrats. Members of both parties agree that it would be a nice thing to spread democracy, but both give it very low priority relative to other international objectives for the United States.

These attitudes reflect the skepticism and pragmatic realism that are important qualities in the American character. The United States is, at heart, a nation of realistic centrists, with the important caveat that the middle of the American national road runs considerably to the right of the European mainstream. Most Americans are wary of ideologues of the left or of the right, and rarely inclined to impose their personal beliefs upon others even when their moral and religious beliefs are strongly held. In the end, Americans are far more alike than different from each other, and still exceptional in being distinct from Europeans by most measures.

  1. Timothy Garton Ash, Free World: America, Europe, and the Surprising Future of the West (New York: Random House, 2004), p. 77.
  2. Ronald Asmus, Philip P. Everts, and Pierangelo Isernia, “Across the Atlantic and the Political Aisle: The Double Divide in U.S.-European Relations,” Transatlantic Trends Report (German Marshall Fund, 2004).
  3. Alan Wolfe, One Nation, After All : What Americans Really Think About God, Country, Family, Racism, Welfare, Immigration, Homosexuality, Work, The Right, The Left and Each Other (New York: Penguin Books, 1999).
  4. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York: Signet Books, 2001). Text originally published in 1835 (volume I) and 1840 (volume II). World Values Surveys 1995-2000.
  5. Pew Research Center, “Religious Beliefs Underpin Opposition to Homosexuality,” November 18, 2003. Pew Global Attitudes Project, Survey: “Views of a Changing World,” June 3, 2003.
  6. Pew Research Center, political typology: “Beyond Red Vs. Blue,” May 10, 2005. Pew Global Attitudes Survey “Views of a Changing World,” June 3, 2003.
  7. Beyond Red Vs. Blue,” May 10, 2005.
  8. Pew Research Center Forum on Religion & Public Life, Survey: “Public Makes Distinctions on Genetic Research,” April 9, 2002. European data comes from “What the World Thinks in 2002,” December 4, 2002.
  9. Princeton Survey Research Associates, Survey: “Americans Discuss Social Security,” 1997. CBS/New York Times poll, Feb. 24-28, 2005, and based on telephone interviews with a national sample of 1,111 adults.
  10. Asmus, Everts and Isernia, “Across the Atlantic and the Political Aisle.”
  11. Pew Global Attitudes Project, Survey: “A Year After Iraq War: Mistrust of America in Europe Ever Higher, Muslim Anger Persists,” March 16, 2004.
  12. Pew Global Attitudes Project: Survey of Six Nations, conducted November 2-10, 2002.
  13. Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, Survey: “Foreign Policy Attitudes Now Driven by 9/11 and Iraq: Eroding Respect for America Seen as Major Problem,” August 18, 2004.
  14. Pew Global Attitudes Project, Survey: “A Year After Iraq War: Mistrust of America in Europe Ever Higher, Muslim Anger Persists,” March 16, 2004.