A couple weeks ago, Laura Ingraham’s rant on her Fox News program really pissed some people off. Even though her show is usually bursting with stars, stripes, and plenty of red meat for the base, this one was different.
Ingraham stated that, “in some parts of the country, it does seem like the America that we know and love doesn’t exist anymore.”
“Massive demographic changes have been foisted upon the American people,” she continued, “and they’re changes that none of us ever voted for and most of us don’t like. From Virginia to California, we see stark examples of how radically in some ways the country has changed.”
Although she insisted this was more about rule of law and not at all about race or ethnicity, her dog whistle reverberated throughout the media landscape like a bullhorn. Laura Ingraham doesn’t seem to really like today’s more diverse America. And while there have been plenty of think pieces that have responded to her vitriol, I wanted to use this as a time to reflect on what patriotism really means to Americans in 2018, and what values we hold that correlate to being patriotic. Is she on an island alone with her opinions? How many other people feel that the America they know is not the America that many of us see today.
I was honored last summer to take part in crafting a special research study, called “Generation Nation.” Along with the generational-research experts at 747 Insights, and my team at Collaborata, we surveyed 4,000 Americans about a wide range of values and behaviors to truly see what cuts to the core of being an American, and whether and how those may differ for each generation.
There were a lot of surprises. Some of our biggest generational divides deal with concepts around patriotism and American Exceptionalism.
One of the most direct examples: respondents where asked to choose from a list of adjectives that best describe them. Some of the most frequently selected choices were “trustworthy,” “kind,” and “loyal,” with roughly 70% identifying with these terms.
But only one-fourth of Americans described themselves as “patriotic.” Breaking down that number, a full 42% of Boomers called themselves “patriotic,” compared to 27% of Xers, and only 18% of Millennials and 15% of Gen Z.
Despite the study covering such a wide range of content, there wasn’t another measure in “Generation Nation” (outside of Snapchat and YouTube habits, and well, retirement) that found such a stark generational divide.
At first, we thought this might be more reflective of lifestage than generation. Angst-y teens, we hypothesized, aren’t too enthusiastic about pledging their allegiance to a flag or providing blanket support to a country that is far from perfect.
But when looking deeper at the response patterns within the data, we concluded that the decline of patriotism is a generational trend. The luster of patriotism has faded for the younger generations, who worry less about national flags and borders and instead believe in social injustice regardless of its location. Although Gen Z likely won’t be waving as many American flags as older generations, they still believe in core American values, with a desire that these become universal across the globe.
Here’s how we came to that conclusion.
When was America the greatest?
When we asked this question last year, the most frequently mentioned responses were the 1980s (20%) and the 1990s (18%). Our ingoing hypothesis was that Americans would feel a nostalgic pride for the decade in which they grew up, and this was generally proved true.
Boomers (23%) believe America was the greatest in the 1950s. Xers (30%) argued it was the 80s, while Millennials (28%) contend America’s greatest decade was the 90s. Gen Z, however, was evenly split among the 90s (18%), 2000s (18%), and 2010s (18%). The youngest generation’s answers reflect not only a similar affinity for the time in which each cohort grew up, but also that Gen Z isn’t yet old enough to wax nostalgic for their coming-of-age years. It might also reflect that this youngest cohort believes that they’re growing up in a not-so-great moment of U.S. history. (Notice how the Boomers did not choose the 60s.)
There were significant racial divisions when it came to this question as well. While 16% of whites chose the 1950s, only 5% of blacks did. Although we didn’t ask which decades were farthest from “great,” it’s evident that black Americans would have placed the 1950s Jim Crow era toward the top of that list.
And in case anyone was curious where Laura Ingraham’s primetime colleague stands on the topic, this is what Tucker Carlson told the American Conservative in February about where he lives: “We have wonderful neighbors, and we love it. And what’s not to love? Our neighborhood looks exactly like it did in 1955.”
We also found a rural vs. urban divide along similar trends. Those who live in rural areas chose the 80s (22%) and the 50s (16%) as America’s finest recent decade, while those living in urban areas chose the 90s (20%).
Generation Z is the most ethnically diverse cohort we’ve ever seen in the U.S. And they are more urban than previous generations. So yes, Laura Ingraham is correct that we are experiencing a demographic shift that is impacting what this country “looks” like. Her concern regarding the “massive demographic shifts” that have been “foisted upon her” is not shared by most of the country, particularly the youngest two generations, according to the data.
Values Check: Fox News and Gen Z
For Laura Ingraham, her love of her countrymen apparently extends only to those who are demographically similar to her. In her rant, she explained the reason why the country she once lived is no more: “Now, much of this is related to both illegal, and in some cases legal immigration that, of course, progressives love.”
So where do Americans stand on ideas of immigration? Again, there’s a significant generational divide, even though the debate overall does not swing the way of Ingraham’s opinion. More than half (55%) of Boomers support tougher immigration laws, while only about 32% support building a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
Gen Xers are less enthusiastic about these policies: 43% want tougher immigration laws, and 27% want the wall. Millennials and Gen Z, not surprisingly show much more progressive views when it comes to immigration, with only 26% wanting tougher immigration laws and less than 19% wanting the border wall.
So most Americans seem to be in favor of continuing our country’s tradition of welcoming in immigrants. Even the Boomers, who tend to be more conservative than the younger cohorts, are fairly split on immigration, but overwhelmingly do not support President Trump’s favorite pet project, the wall. Laura Ingraham is of course not alone on Fox News for expressing fear over this demographic change.
Give Us Your Best, Your Brightest, Your Huddled Riches.
In March of last year, Carlson expressed fear for this demographic change. “No nation, no society has ever changed this much this fast,” Carlson said. “This is more change than human beings are designed to digest. This pace of change makes societies volatile, really volatile.”
Is Carlson concerned more about the pace of change, or the change itself? How many other people are as concerned about the browning of America as Carlson? (As a side note, the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer has referred to Carlson as “literally our greatest ally.”)
And here is an area where there is no generational divide. Asked, in “Generation Nation” if ethnic and racial diversity makes society better, Americans answered with an overwhelming YES. More than 60% agreed with that statement, with only 12% disagreeing. And not so surprisingly, 70% of Americans agree that racial discrimination is a problem today.
Research from the University of Alabama’s George Hawley, a political scientist who specializes in demography and the far right, published by UVA’s Institute for Family Studies, found that roughly 5.6% of America’s 198 million non-Hispanic whites have beliefs consistent with the alt-right’s worldview, placing them more in line with Ingraham and Carlson. Extrapolating that percentage leaves us with roughly 11 million alt-right Americans. On its face, that is a lot of people and constitutes something larger than a fringe. But again, roughly 95% of non-Hispanic whites disagree with the alt-right.
Let me address our Fox News hosts directly for a moment: Mr. Carlson and Ms Ingraham, the America you think you know is not the America most of us live in and experience.
Your support of America’s history of exclusion and discrimination, with the hope of continuing these traditions into America’s future, is not the path that the vast majority of Americans want to take.
But here’s a shocking area of agreement between these two newsmakers, who continually complain about the decline of America, and the majority of young Americans. Both are pretty upset at the current state of affairs in the U.S., albeit for wildly different reasons.
Asked if the United States is currently the greatest country in the world, each subsequent generation after the Boomers answered “no” more than the previous generation. According to 68% of Boomers, America is the tops, while 63% of Xers concurred. There’s a big divide here for the younger generations. Only 48% of Millennials and 32% of Gen Z agree with this statement.
While plenty of Gen Z remains neutral on the subject (many still haven’t yet taken their U.S. history class in high school), a whopping 37% disagreed with the statement, reflecting a massive sea change in how Americans look inward.
Unlike Ingraham and Carlson who believe that immigration is one of the core reasons the U.S. is not as great as it once was, the younger generation is more concerned that the powerful in this country aren’t doing enough to help those less fortunate and more in need. Additionally, young respondents don’t understand why, as Americans, we should place our needs above those in other countries. Growing up in the shadow of multiple never-ending wars and growing international conflicts, leaving millions of refugees scattered across the globe, young Americans today don’t believe that their privilege of being born in the U.S. should automatically result in a privilege the rest of their lives. Additionally, many in Gen Z don’t understand, if we are so great, why our country’s list of intractable problems seems to continually expand and rarely contract. From political corruption, wage inequality and student-loan debt, to race and gender discrimination, these are problems that impact young people often on a daily basis, continually shaking their faith in the American Experiment.
Asked if America should put itself first, ahead of other countries’ needs, about 70% of Boomers and Xers agreed with this statement: 56% of Millennials want to put America first, along with only 40% of Gen Z. There is again a huge generational divide in how Americans view our country’s place in the world. The younger generation does not believe that Americans have a special right to pursue their own happiness at the expense of others across the globe. There’s a reason why some researchers have floated around the idea of calling Gen Z the “globalist generation.”
We just fielded the second wave of “Generation Nation,” which repeated several of the key measures cited in this article, along with new questions and a qualitative component.
So much has changed in the past year. We’ve seen massive groups of people politically activated for the first time, impacting the political landscape on an almost-daily basis. From the record number of women running for political office, to Parkland’s #NeverAgain campaign that has helped register thousands of new Gen Z voters, to a wave of white nationalism that has also grown the number of passionate voters, Americans are continually redefining what it means to be an American and how all of us feel about being an American. We’re here to document and make sense of those changes.
Much more to come, thanks to “Generation Nation 2019.”