Whether or not “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” as the British writer Samuel Johnson observed more than 200 years ago, it may be the first refuge of a broad cross-section of modern-day Americans, regardless of their ethnicity, religion or political affiliation.
On this all-American holiday, the nationalistic impulse among Americans remains strong almost four years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, according to a recent poll.
The poll, conducted by the Roper Reports unit of NOP World, is based on personal and telephone interviews over several years. It found that 81 percent of Americans believed patriotism is “in,” meaning it is an important factor in their individual identities, compared with 14 percent of Americans who believed patriotism is “out.”
The Roper/NOP poll found the gap was the widest since 1991, after the first Persian Gulf War, and far wider than during the mid- to late 1990s.
“That [patriotism] appears so long after the period of frenzied flag-waving following 9/11 suggests that it is settling in as a fixture of American perceptions,” according to Roper Reports.
Sept. 11 as pivot point
The poll was released in April, but even accounting for recent reverses in the Iraq war and the relative imprecision of such terms as “in” and “out,” the findings hold, said Cary Silvers, NOP World vice president of consumer trends. “As far as relevance, the story remains the same,” he said.
The events of Sept. 11 were apparently the catalyst.
“We tracked patriotism, spirituality and religion, and giving to charities and volunteerism right after 9/11,” Silvers said. “All three popped up. Within about nine months, volunteering was down and so was religion, but what has stayed with us is patriotism, and it's obviously fueled by a couple of things. The shift point was 9/11.”
The survey found that “eight in 10 Americans of all ages and income groups, from all regions of the country, say patriotism is in.”
Sentiment spans races, generations
The poll also found that, African Americans and Hispanics are among those most inclined to have patriotic feelings. The survey found “virtually no difference between blacks’ views and those of the nation as a whole.”
Eighty percent of black Americans and 78 percent of Hispanics strongly identify themselves as patriotic, as well as 81 percent of white Americans, the poll found.
Some 87 percent of baby boomers — the bloc of Americans demographers generally consider born between 1946 and 1964 — said patriotism is a central identifying fact of their lives. Seventy-eight percent of Generation Xers, born between 1965 and 1980, felt the same way.
Some of today's patriotism also appears to be driven by the Iraq conflict and the memory of the nation’s experience in Vietnam. “This country had a huge reckoning with the days of Vietnam and attitudes toward our soldiers. Every baby boomer internally promises never to let something like that happen again,” Silvers said.
He noted how respondents to the poll made a distinction between those sent to fight the war and those who sent them. “We have a tremendous dichotomy today where there will be unmatched support for our troops but a questioning of our leaders,” he said.
For Silvers, the overall findings point to a stronger, almost obstinate sense of the collective American identity. “Now you’ve got a new world order where America is the bad guy, and if anything fuels patriotism, that’s it,” he said.
“It goes to the adage that we can say something about our family, but outsiders can’t,” he said.
Agreeing to disagree, with pride
The pattern of support remains consistent, even allowing for distinctions along the great divide of politics. The survey found that “only 2 points separate the shares of Democrats from Republicans and liberals from conservatives.”
“What's interesting is how unifying the concept of patriotism is today,” Silvers said. “All groups in red states or blue states lay claim to it. We’re a country that agrees to disagree, but the overriding theme all groups can claim is that they're doing it out of patriotism.”