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America the Pessimistic: New Poll Shows Lackluster Views of U.S.

Positive and negative sentiments about the state of the country vary along cultural and political lines.
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Job seekers wait in line during the TechFair LA job fair in Los Angeles on Jan. 26.Patrick T. Fallon / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

It may be the land of the free and the home of the brave, but Americans are far from united in seeing the United States as an exceptional place to live, according to a new poll from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal.

The survey also finds that the share of Americans who believe that the country has a “strong national character” is shrinking.

In fact, one of the few things that unites the public is the belief that the nation is deeply divided.

The NBC/WSJ poll of social trends, which was conducted last month, found that less than a third of American adults — 28 percent — called America the “single best place to live in the world,” with another 17 percent calling it “among the very few best places.”

More respondents put United States closer to the middle of the pack, with 37 percent calling America merely “above average” and 14 percent rating the country as “average.” An additional four percent called the U.S. “below average” on the global scale.

Asked to rate the national character of America on a scale of one to 10, just 14 percent of those polled offered a “strong” rating of eight or higher, while 34 percent suggested a “weak” rating of four or lower. That’s a noteworthy slide in less than two decades; in 1998, 23 percent of Americans gave the country’s character a strong rating, while just 20 percent characterized it as weak.

The poll came as the nation has grappled with a historically unpopular president in Donald Trump, whose job approval rating in the poll stood at just 40 percent, with 55 percent disapproving. The survey was conducted August 5-9, before Trump was widely criticized for his handling of a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which ended in the death of a peaceful counter-protester.

Positive and negative sentiments about the state of the country also vary along cultural and political lines.

Nearly two-thirds of Trump voters — 65 percent —say that America is either the single best or one of the few best countries in the world to live. Majorities of Republicans overall (59 percent), white men (54 percent), and the most economically well-off (56 percent) agree.

The largest shares of those who rate America as just average or below average include non-whites (27 percent), liberals (27 percent), the poor and working class (23 percent), single women (24 percent) and Democrats overall (23 percent).

A similar set of subgroups gives relatively poor marks to the “American character,” including 46 percent of African Americans, 43 percent of poor and working class Americans, and 37 percent of Democrats.

Overall, an overwhelming majority of Americans say the country is either mainly divided (59 percent) or totally divided (21 percent).

The sentiment that the country is deeply split runs high regardless of party, with 86 percent of Democrats, 76 percent of independents and 75 percent of Republicans agreeing.

Asked to identify some of the reasons for that division, poll respondents placed income inequality at the top of the list, with 23 percent naming the gap between the rich and the poor as one of the primary causes of strife in America.

Also getting top billing were: political party affiliations (21 percent), racial and ethnic differences (19 percent) and the types of media consumed by Americans (18 percent).

The NBC/WSJ “Social Trends” poll was conducted August 5-9 of 1,200 adults – nearly half of whom were reached by cell phone – and it has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 2.8 percentage points.