Is America exceptionally good or exceptionally bad?


OWHEN HE ARRIVES in boosterism, Americans are often without equal. Yet another poll from YouGov/The Economist suggests that among Democratic voters, pessimism about their own country is unusually widespread.

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Among some 1,500 people polled at the end of 2021, nearly a quarter of those who voted for Mr Biden in the 2020 election said that when it comes to gay rights, America ranks low compared to the rest of the world. Only 8% of Trump voters rated America that low. Their view would seem closer to reality: A 2021 study by the Williams Institute, a gay rights think tank at the University of California, Los Angeles, ranked America in the top 15th percentile for LGBT acceptance among 175 countries surveyed, ahead of Italy, Austria and Japan.

Biden voters are even more somber on other social issues. About 40% say America is among the worst in the world when it comes to minority rights (only 11% of Trump voters thought so). Nearly half of Biden voters, compared to 14% of Trump voters, similarly condemn America’s acceptance of migrants and refugees (see chart). A 2019 Gallup poll suggests that Americans are actually quite sympathetic to migrants. On a composite measure of migrant acceptance, America was the sixth most welcoming country out of 145.

While some Democrats tend to have an excessively gloomy view of their country, many Republicans do the opposite. For example, 40% of Trump voters ranked America among the best in income inequality, ignoring rising inequality that puts it well below the global median.

Patriotism is part of the Republican brand. But why do Democrats gravitate toward gloom? Some progressive students say it helps propel their activism.

Asking Americans, or anyone for that matter, to think about “the rest of the world” is tricky. People anchor themselves in what is familiar to them: the countries they have visited or the cultures with which they can identify. Although Republican voters are sometimes caricatured as provincial, many Democratic voters seem unaware of their relative good fortune. Even though Biden voters answered our poll thinking only of other wealthy democracies, it suggests a parochial worldview that Democrats typically attribute to their opponents.

In balancing America’s relative flaws and virtues, self-identifying independents tracked Republicans much more closely than Democrats. Given that elections tend to hinge on the votes of independents, this suggests that Democratic pessimism can be self-defeating. When it comes to American exceptionalism, some blue voters need more shades of gray.

For more coverage of Joe Biden’s presidency, visit our dedicated hub and follow us as we follow the changes in his approval rating. For exclusive insights and reading recommendations from our correspondents in America, sign up for Checks and Balance, our weekly newsletter.

This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Worst or Best?”

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