Poor Americans are hurting. Their wages have stagnated while the income of wealthier citizens has grown significantly. Their social benefits, should they experience unemployment, for instance, illness, or a child’s birth, are lower than those enjoyed by the poorest citizens of most other advanced countries. They also work longer hours than their peers in those countries, while their children face fewer chances of upward mobility than if they lived in Europe.
And yet their patriotism–defined here not only as love of country but also a sense that the United States is superior to other places in the world–is extremely high. Data analysis from the authoritative General Social Survey (run by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago) shows that over 90% of America’s poorest people would rather be citizens of the U.S. than of any other nation. The figure is higher than that for working class, middle class, and upper class Americans. Around 80% also believe that America is a “better” country than most other countries. In parallel, data from the World Values Survey indicate that 100% of Americans who belong to the lowest income group are either very or quite proud of their country. That is not the case for any other major advanced country in the world. The positive feelings are resilient as well: they intensified during the Great Recession.
Such patriotism ought to be better understood. The social order depends on it: if the poor are happy with their country, the odds that they will demand major changes are low. America’s worst-off also contribute heavily to the military–something they probably would not do if they were more skeptical of their country. And as we saw during the presidential elections of 2016, their patriotism can be tapped into for political purposes by the likes of Donald Trump and, to a lesser extent, Bernie Sanders. One could expect America’s worst-off to be critical of, if not resent, their country. The opposite is actually the case. Why?
I began looking for answers in 2014 and 2015. A thorough reading of scholarly research in sociology, history, and political science left me with few insights and wanting for more. The question wasn’t being raised in the media. I set out to find the answers. The findings are reported in my new book, Broke and Patriotic: Why Poor Americans Love Their Country (Stanford University Press 2018). Using statistical data I identified two hotbeds of patriotism among the poor: Alabama and Montana. I then headed to urban and rural settings in both states and spent time in bus stations, laundromats, homeless shelters, used clothing stores, senior citizen centers, public libraries, and more, conducting over 60 in-depth interviews with poor people of different races, genders, religious and political orientations, histories of military service, and ages. The findings were striking, humbling, and illuminating.
Last hope for humanity
First, America’s poor still see their country as the “last hope” for themselves and humanity more generally. Because of its foundational social contract, the country offers each citizen a sense of dignity. As Ray (all names have been disguised), an older African American man in Birmingham, AL, told me, only in America is everybody equal in principle to everyone else: “For me, yeah, it starts with the individual, naturally. And according to our Constitution, rules, and rights, you know…everybody is afforded that without question…I believe, right, that I can have a conversation not just with you; I could sit down, talk with the President of the United States, you know?”
Add to this that this is God’s country, and why would anyone–especially someone who is poor–not want to be here? God, I was told by many, loves all of humanity but America the most.
This is not to say, a man told me, that at times the government or some people have not gone astray from the country’s promises. But the fundamental essence of the nation is pure and unique. And this serves as a lifeline for those who have, in material terms, very little. Thus, as Darrius, a middle-aged white man living out of a car in Billings, MT, with his pregnant wife who was many years younger, stated: “You have to have some shred of dignity. Even the bottom-of the-barrel person has to have some shred of dignity…and so when we’re struggling and we’re super poor and broke and going through all these things, you almost have to believe in something better or higher…and the Americans’ ideals ring on that level because they’re a lot different than maybe other countries’ because the American ideals are supposed to embody those things that are, are like good for humanity, you know…and it’s true.”
Milk and honey
Second, America is the land of milk and honey. It is a very rich and generous place, where those who work hard can still achieve much. The people I spoke with took personal responsibility for the difficult trajectories they had experienced, even if in fact all odds were stacked against them. As Kysha, an elder African American in a women’s shelter in Birmingham, told me, “It’s on you…you got a chance like anyone else…everybody got a chance. Some people don’t wanna do right. You gotta realize that. You are mixing dinner with the sweets.” America, moreover, gives money to countries all over the world: it is a place of abundance, where people from everywhere want to come. Anyone who is poor in America should therefore be thankful to be here.
Third, this is the land of freedom, both physical and mental. Marshall, a young man from Montana, told me he was homeless by choice because he wanted a “sabbatical” from life. “Nobody bothers me for it, if I am not bothering anybody.” Where else, he asked me, could he be left alone and not be, “you know, herded off or…jailed”? This is the place of self-determination and choice, where one can be independent. One can think, do, and be as one pleases. In these discussions, guns kept coming up, since they make hunting and having meat in the freezer possible. Guns equal freedom, all the way back to the American revolution, I was reminded, when the settlers had to make their own to fight English suppression. America guarantees gun ownership, therefore it guarantees freedom.
The above narratives came with variations. In Montana, they took on libertarian tones, while in Alabama they often connected to the struggles of African Americans. The variations could also be seen across racial and other dimensions. But on the whole, they amounted to strong and clear perspectives shared by most of the people I met.
How much did the respondents actually know about the rest of the world? When pressed, many seemed quite unaware of what other countries can offer. One respondent told me, for instance, that there are only two democracies in the world: the United States and Israel. Another insisted that Japan is communist. A third stated he would never live in a country like Germany because small crimes are met with severe punishments, such as getting one’s tongue cut off. Yet, on the whole, the respondents knew this country’s history and basic political and social values. They appreciated America precisely because, as people with very limited financial means, it offers them something to hang on to, a reason to be optimistic. Thus, what was a puzzle for me was not at all one for them.
But for me the findings raised more questions than they answered. Should we view these Americans as deluded, or do they somehow reflect the best of America’s spirit? Is this mindset a recipe for the perpetuation of the status quo, or a great vantage point from which to face life’s struggles? This is the first of three posts investigating this issue. Next I’ll discuss the opinions of three respondents who vehemently resented America. In the third post I’ll turn to Europe for some reflections on my findings about America, and the nature of patriotism more generally.