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Yankee Doodle Polling: Public Opinion on Patriotism

06/29/2015 12:11 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2016
Shutterstock / Brandon Bourdages

This holiday weekend the American passion for patriotic display will reach its annual apex with fireworks, flags and "God Bless America." Public opinion polls confirm what foreign observers have often noted: Americans are a very patriotic people. But what does patriotism mean to the U.S. public, and how tightly is the ideal bound to its symbols? A review of public opinion on patriotism, from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research archive:

The resurgence of national pride that I called the new patriotism- Ronald Reagan

Notably few questions were asked about patriotism in the early years of polling. The term "patriot" or its variants appear only a handful of times in the archive of polling questions from WWII, the McCarthy years, or the social turmoil of the sixties and seventies. The percentage of patriotism questions in the database increased nearly fourfold from the seventies to the nineties, only to drop off again in the nineties. Then, as is so often said, 9/11 changed everything. Questions about patriotism (not including those about the Patriot Act) nearly tripled in the decade following the attacks.

It's not surprising, then, that the trendline for the most basic measure of Americans' self-reported patriotism begins in the 1980s. Since then, the vast majority of the public have considered themselves to be patriotic. Although there is some shifting between the proportion saying that they mostly or completely agree that they are very patriotic, the proportion saying they disagree has rarely surpassed one in ten.

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Voting, enlisting, and flying the flag

In the eighties and again since 2001, pollsters have tried to uncover the meaning of American patriotism by asking the public which actions signal patriotism. Differing wordings limit comparisons, but certain items are clearly strongly associated with patriotism in the public's mind. Voting is consistently among the most important of these, as are serving in the military and displaying the American flag.

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In a 2008 poll, Republicans and Democrats agreed on the validity of some measures as indicators of patriotism and disagreed on others. While over three-quarters in both parties thought voting in elections told a great deal about a person's patriotism, Republicans were more likely to view saying the Pledge of Allegiance as an indicator of patriotism.

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Is dissent the highest form of patriotism?

Despite occasional criticism of protestors as unpatriotic, few Americans in polls over the last few decades have seen a lack of patriotism in disagreement with government policies or even active protest against them. In a 1989 Parents Magazine poll, 55% of respondents said taking part in a peaceful demonstration against a government policy was unrelated to patriotism, while 24% said it was patriotic and just 10% unpatriotic. In 1985, a Women's Action for Nuclear Disarmament poll found that 68% of the country considered actively demonstrating against the nuclear arms policies of the Reagan Administration to be patriotic, while 20% said unpatriotic. After September 11th, a PSRA/Newsweek poll found majorities of Americans believed someone could still be patriotic and not support assassination of Osama bin Laden (67%), large-scale military action against terrorists in Afghanistan (65%) or major curbs in civil liberties in this country to make it easier to fight terrorism (57%). Pew found about half the country in 2004 considered criticism of the Iraq war to be neither patriotic nor unpatriotic, while the remainder were nearly equally split between those who saw patriotism and those who saw a lack of it. By 2006, CBS News found 83% of the country believed someone could be patriotic and not support the war.

While there was little difference between Democrats and Republicans in their view of whether it was patriotic not to support military action in Afghanistan before such action was taken, Republicans in 2004 were more likely to say that criticism of the handling of Iraq was unpatriotic (35%) than were Democrats (15%). But in 2006, there was no difference between the parties on whether someone could be a patriot without supporting the Iraq War.

Times that try men's souls

The tendency of national crises to result in increased presidential approval ratings - the well-known rally-around-the-flag effect - might lead to the expectation that Americans would report increased feelings of patriotism as a consequence of such events. Polling has only addressed such a relationship directly in four occasions: the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert Kennedy, the Iran hostage crisis, and September 11th. In the first two cases, the country was nearly evenly split between those who said the assassinations had increased their patriotism and those who said it had no effect. In the hostage crisis, a slight majority said their patriotism hadn't changed. However, the reported increase in patriotism after September 11 was substantial. Moreover, the effect was long-lived. An AARP poll in July 2011 found that 61% of Americans still said that the 9/11 attacks had increased their patriotism, ten years on.

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Patriotism and politics

The most recent poll to ask about perceptions of the patriotism of the two major political parties found more Americans considered the Republicans to be the more patriotic party (43%) than thought the Democrats were (29%). However, earlier polling suggests that questions that explicitly offer respondents the option of saying both parties are equally patriotic will result in a strong majority choosing this third option.

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Whatever their feelings about the parties, Americans in recent years have consistently viewed Republican presidential candidates as more patriotic than Democratic ones. Sometimes the gap in perception is substantial, such as the 35 percentage point difference between those saying McCain and Obama were very patriotic.

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Among current contenders for the presidency, however, Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush are seen by about equal proportions of the country as being patriotic, while much of the public is still undecided about the patriotism of lesser-known figures in the race.

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It is worth noting, however, that however much Americans may value patriotism and feel themselves to be very patriotic, they do not choose presidential candidates primarily on this characteristic. There seems to be little relationship between the overall perceived patriotism of a candidate and chance at election.