Thursday, May 29, 2008

Ten All-American Traits

In the run-up to the November election, we are engaged--once again--in ritual self-analysis. Who are the American people? What do we believe? How will our national identity play out in the election?

For the answers, let's peer into the statistical mirror--the General Social Survey. The GSS has been reflecting the American identity for more than 30 years. The most recent results from the 2006 survey reveal the good, the bad, and the ugly of the American identity. Take a look.

1. We are tough. Among the world's nations, the United States ranks number one in prisoners per capita, yet

68 percent of Americans still think the courts
are not harsh enough on criminals.

And our toughness extends well beyond law enforcement.

72 percent agree that it is sometimes necessary
to discipline a child with a "good, hard spanking."

2. We want it both ways. Fully 63 percent of the public wants to cut the government's purse strings. Only 13 percent oppose spending cuts. But when asked what we should cut, our enthusiasm wanes. These are the percentages of Americans who want to cut spending by specific program area:

education: 4
health care: 6
retirement benefits: 7
law enforcement: 8
environment: 13
natural disasters: 14
military: 26
arts: 30

3. We are careless. Americans are forever thumping their chests with pride, and the one thing we boast about the most is our freedom. Yet the majority of Americans are willing to give up that freedom without much of a fight:

56 percent think the government probably or definitely
should have the right to jail people without a trial.

4. We are religious. Among the world's developed countries, the United States stands alone in its religiosity.

59 percent pray at least once a day.
Only 50 percent believe in evolution.

5. We are hard working. In fact, we are workaholics. This may explain why American workers have so little vacation time compared to their European counterparts and why we do not demand more time off:

70 percent would continue to work even if rich.

6. We are diverse. The Census Bureau continually tells us how diverse we are, but does it matter much anymore? GSS results suggest that the racial divide is not so big after all:

74 percent of blacks have trusted white friends.
52 percent of whites have trusted black friends.

54 percent of blacks have white family members.
20 percent of whites have black family members.

7. We are alienated. Americans do not have warm and fuzzy feelings toward public officials or their fellow citizens:

Only 35 percent say politicians are interested
in the problems of the average person.

Only 32 percent believe most people can be trusted.

80 percent believe others will take advantage of you
if you are not careful.

8. We are uptight. Americans have a well-deserved reputation for being prudish about sex:

Only 46 percent believe premarital sex is not wrong at all.
Only 32 percent believe homosexuality is not wrong at all.

But we are also practical:

89 percent support sex education in the public schools.
54 percent think teens should have access to birth control.

9. We like to stay put. Americans live in the third largest country in the world, but they restrict themselves to a very small portion of it.

38 percent still live in the same city they lived in at age 16.
62 percent live in the same state they lived in at age 16.

10. We still dream. Perhaps the single defining characteristic of Americans in both good times and bad is our steadfast belief in the American Dream:

69 percent say hard work, rather than luck or connections,
determines success.

70 percent say the United States gives people like them
the opportunity to improve their standard of living.

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