This year, as Independence Day festivities kick off, American patriotism is nearing its lowest point in our country’s history. On the occasion of our nation’s birthday, it’s worth examining why the percentage of our fellow citizens who are proud to be Americans has trended downward in the last couple decades.
Indeed, a recent Wall Street Journal poll revealed that only 38% of Americans said that patriotism was “very important” to them. This is down from 70% when the same poll ran in 1998. And for those under the age of 30, the drop is even more steep with only 23% of respondents finding patriotism to be a “very important” value. And the Journal poll is not an outlier. A 2022 Gallup poll found that only 38% of U.S. adults are “extremely proud” to be an America—the lowest point since Gallup began collecting the data over 20 years ago.
However, there was one major spike that bucked this otherwise downward trend: September 11, 2001.
Then, American patriotism was at an all-time high. A poll conducted shortly before the first Independence Day following the 9/11 attacks found that over 90% of respondents were “extremely” or “very” proud to be an American. This was a 35% increase from when the same question was asked just months prior to September 11th. Similarly, a staggering eight out of ten Americans reported that they would be display a flag on their lawn on Independence Day 2002—up from two-thirds during the summer before the attacks. It’s not difficult to understand why the data changed so drastically.
The rally-around-the-flag effect that leads citizens to view their country more favorably during times of war. When the freedoms that we hold dear are threatened, Americans respond with expressions of pride in our country. But we shouldn’t need tragedy to remind us how exceptional America is. And it shouldn’t take fighting a war for us to realize America is worth fighting for.
Indeed, our country was just as worthy of respect and admiration on September 10th as it was on the following day. It’s only our level of appreciation for our nation that changes when threats arrive at our doorstep. During times of crisis, our everyday frustrations and criticisms of America’s 247-year experiment in democracy are drowned out by our fear of losing it.
But what if we made the decision to trade in our pessimism for patriotism this Independence Day?
Even better, higher levels of patriotism in peacetime might help deter war itself. As Americans—especially younger citizens—grow in appreciation for our country, they are much more likely to consider volunteering to serve in the military. And when our military ranks are full of patriotic Americans ready to defend their homeland, our enemies take notice.
Unfortunately, however, the converse is also true. Today, we stand amidst a once-in-a-generation military recruitment crisis. At the end of FY 2022, the Army fell 15,000 soldiers short of its recruiting goal, missing by 25%. Our military is facing the worst recruitment challenge since the advent of the all-volunteer force after the Vietnam War. It’s no coincidence that record-low levels of patriotism coincide with record-low military recruitment numbers. And yes, our enemies are certainly taking notice of this, too.
No generation of Americans achieved greatness through apathy and disregard for the nation we call home. The promise of America has been secured only by generations of citizens who united around common pride and hope for what America can be in the future.
There will come a day when all of us will renew our appreciation for living in the greatest country in the world. We can either choose that day now during a time of peace or allow our enemies to choose it for us during a time of war.