State of the Nation on July 4 and How It Has Changed Over Time


Coronavirus, a shattered economy, racial tensions, deep partisan polarization. Is it any surprise that Americans are down in the dumps? How could it be otherwise? Putting today’s sentiments in historical perspective using polls conducted over many years helps to assess our current malaise.

Satisfaction with the way things are going in the country

Gallup began asking this question 41 years ago in February 1979 when 26 percent were satisfied. Satisfaction sentiment has been on a roller coaster ever since, reaching an all-time high of 71 percent in the halcyon economic times of 1999. Record low satisfaction (7 percent) came in October 2008, during the financial crash. Now, 20 percent are satisfied, down from 41 percent in January.

Right Track, Wrong Direction

Many pollsters ask whether the country is headed in the right direction or seriously off on the wrong track. The country is almost always on the wrong track. The Roper Organization appears to have asked it first in 1973 during Vietnam and Watergate eras when 74 percent answered wrong track. In a new CBS News poll, 67 percent did. The major exceptions to the general pessimism this question usually elicits came in 1985 and 1986 during Reagan’s Morning in America, during the good economic times at the turn of the century, and briefly after 9/11.

The Country’s Future

In an April 2020 NBC News/Wall Street Journal question, 61 percent of registered voters said they were mainly hopeful and optimistic about the country’s future, while 36 percent said mainly worried and pessimistic. In 1998, the first time this question was asked, 58 percent were mainly hopeful and 39 percent mainly worried. Days after 9/11, 79 percent were mainly hopeful.

The Next Generation

In a May-June 2020 CBS News/SSRS question, 28 percent thought the future of the next generation would be better, 47 percent worse, and 20 percent about the same. When CBS asked that question for the first time in 1989, those responses were similar: 25, 52, and 18 percent, respectively. The “better” response dipped to 16 percent in 1995. In 2000, this response reached a high of 44 percent.

US in the World

In 1942, 71 percent told Gallup we should take an active role in international affairs and 24 percent said we should stay out. That active role response dipped to 54 percent in the early 1980s in Chicago Council polling. It was 69 percent in 2019. We’re internationalists, but often reluctant ones. America’s preference now is for the US to have a shared leadership role.

Democracy’s Health

In a 2019 survey from the Voter Study group, 77 percent of Americans said democracy was preferable to any other system of government. In another question in the survey, however, 54 percent were satisfied with the way democracy is working. In a 1995 Gallup survey, 63 percent were satisfied.

Proud to be an American?

While a solid majority of Americans, 63 percent in 2020, say they are extremely or very proud to be an American, this is the lowest response Gallup has found in almost 20 years. In 2002 after 9/11, 90 percent gave this response.

How Happy Are We?

In 1972, 30 percent told NORC interviewers they were “very happy.” In regular surveys until this year, this response moved in a fairly narrow range. In their May 2020 online poll, however, 14 percent said they were very happy, an all-time low.

Race Relations

In 1990, 41 percent in a CBS/New York Times poll said US race relations were generally good. That dropped to 25 percent after Rodney King’s killing and race riots in 1992. Views brightened early in Obama’s presidency when 66 percent said they were generally good. Today the response is 35 percent.

Consumer Confidence

The University of Michigan’s Index of Consumer Sentiment, experienced the largest decline in its decades-long history in early April. In January it was 99.8; it was 78.1 in June.


Trust is usually higher in state and local governments than in the federal government, and public reaction to the coronavirus pandemic has confirmed this phenomenon. Trust in institutions with clearly defined missions such as the CDC has been generally high during the pandemic. For those with jobs, trust in one’s employer to look out for their best interests has been above 70 percent in weekly polls by Axios/Ipsos since April 13.

Getting Back to Normal?

While the vast majority of Americans say coronavirus has had a major or minor impact on their lives, around 90 percent in April, May, and June Monmouth polls were hopeful they will get their lives back to normal after the outbreak is over.

There’s no doubt that this is a bad patch for the US, but we’ve been resilient in the past. On the 4th of July, let us hope we will be so again.

This piece first appeared on AEIdeas.

Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow, and Samantha Goldstein is a research assistant, at the American Enterprise Institute.

Photo credit: Tim Brown via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.