By Catie Manning
“I don’t think the United States is much of a rival in quality of life to most other countries,” one student who took BOP’s April poll said.
According to the Brown Opinion Project’s April 2022 Poll, only 12.89% of students believe that United States is the greatest country in the world. 10.85% indicated that they were “unsure,” and 74.65% responded “no” to this question.
Students interviewed after taking the poll who indicated that they did not believe the United States led the globe listed a number of European and Nordic states — Finland, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland — as alternative choices.
“Finland. They’ve got to be doing something right,” said one junior who took the poll.
“The greatest country on the planet right now is Norway,” added another junior.
“I don’t think the United States is much of a rival in quality of life to most other countries. I think it’s insane that we are so profit-centric in everything,” said another first-year. “Other countries are definitely still capitalist … but at least those countries have more secure workers rights and secure healthcare and definitely treat their homeless population a lot better.”
“Anything that is more socialist than America is off to a great start,” added another member of the class of 2023. “We are regressing to a time period where rights are not afforded to anyone who is not straight, white, cis[gender], male. I think the other countries that are more socialist kind of got it going. They actually care about the people.”
Another junior who took the poll offered a few changes that might make the U.S. the world’s greatest country: “If we adopted nuclear power, created a healthy social safety net and kept interest rates below 3 percent.”
Men were far more likely than women to subscribe to American exceptionalism: 18.80% of men who took the poll, as opposed to 6.60% of women, indicated that they thought the United States was the greatest country in the world. Students who indicated a belief in a God, multiple Gods or a higher power were also far more likely to believe in American exceptionalism than those who didn’t. 23.40% of those who indicated belief in a higher power subscribed to the idea that the United States is the world’s greatest country — while just 3.40% of non-believers also agreed.
One first-year who took the poll and indicated that the United States is the greatest country in the world said that they couldn’t think of an alternative.
“I wish I had a specific answer, but unfortunately I don’t,” the first-year said. “A lot of the developed world is pretty similar.”
According to history professor Michael Vorenberg, who teaches “American Exceptionalism: The History of an Idea,” student responses in BOP’s April poll align with national trends. A YouGov Poll that he showed to his class indicated that Gen-Z respondents were the least likely to agree with the statement that America is the greatest nation on Earth, with 26% responding that “it is.”
“I’m not surprised by the poll results,” Vorenberg said of BOP’s findings. “I think it's tracking with America generally…and to the extent (the idea of American exceptionalism) has a hold on America, it’s the older people, and it’s a very loud minority of folks that we know too well.”
Vorenberg defined American exceptionalism as the idea that “there is something about the country of the United States which is exceptional … that the US is distinctive in one or more ways.” This distinction can be positive or negative, but, as Vorenberg notes, the term usually refers to the former. Positive notions of American exceptionalism, he added, track back to the original colonization of North America by the British — who “made a point of saying they were going to do more with North America and do it better” than other colonizing European nations.
American exceptionalism, Vorenberg added, poses a danger in that it can lead to “blind patriotism.”
“Patriotism in itself doesn’t have to be terrible, but blind patriotism almost always is,” he said. “That’s the danger. That, to me, that’s always the biggest danger.”
The concepts of American exceptionalism and patriotism also came up for a number of students interviewed.
“I think American exceptionalism slows down progress because there is less incentive and pressure to improve,” said one first-year who took the poll.
And while most students interviewed did not describe themselves as patriotic, most also were not completely averse to the notion of having pride in one’s country. “I think you can be patriotic in the way of admitting what is wrong with the country but still wanting things to be better,” noted one first-year.
“If we had more of a conception that other people besides Americans matter, too,” the same first-year said, “I think things would be better for everyone.”
Note: All quoted poll-takers remain anonymous to maintain the integrity of Brown Opinion Project surveys. Brown Opinion Project conducted its April 2022 poll from April 20-22, collecting 365 total responses from Brown undergraduate students with a margin of error of 5.33% with 95% confidence.