Will Gen-Z cancel America?

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An undeniable current of anti-Americanism has surfaced in a number of the anti-Israel protests now raging across the country. While American flags burn at some demonstrations, the flag of Hezbollah, a terrorist organization responsible for the deadly bombings of the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, is proudly displayed at others. Some commentators are even arguing that “Death to America” is emerging as the “key slogan of anti-Israel agitators in U.S.”

Explicit anti-Americanism at the demonstrations is rare but it’s appearance inevitably raises questions about how attached today’s youth are to their country. Older generations always like to complain about the young, but a large body of evidence indicates that Gen Z is less identified with their country than the millennials, Gen X’ers and Boomers who came before them.

Patriotism means love of country and is bolstered by a shared consciousness of what it means to be an American. On these fundamental questions, large ideological and generational differences in national identification emerge in multiple surveys.

Liberals and conservatives and Democrats and Republicans have long diverged on questions related to patriotism, but the gap has increased sharply in the last decade. Today, liberals are significantly less likely than conservatives to feel that being an American is important to them, to express pride in being an American, and to believe there is a cultural core to America’s identity. They are more likely to say that other countries are better than the United States, that America is a racist society and that our political system requires structural transformation.

More concerning, however, is the yawning generational gap in national identification and the greater ideological chasm among the young. The 2022 American National Election Study (ANES), for example, found a 36-point gap between liberals and conservatives over 65 on the question of how important “being American” is to their identity, with 60 percent of liberals and 96 percent of conservatives in this cohort saying that “being American” is “very” or “extremely” important to them. By contrast, the liberal-conservative gap among those under 30 (Gen Z) was 55 points, with only 18 percent of young liberals saying that “being American” is important to their identity. More recently, the Spring 2024 iteration of the Harvard Youth Poll found that 74 percent of 18-29 year old Republicans but only 55 percent of 18-29 year old Democrats would “rather live in American than any other place.” In the same poll, young Democrats (but not young Republicans) expressed far greater trust in the United Nations than in the U.S. military.

To get at subjective meanings of national identity, a standard question is to ask what is important for making someone a “true” American. In the 2020 ANES, a poll considered by many to be the gold standard of surveys, just 50 percent of young liberals said speaking English was “very” or “fairly” important, compared to 91 percent of young conservatives, 75 percent of liberals over 65 and 97 percent of conservatives over 65. This division is especially telling given that Pew has found that having a common language is considered the most important indicator of belonging to a nation in virtually every country.

Gen Z’s weak sense of national identity is distinctive. The General Social Survey and Gallup polls show that young Democrats expressed high levels of national pride, with the percentage saying they were “extremely proud of being American.” In 2004 53 percent gave this answer; it fell to just 12 percent in 2023. Similarly, when liberal millennials were under 30, they were far less likely than Gen Z liberals are today to say that other countries are better than the U.S. (27 percent to 61 percent).

It is possible that liberal Zoomers’ disaffection with the country is temporary. Perhaps time a will foster a greater sense of national attachment in the same way that Boomers seem to have come to terms with the bitterness of the Vietnam era. Commentators suggest that the disaffection of Gen-Z stems from spending their formative years in a period defined by political polarization, economic uncertainty, COVID, and Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. If these experiences fade from memory, Gen Z may age out of their alienation.

Nevertheless, globalization and multiculturalism continue to gnaw away at the prioritization of a common national identity and the value of citizenship. The zeitgeist dominating the elites in academia, the media, and multinational corporations denigrates rather than celebrates American history and current social progress. Young liberals in particular express just a shallow commitment to their country, and loyalties in place at age 30 rarely change much. In addition, among Gen-Z, liberals are both more numerous than conservatives and more likely to be college-educated, so a class divide feeds into the conflict about the value of America.

In a crisis, a house divided on tribal or class lines cannot stand. Rallying around the flag ultimately depends on the pervasive belief that the flag, a symbol of nationhood, is worth fighting for. Unless the coming generations develop a sense of solidarity across political lines, perhaps through national service or improved civic education, the talk will not be about One America but about No America.

Kevin Wallsten is a professor of political science at Cal State Long Beach and author of the Politics of the Pill (Oxford University Press). Jack Citrin is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley and the author of “American Identity and the Politics of Multiculturalism” (Cambridge University Press) and Immigration in the Court of Public Opinion (Polity).

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