I’m right and you’re wrong. Such is, apparently, the view that Americans take regarding not only each other’s political orientations, but all sorts of other personal and existential questions, too. Americans think their fellow countrymen are lazy workers, bad parents and unhappy spouses and are generally unequipped to govern or make informed decisions about those who do.
None of us views such criticisms as applying to ourselves, of course, just to everyone around us. Rather than humbly loving our neighbors, we have become disdainful of the way they run (and presumably ruin) their own lives – and increasingly suspicious that they will ultimately degrade ours as well.
Again and again, when asked in polls about how their lives and choices compare with those of their neighbors, Americans smugly cast the first stone.
Take the American Family Survey, released last month by the Deseret News and Brigham Young University. The national poll asked questions about the state of marriages and families, both real and perceived.
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To an almost comical degree, Americans consistently evaluated their own personal lives and relationships as higher-quality than those of Americans writ large.
When married respondents were asked whether they believed their own marriage had gotten better or worse over the previous two years, 43 percent said stronger, 49 percent said about the same and only 6 percent said weaker.
But when those same people were asked about U.S. marriages generally, the responses flipped: Just 5 percent said they generally were getting stronger, 40 percent said about the same and 43 percent said weaker.
Similar patterns emerged in questions about the quality of respondents’ own vs. other Americans’ family relationships.
The gaps in evaluations between one’s own family and those of everyone else are especially wide among conservatives – perhaps connected to disapproval of same-sex marriage legalization – but they persist among liberals as well. And the bias shows up in other survey questions less closely tied to same-sex marriage.
When respondents were asked to name the “most important issues” facing families today, the most common answer wasn’t financial stress, work-life balance, crime or even the changing “definition of marriage and family.” It was, by a long shot, a perception that parents are “not teaching or disciplining their children sufficiently.”
Meanwhile, in a Pew Research Center survey released last week, about half of American parents gave themselves good marks on the job they’re doing raising their own children, and relatively few characterized themselves as being overly permissive with their own offspring. It’s the other moms and dads who let their brats run wild.
Other recent Pew surveys touched on additional ways Americans view themselves far more favorably than they view their neighbors. Half say the word “lazy” describes the typical American very or fairly well. But when asked a similar question about themselves, just a handful of Americans say the adjective applies.
It’s easy to dismiss these patterns as amusing but ultimately inconsequential, material for cocktail-party banter about the rising tides at Lake Wobegon. But the patterns take on a more ominous tone when placed in a political context.
Americans not only have little faith in their neighbors’ ability to make decisions for themselves, they have little faith in their peers’ ability to make decisions for the country.
The Pew Research Center finds that only a third say they have a “very great” or “good” deal of trust and confidence in the “wisdom of the American people when it comes to making political decisions.” Confidence in the political judgment of the American people, at least according to judgmental Americans, has eroded substantially over the decades and is now less than half its level from 1964 (77 percent vs. 34 percent).
Harvard researchers Yascha Mounk and Roberto Foa have compiled other historical data suggesting that Americans have soured on liberal democracy over the decades and become more enamored of illiberal alternatives.
In a country that has become not just polarized, but also atomized; in which we root unwaveringly for our own political “teams” composed of those who look, think, vote and raise children exactly as we do; and in which we treat opposing viewpoints as motivated by malice or stupidity rather than honest disagreement, perhaps it is not so surprising that so many Americans have come down with a serious case of dictator envy, a longing for a political strongman (such as, say, Donald Trump) who will put our neighbors in their place and skirt the pluralistic niceties and nonsense of democracy.
Washington Post Writers Group