Four years ago, Donald Trump joined a crowded Republican presidential primary (which, somehow, looks small compared to the 2020 Democratic field), with a promise to “Make America Great Again.” From those that immediately donned – no pun intended – those distinct red MAGA hats, to others that rejected Trump and his slogan as a loaded phrase, a clear divide emerged.
The idea of something being great wasn’t always so divisive – remember Tony the Tiger? – but Trump’s campaign promise raised the important question: Do Americans think America is actually great? In short, it depends on whom you ask.
Ipsos first examined public opinion on America’s greatness two years ago, shortly after President Trump took office. Now, close to the halfway point of Trump’s first term, Americans rate the country as a 6.8 out of 10. Importantly, this represents a decline from two years ago.
Overall, 43% of Americans think America is at least an 8 out of 10, on a scale where 10 means the “Greatest in Every Way,” down from 51% in 2017. The biggest driver of feelings of America’s greatness, or lack thereof, is partisanship; fitting, considering the ownership of the term in recent years. Democrats are less likely to believe America is great today, and Independents look more like Democrats than Republicans here. However, age is also indicative of perceptions of American greatness. Americans aged 18-34 are less likely to consider America great than older Americans.
Regardless of what this concept invokes for people, what is it that makes America great? For starters, it’s us. Nearly nine in 10 (87%) say the American people are important to making America great, including over half that say we are extremely important. In addition, they see our education system, economy, justice system, natural resources – and the list goes on – as important factors for American greatness.
In the past two years, however, one thing has fallen down the list of importance: our political system. Two years ago, three-quarters of respondents (74%) said our political system was an important factor for greatness; now, 67% agree. This decline is exclusively from the number of people rating it “extremely important.” At the same time, Ipsos research shows that a majority of Americans believe – and there is bipartisan agreement here – that “traditional parties and politicians don’t care about people like me.”
What will make America great again?
So why does it matter whether and why America is great? For starters, next year’s election is going to force President Trump to evaluate his campaign promise. Perhaps not a great sign of the times: just 15% of Americans think present day is when our country has been greatest. What’s more, according to Democrats and some Independents, beating President Trump in a general election is what will actually make America great again. The ability to defeat Trump is the most important factor when deciding who to support in the Democratic presidential primary – above strength on the economy, or healthcare, or party unity.
How we get there remains unclear. Is America’s greatness reclaimed through calls for unity, like Joe Biden has made recently, or embracing the anger and vitriol felt by many after the 2016 election?
That is the fundamental question at stake for 2020: not how great America is (or even if we can still wear red hats), but what does the path to reclaiming some of that greatness that the president’s opponents feel is lacking look like? As the primary unfolds, we’ll see if that path is one of fiery, scorched earth or forged of, to borrow another presidential slogan, hope and change.