Most Americans Define the U.S. by adherence to ideals rather than heritage, ancestry, or traditions, a new Pell Center Nationhood Lab poll finds

April 23, 2024

NEWPORT, R.I. – Americans prefer to define their country by its commitment to civic ideals rather than by shared ancestry, history, traditions or culture by wide margins, according to a new nationwide survey from Nationhood Lab at Salve Regina University’s Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy.

Sixty-three percent of Americans preferred the statement that we are united “not by a shared religion or ancestry or history, but by our shared commitment to a set of American founding ideals: that we all have inherent and equal rights to live, to not be tyrannized, and to pursue happiness as we each understand it” over one embraced by 33 percent of respondents that said we are united “by shared history, traditions, and values and by our fortitude and character as Americans, a people who value hard work, individual responsibility, and national loyalty.”

Fifty-six percent of respondents said they agreed more with a statement that Americans “are duty-bound to defend one another’s inherent rights” and have a shared commitment “to building a more free, just, and equal nation” over one that said we “are duty-bound to defend our culture, interests, and way of life” and are committed “to building a more free, prosperous, and secure nation,” which was preferred by 36 percent of the survey participants.

Throughout U.S. history, Americans have fought over whether to define themselves via the civic ideals in the Declaration of Independence or authoritarian ethnonationalist assertions holding that the country rightly belongs to a subset of its people whose will, interests, and cultural practices should prevail. The Nationhood Lab survey of 1567 Americans, completed earlier this month, found civic, ideals-based definition of the country is preferred by nearly every demographic category including men, women, whites, Blacks, Latinos, people with and without college educations, and across all generations. The major exceptions were Republicans and people who voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 election.

In the first pair of statements described above, Republicans and Trump voters both chose the more restrictive narrative emphasizing tradition, loyalty, and intrinsic characteristics over the Declaration’s ideals by a 7 percent margin. In the second statement pair the margin was 24 percent for Republicans and 26 percent for Trump voters. Democrats preferred the first civic statement by a 61-point margin, the second by 62. Independents also favored the civic statements: by a 39-point margin for the first statement and 14 for the second.

Young people had the greatest commitment to the civic ideals, with 18- to 24-year-olds preferring them in the first statement pair by a 34 percent margin and 25- to 49-year-olds by a staggering 52 percent. Older Americans’ support was softer: a 20 percent margin for those aged 50-64 and just 17 percent for those 65 and older.

“It’s very encouraging that most Americans favor a civic national story based on the ideals in the Declaration rather than an ethnonational or heritage-based one, which I was not at all sure would be the case,” said Colin Woodard, founder and director of Nationhood Lab, a project that focuses on understanding and helping resolve problems of U.S. nationhood. “Americans have increasingly been asking what still holds us together. I’ve long been convinced that shared commitment to those ideals in our opening statement as a people and to upholding them for each other has always been the best version of ourselves and likely our only way forward. That most Americans prefer it over its most potent rival is very good news.”

“Colin Woodard’s work in the Nationhood Lab is one element of a comprehensive approach to civic health,” said Jim Ludes, Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at Salve Regina University, and Executive Director of the school’s Pell Center.  “It’s a commitment manifest in our initiatives in local journalism, in the power of narrative, and in the threats of political polarization and disinformation.”

Salve Regina University’s Nationhood Lab undertook the poll as part of an ongoing project to develop, rigorously test, and disseminate a renewed civic national narrative for the United States.

Embold Research conducted the poll for Nationhood Lab at Salve Regina University’s Pell Center March 28th to April 2nd, 2024, which consisted of 1567 interviews of registered voters nationwide. The modelled margin of error is +/- 3.0%. The full topline results and a statement of methodology are available here.