In 1948, Americans saw most other Americans as generous and confident. Today, they are more likely to see each other as selfish and spoiled.
The way Americans perceive foundational elements of the country — including democracy, voting, patriotism, and trust in fellow citizens — has changed, often drastically, over the past several decades. The way we see ourselves, our communities, and our country has shifted even within the past year.
To explore how public opinion has changed through the years, YouGov uses the Roper Center Polling Archive to find historical poll questions that could be re-asked today, as part of a series called Polls from the Past. For this article, YouGov asked questions from the Roper archive in June 2022, and again in June 2023.
The largest share of Americans (21%) are “extremely dissatisfied” with how democracy is working in the U.S., giving a rating of 0 on a 0 to 10 scale. In June 2022, this number was about half (11%) of what it is now; in a 1977 Gallup poll, just 3% felt the same way.
Seven in 10 Americans rate their satisfaction with U.S. democracy at a 5 out of 10 or lower. In 1977, far fewer (38%) felt the same way.
Democrats, Independents, and Republicans differ on how democracy is functioning in the U.S. in 2023.
Among Republicans, 38% say they are at a 0 out of 10 — in other words, extremely dissatisfied. About half as many Independents (20%) and even fewer Democrats (10%) agree.
Among Democrats, very few (8%) give a 10 out of 10 rating to indicate they’re extremely satisfied with democracy in the U.S., but 47% do give a score between 6 and 10. Among Independents, 24% give a rating between 6 and 10 while 18% of Republicans do.
The words that Americans are most likely to use to describe each other have also shifted significantly. In the June 2023 survey, YouGov ran a question asked in a 1948 Fortune/Roper poll about the words people would use to describe “the way most Americans are today.” (In both polls, respondents could choose multiple answers).
In 1948, the word Americans used most to describe their impression of the way most Americans are was “generous,” at 50%. It was followed by “confident,” at 35%.
Today, just 12% of Americans describe their fellow citizens as generous, and only 10% choose "confident" as a descriptor. The top words Americans use to describe each other in 2023, from the list provided, are “selfish” (48%), “spoiled” (40%), and “gullible” (38%).
Americans in 2023 are at least three times as likely as people in 1948 to see other Americans as “undisciplined” (36% vs. 12%) or “intolerant” (34% vs. 9%).
Republicans in 2023 are more likely to describe Americans as spoiled (54%) than Independents (38%) or Democrats (32%) are. They’re also more likely to perceive most Americans as “liberal” at 42%; 15% of Independents and 12% of Democrats agree with this. Democrats are more likely to say most Americans are “hardheaded” (35%), a characterization that 27% of Independents and 18% of Republicans agree with.
Given the relatively negative words Americans use to describe each other, it’s unsurprising that most of them also don’t really trust each other.
Three-quarters (73%) say that there are some Americans who can’t be trusted as much as others during times of danger to America. Just 11% think that we can count on all Americans.
When the same question was asked in 1953 by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC), the survey found that the majority (62%) said some people cannot be trusted, but one-third (32%) thought we could count on all Americans — nearly three times as many as today.
The 2023 YouGov survey also asked Americans to evaluate the statement, “You’re sick and tired of hearing people attack patriotism, morality, and other traditional American values.” Today, 55% of Americans say this accurately describes how they feel. A similar question asked of Americans in a 1972 Time/Yankelovich survey found that 72% agreed with this.
In 2023, there are some partisan splits on this question. Among Democrats, 41% say this describes how they feel and just as many (41%) disagree.
It’s less divisive for Republicans: 87% say this statement describes how they feel, while just 9% say it doesn’t.
Public opinion also has shifted on the topic of voting.
A 1944 NORC poll asked Americans if they regarded voting more as a duty they owe to the country, as a right to use if they want to, or as both. At the time, 59% of Americans saw voting as a duty only — a share that has fallen to 19% in 2023.
Today, 31% of Americans see voting as a right, but the largest share (38%) say it’s both a duty and a right; 2% said both in 1944.
People who are registered voters are more likely than people who are not to see voting as a duty (23% vs 5%).
— Linley Sanders, Carl Bialik, and Taylor Orth contributed to this article
Methodology: The YouGov polls were conducted online on June 7 - 14, 2023, and June 14 - 17, 2022, both among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2019 American Community Survey. For both polls, the sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. For the 2023 poll, the sample also was weighted by baseline party identification, which is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to March 15, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (33% Democratic, 28% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample for each poll is approximately 3%.
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