American exceptionalism

Here are a few stereotypes about Americans that are commonly held amongst Brits (and also quite a few Americans)
  • Religious Americans are right wing
  • Poorer Americans vote against their own interests
  • Americans are ignorant or goofy
  • Americans’ political views are heavily influenced by FOX news
  • Americans are very socially conservative
What do these views have in common? I would say at least three things;
  • They are wrong
  • The implication that Britain and British society is in some way superior is wrong, and worryingly complacent
  • There is a distinctively un-democratic undercurrent to these views.

Lets look at each point in a bit more detail.

1. American church goers are right wing

America is certainly a very Christian country, in the sense that lots of people identify as Christian, believe in God, attend Church and pray on a regular basis.

However, most Americans think that there are too many expressions of faith by politicians and that the Churches should keep out of politics.

More importantly, because America is such a christian country saying that the religious Americans are right wing is way too broad a pronouncement. In fact there is enormous variation amongst difference denominations.

White Protestants (especially Evangelicals) heavily identify with the Republican party. However, White Catholics are roughly evenly split between identifying with the Democrats and Republicans and Black Protestants overwhelmingly think of themselves as Democrats.

In fact, this is not so very different from the UK, where people in the Church of England are more likely to vote Tory but all other religious affiliations actually show a tendency to vote Labour.

2. Poorer Americans vote against their own interest

A bizarely common view amongst Brits is that poorer people vote (against their interest) for the Republicans. I will not get into whether it is in lower income people’s interests to vote Republican. However, the evidence on how they vote is clear.

Here is a recent opinion poll. It shows Obama with a 15 point lead over Romney in households earning less than $36,000 per year.

Here is a graph showing how household income relates to which party people voted for in 2004. It shows that the lower the income the more likely you are to vote Democrat.

Finally, here is a map of what the 2008 election would have looked like if the only people to vote had incomes of between $20,000 and $40,000. It is very blue.

Actually, just like in the UK, lower income Americans tend to vote for left wing parties.

3. Americans are ignorant or goofy

The slack jawed yokel stereotype of Americans is very common amongst Brits, and many Americans.

Of course, people who live in cities have made fun of the manners of people who live in the countryside for hundreds of years and there is certainly an element of this in the stereotype. But I think it goes further and that many Brits really believe that they are smarter than Americans. There is not much truth in this.

In fact both the UK and the US’s education systems are not particularly impressive. They were recently ranked 14th and 20th in the world. The US was ahead of the UK. Both were well behind South Korea, Finland and Japan.

4. Americans’ political views are heavily influenced by FOX news

Brits seem to imagine that huge numbers of Americans are watching FOX news every night and uncritically accepting whatever political views it gives out.

It is true that FOX news is the most watched news channel in the US, but it is not true that it is particularly widely watched. Around 1.7 million people watch FOX news in a typical week, in a country of some 300 million people. In fact, most Americans like watching talent shows, procedural dramas, sitcoms and big sporting events.

And does it influence the views of those people who watch it?

A massive study of the media and politics in the US found “no evidence that partisan newspapers affect party vote shares, with confidence intervals that rule out even moderate-sized effects”. Even people who argue that FOX news is somehow able to brain wash its viewers in a way that other news channels are unable to, estimate the actual impact of the channel on voting preferences to be very small. It’s much more likely that FOX news is giving people what they want than it is that FOX news is changing people’s minds. Would you change your mind if a newspaper or tv station told you to?

Compare this with the UK. Remember, under 2 million people a day watch FOX news in America. In the UK, over 2.5 million people a day buy The Sun newspaper. Obviously a far larger number of people read the paper every day because each copy gets passed around.

5. Americans are very socially conservative

The idea that Americans are more likely than Brits to vote on social issues and are more conservative on social issues is also common in the UK. The idea that guns and abortions are the biggest political issues for Americans trips off the tongue very easily for the English.

In fact, in common with the UK and all countries, Americans are most concerned about the economy, with a sizable number exercised by the deficit and healthcare.

How many Americans do you think say abortion should be illegal?

The answer is about 20%, and that number has been stable for the last decade.

How many Brits think abortion should be illegal?

The last survey I can see found that “35% supported the status quo, 48% supported a reduction in the legal time limit to 20 weeks and 8% supported a total ban on abortion.”


So, in fact,

  • Just like in the UK there is enormous variation in the political views of religious Americans
  • Poorer Americans are more likely to vote Democrat than richer Americans
  • Americans are slightly better educated than Brits
  • Hardly any Americans watch FOX news (fewer than read The Sun) and those who do are not that influenced by it (although they are probably already quite conservative)
  • Americans’ chose who to vote for because of their views on the economy, not social issues and while more Americans than Brits want abortion to be illegal, massive majorities in both countries are happy for abortion to be legal

Of course, if you did believe any or most of these stereotypes you would probably be tempted to think that;

  • Progressives should not work with religious people
  • Poorer people are a barrier to progressive causes
  • Progressives will always be unpopular because of their stance on social issues such as abortion and because of the power of FOX news

In fact, the opposite is true, both in the UK and the US.

6 thoughts on “American exceptionalism

  1. I agree with much of what you say, but I’d throw in a few questions on points 1 and 5.

    First: I guess the table you offer (“Trends in Party Identification by Religion”) is based upon what answers surveyed people give to the question “What religion do you identify as?”
    That doesn’t seem like the best way to measure the political views of any given Church, considered as an official organ that is likely to appear on e.g. television. (The layity are often less zealous than the clergy, but it’s the clergy that appear on TV.) And when people in the UK say that American Churches are right-wing, I think they have in mind the Churches considered as official organs, rather than having in mind people who attend a Church in the US (or have vaguely religious views).

    Second: describing something as “right” or “left” depends upon where you locate the centre. If you’re British, and you describe something in America as “right wing”, that typically means “right wing by British standards”, rather than “right wing by American standards”. British standards typically locate the centre between Labour and Tories; American standards typically locate the centre between Republican and Democrat. (These aren’t the same standard, by a long shot; e.g. Tories *claim* to be pro-NHS, just wanting to reform it; Republicans don’t seem to want anything very much like an NHS.) So if I describe American Churches as being “right wing”, I don’t think you can knock me back by saying that many church-goers vote Democrat.

    (By-the-by, you point out that most Americans think that Churches should keep out of politics. I don’t see how this bears on whether American churches are right wing or not. But also, I don’t see why you should regard the answer to the question as being a right v. left issue, in America, or more generally. It seems to cut across the “wings” in America, particularly since the Constitution separates Church and State. )

    On social conservativeness, it would kind of be nice to see a bigger spectrum of issues than just abortion. That’s one milestone of social conservativeness, but focussing on it seems to buy into precisely the kind of rhetoric you want to overthrow (that abortion should be this massive barometer of American public sentiment, and a huge political issue). To be honest, I’m really not sure how we’d score on other issues…

    I think there’s an important thing which is related to all this, but which I don’t know how to measure. In measuring social conservativeness, I’m not necessarily just interested in what views people have. I’m also interested in what views they think are even *on the table* as reasonable. (Analogy: if someone advances something racist, I’d like to think that this isn’t just a view I don’t have, but one which I’m not even willing to entertain.) It’s this kind of permissibility of views (even if they are not actively held at a given moment) which helps to shape the political landscape, in terms of: what gets debated, what can be said, and what views people are likely to hold in future. So I kind of want to know the answer to the question: what percentage of people in the UK/US think it is quite reasonable even to *have* an attitude that would be classed as massively socially conservative (even if it is an attitude they don’t possess)?

    • Thanks for the great comments, as ever.

      I meant to write ‘church goers are right wing” not “churches”. Whoops. Have changed that now.

      I was more interested in exploring the popular stereotype of the laity than the clergy. However, I imagine that you are right and that in the US as in the UK the clergy are much more right wing (by and large)

      i mentioned the “keep religion out of politics” thing because it goes against the view that religious Americans are right wing because of their religion. Actually, as you say, many Americans (right or left) think religion and state should be separate and in fact religion and state are more separate in US than in the UK in many ways.

      Your point about comparing across countries is a goos one, but I was addressing the belief that people think that poorer americans or religious Americans are right wing by American standards.

      Hovering behind your point here is the very important point that I am eliding terms like left wing/progressive/democrat in a way which is slightly slippery. I am afraid that this is mostly for brevity and simplicities sake.

      You make a good point on social conservatism. Again, I was trying to keep the blog short. You could include e.g. views on immigration, the death penalty, drug legalization etc… again, i think you would find a lot of similarity between the US and the UK.

      Finally, I agree with you that there are definitely more views aired on these issues in US than in the UK. i have a view about this that it’s because richer americans are more split (politically) on social issues than richer brits are but that would take a whole post to get into…

      • “most Americans think that there are too many expressions of faith by politicians”.

        Obviously, the relevance or otherwise of this fact depends on how many expressions of faith there actually are by politicians in America compared to other countries.

  2. Partly, but it’s also relevant when you consider the stereotype of Americans as a people with an insatiable appetite for right wing Christian pronouncements from their politicians

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