Here are a few stereotypes about Americans that are commonly held amongst Brits (and also quite a few Americans)
- 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.