The American Identity: Points of Pride, Conflicting Views, and a Distinct Culture

A new study of 1,004 adults conducted in February by The AP-NORC Center using AmeriSpeak® explores the public’s attitudes on diversity and immigration and investigates what Americans say makes up the country’s identity.

In the wake of President Donald Trump’s executive order last month on immigration and refugees, Americans are supportive of the country’s diversity and generally favorable toward immigration. However, according to a recent poll conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, Americans are less favorable toward refugees and illegal immigration, and most express concern about the country losing its national identity.

The idea that the United States is a safe haven for people fleeing violence or persecution, or even simply looking for better economic opportunities is an important aspect of the American identity to most people. Only 15 percent of Americans consider legal immigration a threat to the American way of life, and most regard immigrants who arrive legally as more beneficial to the United States than detrimental.

But refugees and immigrants living here illegally are another story. Nearly half of Americans say illegal immigration is extremely or very threatening to the country. And while two-thirds of Americans say the advantages gained by legal immigration outweigh the risks, less than half say the same about refugees.

The American identity is based on more than diversity, though. A fair judiciary, constitutional protections, and the ability to achieve the American dream are vital aspects of the national identity according to large numbers of Americans. And while sharing a language, customs, and values are also considered important to most Americans, fewer think an essential aspect of the American identity is a culture based on Christianity or European traditions.

Seven in 10 Americans think the United States is losing its national identity, while just 3 in 10 regard the country’s identity as secure, and these attitudes are related to threats to that identity and pride in several aspects of the country. While most Americans are proud of the American military and the country’s many scientific, creative, and athletic achievements, less than half express much pride in how democracy is working. More than half of the public says political polarization is a major threat to the country’s way of life, and nearly as many say the same about the nation’s political leaders.

The nationwide poll was conducted February 16-20, 2017, using the AmeriSpeak Panel, the probability-based panel of NORC at the University of Chicago. Online and telephone interviews using landlines and cell phones were conducted with 1,004 adults.

Three Things You Should Know about
The AP-NORC Poll on The American Identity:
Among all adults…

  1. Forty-seven percent say illegal immigration is threatening to the American way of life, and 15 percent think legal immigration threatens it. 
  2. Seventy-one percent say the United States is losing its national identity—that is the beliefs and values the country represents.
  3. Fifty-seven percent say the United States should be a country with an essential culture that immigrants adopt when they arrive, and 42 percent think the culture of the country should change when new people arrive.