So where does the American idea stand today? To some extent, it is a victim of its own success: Its spread to other nations has left America less distinctive than it once was. But the country has also failed to live up to its own ideals. In 1857, the United States was remarkable for its high levels of democratic participation and social equality. Recent reports rank the U.S. 28th out of 35 developed countries in the percentage of adults who vote in national elections, and 32nd in income equality. Its rates of intergenerational economic mobility are among the lowest in the developed world.
On opportunity, too, the United States now falls short. In its rate of new-business formation and in the percentage of jobs new businesses account for, it ranks in the lower half of nations tracked by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Today, Americans describe China as Europeans once described the United States—as an uncouth land of opportunity and rising economic might.
It is no surprise that younger Americans have lost faith in a system that no longer seems to deliver on its promise—and yet, the degree of their disillusionment is stunning. Nearly three-quarters of Americans born before the Second World War assign the highest value—10 out of 10—to living in a democracy; less than a third of those born since 1980 do the same. A quarter of the latter group say it’s unimportant to choose leaders in free elections; just shy of a third think civil rights are needed to protect people’s liberties. Americans are not alone; much of western Europe is similarly disillusioned.
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