The American Civil War decided the question of whether states have a right to secede from the American Union. The answer was no. That has long been settled. Yet today, more than a century and a half afterward, another kind of secession is playing out across America: individuals are seceding one by one from the national enterprise. Americans, to a surprising degree, are no longer proud of their country and do not trust their government, these misgiving being two crucial aspects of their disenchantment that portend troubling implications for America’s future.
Public-opinion polls suggest that Americans are far less patriotic than they were just a few decades ago. According to a recent Wall Street Journal poll, just 38 percent of Americans say that patriotism is important to them, compared to 70 percent who expressed patriotic feelings in a poll taken in 1998. The decline in patriotism is most pronounced among younger Americans: only 23 percent of respondents under age thirty said that patriotism is important to them. That is a troubling statistic because it suggests that the problem is growing worse over time and that the age group with the most negative outlook on America is poised to take over the leadership of the country.
In view of those figures, it is not surprising to learn that Americans place little trust in their government in Washington. Pollsters have been measuring this attitude since the 1950s by asking respondents if they trust the government to do the right thing “always or most of the time.” In the 1950s and early 1960s, roughly 75 percent of respondents expressed a general faith in the competence and integrity of government. That number began to decline through the 1960s and 1970s, largely in response to the war in Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, and the economic and social problems of that era. Trust in government rebounded through the 1980s and 1990s, reaching a peak of 55 percent in 2002, and has been in free fall ever since. In 2023, just 20 percent of respondents expressed a favorable view of the government.
Trust in government varies depending upon which party controls the presidency. During the Trump years, only 15 percent of Democrats expressed trust in the government; now, during the Biden presidency, only 10 percent of Republicans will do the same, while trust among Democrats has rebounded substantially. The numbers certainly reflect the growing hostility between members of the two parties: they appear to dislike one another more than they admire their country. Nevertheless, levels of trust in government today are still broadly low by historical standards.
These attitudes are mirrored in various ways in the day-to-day decisions made by American citizens:
1. The number of Americans leaving the country to live elsewhere has more than doubled over the past few decades, from four million in 1999 to nine million in 2023. Every four years many prominent Americans threaten to move if the candidate from the opposing party is elected to the presidency.
2. Millions of American families have abandoned the public schools in recent decades, owing to a perceived decline in standards or the politicization of the school curricula. The number of homeschooled students has quadrupled over the past two decades from one million in the year 2000 to nearly four million this year. The number of students enrolled in charter schools has more than doubled from 1.7 million in 2010 to 3.7 million in 2021, as more families seek alternatives to the traditional public schools. The public schools have long played an important role in promoting American citizenship by providing a common curriculum to students of all classes, races, and ethnic groups. That (sadly) is no longer the case.
3. Americans are abandoning the workforce in unprecedented numbers. The labor force participation rate in the United States has declined from 67.2 percent in the year 2000 to around 62 percent today, a decline of eight to nine million workers in a workforce of 165 million. How those absent workers are surviving without employment is anyone’s guess. But the disappearance of those jobs is taking a toll on economic growth and prosperity across the nation.
4. Gun ownership has surged over the past few years as an unprecedented 7.5 million Americans purchased guns for the first time between 2019 and 2021. Most gun owners cite self-protection as a main reason for their purchase, their concern inflamed by rising crime and parallel attacks on law enforcement.
5. The most alarming trend: Young Americans are no longer volunteering to serve in the military to the extent they did just a few years ago. The U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force recently announced that they will fail to meet their recruitment goals this year. The army, for example, had to cut its active-duty strength because it failed to meet its recruiting goals by 25 percent. The navy and air force are having similar difficulties. Military leaders point out that the number of young people who meet the military’s fitness standards is declining for several reasons, including drug use, mental-health issues, and lack of physical fitness. More importantly, fewer young people are interested in serving in the military: just 9 percent of Americans of service age (eighteen to thirty-nine) say they are interested in joining the military, compared to 23 percent a few years ago. Many who might have joined in the past point to concerns about “woke” policies in the military related to race, feminism, sexual identity, and other issues. Those Trump voters who just a few years ago sent their sons and daughters into the military are no longer doing so, probably due to these woke policies. The trend is likely to continue and perhaps accelerate, causing significant challenges for military leaders. Fortunately, the United States is unlikely to engage in a conventional war anytime soon. In such an event, the military might not have enough manpower to fight it—a large problem for a military superpower with global responsibilities.
These figures indicate a growing trend among Americans to “secede” from the national enterprise. Americans in large numbers do not trust their government and do not feel pride in their country. They are acting out these attitudes by renouncing their citizenship, withdrawing from the public schools, arming themselves because the authorities cannot or will not protect them, leaving the workforce, and disdaining military service. Can a nation prosper when its citizens no longer feel an attachment to the national enterprise? Can it even survive? These are important questions that are likely to be answered one way or another in the next decade or two