Is America different from all other countries? Does our culture account for our prosperity and rise to leadership of the free world? In other words, is America exceptional?
That’s been a subject of discussion since 1831 when the French political scientist and historian Alex de Tocqueville toured the young United States and first declared us “exceptional.” The debate, as you may recall, flared up early in the Obama administration when the President seemed to indicate that America wasn’t particularly special.
A recent survey supports de Tocqueville’s view of America – then and now.
Americans’ work ethic, self-reliance, and optimism still set us apart from the rest of the world, according to the Pew Research Center, which based its conclusions on interviews with people in 44 countries.
3 Stats that prove America is still the land of opportunity
1. Chief among the findings: Most Americans believe they control their own fate. Fifty-seven percent (57%) of Americans disagreed with the statement, “Success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control.” That figure was higher than any other country and well above the 38% mean. Interestingly, only 31% of Germans disagreed with that statement. I found that surprising given the Germans’ reputation for craftsmanship and discipline.
2. Americans also believe in hard work. When asked to rank the importance of hard work to getting ahead in life, we gave it a 10 out of 10. The median for the rest of the world was a 5 out of 10. Again, I was startled that Germany came in just under the median for belief in hard work. Maybe that’s the result of 70 years of post-war socialist-leaning policies in Europe.
3. The U.S. was also an outlier in a seeming indicator of optimism, or at least of perkiness. Americans were more upbeat than people in other wealthy countries when asked, “How is your day going?” About four-in-ten Americans (41%) described it as a “particularly good day.” That was significantly higher than countries like the UK (27%), Germany (21%) and Japan (8%). (Man, what’s going on in Japan?)
Interestingly, residents of some of the world’s poorest countries were most likely to describe their day as particularly good. More that 50% of respondents from Nigeria, Kenya and Nicaragua gave that answer.
Similarly, the world’s most impoverished people were most adamant about the importance of religion in their lives. But again, Americans scored highest among wealthy nations. More than half of Americans (54%) said religion was very important in their lives. That was more than double Canada (24%), Germany (21%) and Australia (21%).
So, while we are constantly beating up on ourselves as a nation gone soft; a country of whining, entitled wimps, it seems we’re still pretty kick-butt. Compared to the rest of the world, we are hard working, god-fearing, upbeat people who take responsibility for our own fate.
That culture definitely accounts for much of our economic success. It also makes America a magnet for some the most talented and ambitious people in the world, including Chobani yogurt founder Hamdi Ulukaya. Born to dairy farmers in a small Turkish village, Ulukaya came to the U.S. in 1994 to study English in upstate New York. He loved America but hated our yogurt. In 2005, he took a huge risk and bought a dilapidated dairy factory for $800,000 and started making the Greek-style yogurt he grew up eating. The rest is food and business history. Chobani is now worth $3 billion to $5 billion. Earlier this year, Ulukaya gave his employees 10% of the company. Some long-serving staffers got shares worth about $1 million.
Funny how that didn’t happen in Turkey.
Our national character is one big reason I remain optimistic about America’s long-term economic future. Yes, there are bumps, dips and sluggish periods (like right now). But the economic pie continues as the world’s population, including our own, expands. No country is better poised to continue taking a huge slice of that pie. In addition to our hard work and optimism, we prioritize innovation and creativity, and tolerate failure as a natural step on the road to success.
As billionaire investor Warren Buffett observed in a recent shareholder letter:
“For 240 years it’s been a terrible mistake to bet against the United States, and now is no time to start.”
We’re not just exceptional. We’re awesome.