Americans are down on America

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We’re No. 33!

That’s the bottom line in a new Gallup poll measuring the extent of freedom in 135 countries. Only 79% of Americans say they’re satisfied with their freedom to choose what to do with their lives, down from 87% in 2008. The top five nations where people feel most satisfied with their freedoms are New Zealand, Australia, Cambodia, Sweden and the United Arab Emirates. At No. 33, the United States is sandwiched between Bahrain and Cameroon.

Gallup doesn’t define “freedom” in this poll, so citizens of different countries are likely to interpret the word differently. That’s why Cambodians — enjoying peaceful elections as they recover from years of war  — rank among the top five. Still, changes over time show whether people in a given nation feel their freedoms are improving or deteriorating.

The United States is one of the few places where freedoms appear to be on the wane. Of the 100 countries where Gallup measured changes in freedom during the past five years, 75 of them registered an improvement, while 21 registered a decline. Four stayed the same. Of the decliners, only five nations report sharper drops than the United States. Two of them — Syria and Afghanistan — are dominated by armed uprisings. Two others — Tajikistan and Thailand — are racked with political turmoil. Luxembourg, the most prosperous of the decliners, has become a target of U.S. and European authorities going after tax evaders with foreign accounts.

A newfound humility

Such unruly company seems to have knocked some of the swagger out of the typical American. In a separate set of polls by Pew Research, the percentage of Americans who believe the United States “stands above all other countries” dropped from 38% in 2011 to 28% in 2014. Young Americans are least impressed with their home country, with only 15% of 18-29-year-olds saying the United States is the world’s No. 1 nation. Among seniors, 40% feel that way — but still, that's down from 50% just three years ago.

That newfound humility corresponds with an economic comedown that is looking permanent for an uncomfortably large portion of Americans. The recession that ended in 2009 ravaged the economic fortunes of many American families, with median household wealth still about 40% lower than it was before the recession. Jobs have finally started to return, but for many workers, pay is lower than it used to be. People feel they’re falling behind, and the data show they’re not imagining things. That’s a loss of economic freedom, which impacts other choices.

Many Americans seem to question the basic premise that everybody can get ahead in the so-called land of the free. A recent analysis by USA Today found living the American Dream, loosely defined, costs a typical family of four roughly $130,000 per year. That’s in a country where the median household income is only about $53,000, or less than half of what’s needed for a middle-class lifestyle.

One can quibble with USA Today’s methodology, which includes nearly $5,000 for an annual one-week vacation, $3,700 for dining out every year and thousands more for college and retirement funds. Many people live comfortably without such extras. Yet part of the American Dream (which itself has never been clearly defined) is the financial stability that comes from knowing you’ve got enough money to continually improve your living standards and handle any surprises that may pop up.

Such tangible declines in middle-class living standards represent the most important economic trend in a generation. The recovery that followed the recession and began in 2009 has been the weakest since the 1930s. A gridlocked Washington may deserve some of the blame, yet digital technology and globalization have allowed companies to locate work wherever it’s cheapest and replace employees with computers, robots and other gizmos. Americans are rightly fed up with their government but there may not be all that much Washington can do to reinvigorate an economy that still has too much debt clogging its veins.

A fresh dose of humility, ironically, may help get America back on track. Americans love to chant “We’re No. 1!” but, when asked their own opinions, they clearly believe we’re not anymore. As people complain about tough times, though, they’re also recalibrating their priorities and plotting comeback strategies. Developing an underdog mentality is a good start.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.

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