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Commentary: U.S. Citizens' Views of Their Country Decline Since 2019

Suneal Bedi, David Reibstein

PHILADELPHIA -- The 2020 US News Country Rankings show the United States moving up overall from No. 8 in 2019 to No. 7 this year. It seems that maybe the "Make America Great Again" policies have been paying off.

These rankings are important because they represent external perceptions of the United States. External perceptions are integral to good branding. While corporate brands such as Apple, McDonalds and the like consistently seek to cultivate a positive image with their customers (those external to the company), companies nevertheless believe that step one is always to gain internal support from their employees. Employee satisfaction leads to customer satisfaction. Likewise, nations cannot simply rest on strong external perceptions, they must gain support internally -- they must cultivate internal pride.

Therefore, internal perceptions, what a country's own citizens think about their country, is an important aspect of nation branding. And although we see the U.S.'s external perceptions positively increasing modestly, Turning the magnifying glass inwards reveals a different picture. The internal perceptions of the United States are less than positive to say the least and more importantly show negative movement from 2019.

U.S. News & World Report, in connection with BAV Consulting and The Wharton School, have surveyed thousands of individuals across the world about their perceptions of different countries. Each individual rated many countries, and some also rated their own. We have isolated here the perceptions that Americans in the global survey have about America based on a sample of over 1,200 people. Generally, citizens within a country view themselves more positively than those on the outside. Looking at internal perceptions reveals that Americans are not as bullish about the country as they used to be. Moreover, they often have less than ideal views about their own nation.

For each country feature, respondents in the survey were asked if they believed the country had that characteristic. Looking only at the U.S. respondents that rated the U.S., we can observe that only 56% of Americans sampled believed that America cares about gender equality. An alarming 39% believe that America is a country that promotes income equality. We have presented both of these statistics and many others below in Figure 1. It is almost shocking to think only about 50% of Americans sampled really think that U.S. embodies the attributes below.

As it turns out, Americans really don't think so highly about their own country. This should be concerning. When only 54% of citizens believe their fellow compatriots are happy, either they are horribly mistaken, or the county's policies and economy are not working for the majority of citizens. Legislatures should be listening and learning from these statistics rather than simply proclaiming that country trends are improving.

Further disconcerting, many of the U.S. self-perceptions show a negative trend from 2019. Below, in Figure 2, we have presented the change in self-perceptions from 2019 to 2020 for various attributes. Some, not surprisingly, have increased. For example, more Americans think that the U.S. is tax friendly in 2020 than in 2019 (a rise from 32% to 36%). This makes sense as the Trump administration has purported to relax various tax regulations.

However, others data points are more concerning. Fewer Americans say they think the country is politically stable (a drop from 59% to 53%) and that America as a nation is trustworthy (a drop from 61% to 55%). In addition, more Americans think the U.S. is corrupt in 2020 than they did in 2019. If the country is really "becoming great," it's certainly not perceived that way internally. The largest drop this year was, ironically, business related. While most Americans think, probably rightly so, that the U.S. is entrepreneurial, 10% fewer Americans thought that in 2020 than in 2019. This is problematic for an administration that is claiming to create favorable environments for small businesses.

These low internal perceptions are not necessarily mirrored by other countries. Canada, our neighbor to the north and a higher overall ranked country in 2020, shows much better internal perceptions. Over 76% of Canadians believe that Canada cares about gender equality, 70% believe that their co-patriots are happy, 76% believe Canada has open travel, 73% believe the country is trustworthy, and 83% believe Canada has a well-developed public health system.

What citizens think about their own country is an important part of making a nation great. First, citizens often know their country best. So, if they are bearish on the outlook, it is something that should be noted and may be indicative of underlying problems within the country (e.g., polarization, inequality, disgruntled citizens).

Second, citizens often promote the country, both abroad when they are traveling and internally to various non-citizen stakeholders. They interact with tourists who visit, and also interact with locals in other countries. They conduct business with nations and companies that have presences in other countries. U.S. citizens should be the best brand ambassadors for the country at home and abroad. However, when the majority of citizens do not view their own country positively, they can't market it well. It would obviously be a problem if 50% of the employees of Apple consistently didn't use Apple products and at the same time thought the products were un-innovative and badly designed.

On first glance, even a slight increase in rankings may be much needed solace for the U.S. in the midst of intense partisanship, daily news reports of shootings, and political uncertainty. However, when we look deeper into how Americans perceive their own country, we may question whether America is really great again.

It is not enough to simply change how the world views the U.S. -- policies should also focus on internal marketing, and convince Americans themselves through reforms, passing legislation, and open, honest communication that the country is really regaining its status as a beacon of freedom and hope.

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