As a collective, Americans have grown less patriotic. In the last 16 years, the amount of “very proud” American citizens has dropped from 77 percent to 56 percent.

Americans have openly admitted to the drop in national pride. According to a poll by The Atlantic and The Aspen Institute for the Aspen Ideas Festival, “More than two-thirds (of the public) believe that American values have declined.” Reportedly, these values — freedom of speech and individual liberties, equality under the law and free enterprise — are seen to be deteriorating, as many believe these values only apply to the wealthiest Americans. Specifically, the majority of Americans “believe that an obsession with money and material things, the influence of money in politics” have weakened core values, making them relevant to individuals of the highest socioeconomic status.

Our lost national pride is likely due to a general distaste for our political leaders and institutions. Approximately 64 percent of Americans don’t want their kids pursuing a political career, according to Gallup. Similarly, people’s trust in Congress ranks 16th (last) behind institutions like churches, the military, public schools, etc. Furthermore, most teens don’t want to grow up to be president. In general, we’ve become disattisfied with American representatives, institutions and values.

The proliferation of media sites constantly covering power holders in Washington, D.C., has influenced this general decline in nationalism. With the rise of digital media sites, people have more exposure to news events than ever before. This coverage often unveils corruption, deceit, and ignorance of and general disappointment in our political leaders. While there isn’t necessarily more corruption or malfeasance today than before, there are more organizations attempting to hold our leaders accountable. 

As a growing body of journalists uncovers unfortunate truths within our political leadership and institutions, Americans have turned to themselves for inspiration. About 70 percent of Americans have stated that they can get anything they want in this country if they work hard enough. More depressing, though, is that Americans’ personal narcissism has climbed to higher rates.

According to a cross-temporal study of American college students, two-thirds of students’ narcissism scores (measured by psychologists) have risen 30 percent over the mean since 1982. Additionally, a Pew Research Center poll found that 59 percent of millennials admitted to being more self-absorbed than previous generations.

Considering the decline in nationalism and trust in political leadership, it should come as no surprise that Americans believe themselves to be more important than previous generations. Who else can they trust but their families, friends and selves?

Unfortunately, the decline in nationalism and rising individualist mentality is correlated with lower civic participation. Since people are less dedicated to the goals of America, they’re less willing to volunteer or make sacrifices for their country. Over the past few decades, volunteerism has declined significantly. According to Robert Putnam, participation in the Boy Scouts has dropped 26 percent since 1970, and activity in the Red Cross has fallen 61 percent in the same time period. While youth involvement rose significantly just after 9/11, the general trend of decreased volunteerism has remained consistent, as of 2014, according to the U.S. News & World Report.

Curiously, these stats raise an interesting question: Should the increased exposure of political corruption influence us to become less appreciative of (and therefore less service-oriented toward) America?

Personally, I don’t think so.

The fact that America is not the idealistic nation we want to reside in now doesn’t mean it can’t be more like that place tomorrow. In fact, our recognition of problems and failures in our political system provide us all with an opportunity to make it better. These circumstances are particularly inspiring in a democratic society. The identification of our opportunities should galvanize us to be more grateful for America; more thankful, more selfless and more service-oriented for what we have and for understanding our possibility to become better nationally and individually.

One particular satirical news anchor has adopted this thinking. Jon Stewart, the former host of “The Daily Show” and an avid critic of American politics and the dirty incentives that drive our political leaders, has harped on the importance of civic duty. He believes national service, as long as it doesn’t stray from one’s critical understanding of our leaders’ goals and one’s personal goals, is beneficial for everyone.

In other words, he believes we should be critically proud of America for what is has given us, and for what it can give us, because we are citizens with the capacity to change it. That opportunity implicitly demands responsibility from everyone continuing to question our leaders and then improving America’s standing in our world. In this context, former president John F. Kennedy’s words ring true: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

And while it’s necessary to recognize the possible xenophobia, discrimination and genocide that groupthink patriotism creates, a strong dose of critical nationalism provides our country and our communities with a stronger civil society and a more participatory democracy. In rather obvious terms, it’s beneficial for everyone to dedicate themselves to their fellow citizens. Without doing so, we’ll continue losing a sense of selflessness, a duty to something greater and a commitment to giving back to what and whom we’ve benefited from. 

Sam Corey can be reached at samcorey@umich.edu.

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