The good news: An overwhelming majority of Americans believe there is more common ground among the American people than is acknowledged.
The bad news? A growing number believe the nation’s divide over a variety of critical issues will widen in the coming years.
Public Agenda and USA TODAY conducted a new round of Hidden Common Ground research in which we asked the American people what they think will help move the country beyond destructive partisan divisiveness, which virtually all Americans agree is a huge problem.
And those are just some of the main findings from the poll, which shows an increasing pessimism in the country in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Seventy-one percent said Americans have more in common than is reflected by political leaders or in the media, but 44% said the country’s ability to deal with major disagreements over the next decade will worsen. That’s up by 5 percentage points compared with the 2019 version of the survey.
“I would say it’s getting worse in my lifetime. I’m seeing it getting worse instead of better,” Carolina Baca, 55, a Republican from Albuquerque, New Mexico, who responded to the survey, told USA TODAY.
Overall the poll shows a deep pessimism at the country’s ability to handle issues – from the health risks and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic to improving tensions between police and people of color.
In particular, the survey’s major takeaways suggest that political divisiveness is taking a personal toll on a rising number of Americans; there is a chasm between how the two political parties view the effects of racism in the country; skepticism about the future of the country is growing among conservatives; and constituents largely hold elected leaders accountable for the division more than their most ardent followers.
Wide division on racism
When it comes to race – historically one of the country’s most divisive topics – two-thirds agree discrimination makes it more difficult for people of color to succeed in America, according to the poll.
But the survey found a canyon between how much people see the impact of racism when measured against party lines, which the pollsters said complicates public policy efforts to create a more inclusive society and equitable economy.
Among Republicans, roughly 37% said racial discrimination makes it more difficult for people of color to succeed in America. That is significantly lower than other political affiliations, most notably the 88% of Democrats who said the same. Large majorities of other groups also sided with those saying discrimination matters, such as 64% of independents and 74% of respondents who self-describe as apolitical.
Jamie Hendrick, 68, a Republican from Oklahoma City, told USA TODAY that racial discrimination is “very complex issue” that shouldn’t be used to paint the entire country as racist.
“I can certainly see people in situations that have that issue but just at large in society, no,” said Hendrick, who is white.
Across lines of race, there are solid majorities saying minorities face obstacles, although it varies significantly by race, with 91% of Black Americans and 73% of Hispanics saying that racial discrimination makes it more difficult for people of color to succeed in America, compared with 59% of white Americans.
Constance Lewis, 54, who is African American, said the country has progressed when looking at how many more minorities have climbed the economic ladder to prominent positions.
But Lewis said that when it comes to addressing systemic discrimination in areas such as housing, for instance, there is an unwillingness to acknowledge how those roadblocks have kept the majority of Black and Hispanic Americans out of prosperity.
“I think this is why we haven’t progressed,” Lewis said. “And by not even acknowledging that there is a problem, even if you’re not the person doing the problem, by not acknowledging the problem, you’re part of the problem.”
Republican pessimism grows; 1 in 5 report mental health troubles because of division
The political fights have also turned into a personal problem for a growing segment of Americans, the survey finds.
Nearly 1 in 5 reported experiencing depression, anxiety or sadness as a result of partisan disagreements and divisiveness, with little variation by political affiliation.
Fourteen percent said they have lost or had serious fights with friends or family as a result of divisiveness, according to the survey.
Looking through a partisan lens, Republicans hold a growing pessimism compared with two years ago about mending the country’s fences.
In 2019, the survey suggested 41% of GOP voters said the country was headed toward a more destructive path when it came to handling its disagreements. That has shot up to 54% today, according to the most recent poll. Among Democrats, 35% said two years ago the U.S. would become more destructive compared with 31% today.
About 42% of Democrats expressed optimism about the country dealing with its disputes constructively, up considerably from 23% in 2019. Roughly 1 in 5 GOP voters, or 19%, think the country will be more constructive, down from 21% in the 2019 survey.
The pollsters point to November’s election outcome, where Democratic challenger Joe Biden defeated Republican incumbent Donald Trump for control of the White House, as the chief engine in the shift.
David McVay, 71, of Rochester, New York, is a registered Republican who said it isn’t clear if the divide in the country has been fully addressed.
“Currently, I have hopes that Biden will do so, but I haven’t really seen a lot of movement as of yet,” he said.
Whether Biden, who ran in 2020 as someone who can heal the divisions in the country, can do so “remains to be seen,” he said.
“I think from my perspective out here in flyover country, Trump fed the division as a way to fundraise,” McVay said. “I don’t think Biden is going to do that. I think he’s going to try and pull things together.”
Across political affiliations, the poll found a dimmer outlook among citizens about whether the U.S. can do a substantially better job at managing disagreements.
More than three-fourths said the country’s political divides have made dealing with the health risks and economic impact of the coronavirus more difficult.
“When you look at it on the whole, it is depressing and everybody’s worried.” said Kathleen Yumoto, 75, a Democrat from San Francisco. “You just worry for everybody else and feel kind of helpless that you can’t do anything.”
Leaders are to blame, survey finds, but many have worked to be better
The increase in overall pessimism notwithstanding, 93% of Americans say it is important to reduce the country’s current divides, including two-thirds who say it is very important to do so.
Despite the vitriolic tenor of U.S. politics, 61% of Americans, including 60% of Republicans and Democrats alike, said they have often or sometimes had constructive conversations with someone whose political views are different from their own.
Nearly half of Americans say they have worked to solve problems with people holding differing views in their own backyard, including 44% of Republicans and 46% of Democrats.
In the aftermath of the Jan. 6 riot, about 77% think the country’s inability to get things done and disagree constructively comes from the top-down. Only 23% say the toxicity of U.S. politics is. driven from the bottom-up.
Hendrick, the Oklahoma City Republican, said he sees “feeble attempts” to address the ongoing division, “but it’s not something I would imagine could be just dealt with in one fell, single swoop.”
“Although in general I think it’s kind of festering and egged on by much of mainstream media and many entrenched politicians,” he said.
What’s also telling is a change in action and behavior in the wake of the riot at the U.S. Capitol, with 45% saying they have often or sometimes engaged in cross-partisan collaboration, according to the survey. That figure grew substantially compared with the 32% who said the same thing in the October 2019 survey.
Americans may also be looking at how the engage each other online differently, the survey finds.
Fifty-three percent said they have often or sometimes changed the way they use social media in order to be less divisive and more constructive.
Democrat Mary Block said she hopes new leaders coming into public office will look to ease some of the political divisions.
“If you’re talking about the division in Congress, I suppose that would make a difference,” said Block, 73, who lives in Marine on St. Croix, Minnesota, outside of the Twin Cities.
“With any new Congress people that would be elected that would change the attitude of some of the old staunch ones that aren’t going anywhere and just take up their party whether they’re right or wrong.”
The online poll of 1,283 U.S. adults was conducted Feb. 23-26 and has a credibility interval of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
Source: USA Today – Breaking News