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Americans Want More Constructive Politics, Believe Politicians And Social Media Benefit From Divisiveness While The Public Loses

December 4, 2019

New research from the inaugural Public Agenda/USA TODAY/Ipsos Hidden Common GroundTM survey reveals a significant number of Republicans and Democrats would consider crossing party lines for a more unifying candidate

New York, NY – Nearly 75 percent of Americans, regardless of political affiliation, think there is more common ground among the public than the media and politicians portray, according to a new Public Agenda report. Divisiveness and Collaboration in American Public Life, draws from a Public Agenda/USA Today/Ipsos survey of 1,548 American adults conducted in October 2019. It examines the perspectives of Americans on the problem of divisiveness, with a major focus on partisan divisiveness and how to achieve a more collaborative society despite our social and political differences. 

Across partisan affiliations and demographic groups, strong majorities agree that today’s divisiveness is a huge problem. Most view the problem as less about people having too many irreconcilable differences and more about our nation’s inability to deal with those differences constructively. Americans also view political leadership as a central factor that exacerbates divisiveness — and that could help to reduce it. 

In fact, most Americans across the political spectrum agree it’s important for them to vote for a candidate that would reduce divisiveness. Almost 40 percent of Republicans and almost 50 percent of Democrats would be very or somewhat tempted to cross party lines to vote for a candidate who could bring the country together. 

“If we were to accept the dominant media narrative, we’d think the country has reached a point beyond hope for us to come together, bridge divides and solve problems together,” said Will Friedman, president of Public Agenda. “Our research tells a different story, showing that Americans recognize our differences, view them as a strength, and believe that significant common ground on solutions exists on many issues.”

Additional key findings from the nationally representative Public Agenda/USA Today/Ipsos survey include:

  • Journalism, national political leaders, and social media are the institutions that Americans think stand to gain from the country’s divisiveness, while 63 percent of Americans say ordinary people stand to lose from divisiveness.  
  • Overwhelmingly and across partisan lines, Americans say divisiveness and gridlock are big problems facing the nation, with a third of Americans reporting that divisiveness has affected them personally, including causing depression, anxiety and sadness. 
  • Both Republicans and Democrats indicate that they could imagine finding common ground with about half of people who identify with the opposing party. Republicans and Democrats also see about a quarter of those in their own parties as so extreme they could not imagine finding common ground with them. 
  • A third of Republicans and a quarter of Democrats say they do not have a good way to understand the views of the opposing political party.  
  • Both thoughtless, hurtful talk and a fear of speaking one’s mind are equally big problems, a plurality of Americans says. 
  • Americans across the political spectrum agree on several approaches to reducing divisiveness, including teaching conflict resolution to kids and adults, making it easier for third-party and independent candidates to run for office, and shifting more decisions from the federal to the local level.

Overall, Divisiveness and Collaboration in American Public Life suggests a powerful yearning from Americans across all party lines for a more collaborative brand of politics that moves the country forward. 

“Most Americans think divisiveness is driven from the top down, by leaders, and not driven by the public itself,” said David Schleifer, Public Agenda’s director of research. “Of the eight different institutions that we asked about — ranging from journalism and social media to business and religious — there were none that a majority of Americans viewed as particularly constructive, suggesting that there is a constructiveness desert in American public life that needs to be addressed.”

This report summarizes findings from a nationally representative survey of 1,548 adult Americans 18 years and older. The Public Agenda/USA Today/Ipsos survey was fielded October 14th to 21st, 2019 by Ipsos using the web-enabled KnowledgePanel®. Respondents completed the survey in English. The survey was weighted to ensure the sample appropriately reflects the demographics of the American people. For a full discussion of survey methodology, go http://bit.ly/divisivenessandcollaboration

The research also draws from three demographically diverse focus groups with adults that Public Agenda conducted in May and June 2019 in New Rochelle, New York; Jackson, Mississippi; and Cincinnati, Ohio. 

This report is the first in a series in the Hidden Common Ground 2020 Initiative, spearheaded by Public Agenda and USA Today. It is supported by a diverse group of foundations, including the John S. and James L. Knight Foundationthe Charles Koch Foundation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, as well as through a research partnership with the Kettering Foundation and by individual donors. The aim is to explore the possibility that there is more common ground among the public on solutions to today’s issues than is typically acknowledged and leveraged for the common good, and, to the extent this is true, to elevate that common ground in the public discourse during the election year. Forthcoming Hidden Common Ground 2020 studies will explore health care, immigration, and economic opportunity and inequality, among other topics. 

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About Public Agenda 

Public Agenda is a nonpartisan research and public engagement organization dedicated to a healthy, just, and effective democracy. We support informed citizens, engaged communities, and responsive public institutions. We also elevate diverse voices, build common ground and foster progress on issues of concern to the American public. These include K-12 education, higher education, health care, economic opportunity, and democracy reform. Find Public Agenda online at PublicAgenda.org, on Facebook at facebook.com/PublicAgenda and on Twitter at @PublicAgenda. 

About USA TODAY

Founded in 1982, USA TODAY reflects the pulse of the nation, serving as host of the American conversation by delivering high-quality, engaging content through unique visual storytelling across all platforms. A media innovator, USA TODAY reaches nearly 100 million unique visitors each month across digital platforms, with more than 125 million downloads of our award-winning app. USA TODAY also remains the nation’s number one newspaper and is owned by Gannett Co., Inc. (NYSE: GCI).