Across the political spectrum, Americans think our democracy is in trouble, expect the government to guarantee both secure and accessible voting, and want “ordinary people” to have more of a voice in policy. Differences persist along partisan lines on racism’s impact on democracy and the need for systemic change to address racism.
July 20, 2021, New York – Public Agenda, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to strengthening democracy, released a new report, “America’s Hidden Common Ground on Renewing Democracy.” The report features findings from a representative survey of Americans on the state of our democracy, the kinds of changes that are needed to renew it, and specific policies that Americans think can create a healthier democracy and a more inclusive political process.
“Contrary to how the public is so often portrayed, our Hidden Common Ground research finds significant agreement among the general public on solutions to many of the tough challenges we face—in this instance, how to fix our ailing democracy,” said Will Friedman, Senior Fellow at Public Agenda. “We hope these findings can help Americans join forces where they agree and productively confront the areas where they do not.”
The report is the latest in Public Agenda’s Hidden Common Ground series, which is designed to help Americans identify and strengthen their common ground, productively navigate their differences, and foster fair and effective solutions to critical issues facing communities and the nation. The findings in these reports counter the dominant narrative that Americans are hopelessly divided and can not work together. The report “America’s Hidden Ground on Renewing Democracy,” finds a great deal of agreement on both general principles and priorities, and agreement on several specific policies and practices.
“While Americans are concerned about the state of our democracy, they also want meaningful opportunities to participate in civic life and want to have a voice in decision-making,” says David Schleifer, Interim Co-President and Director of Research at Public Agenda, “The research finds that there are many forms of participatory democracy that people want, that governments can implement, and that can help renew our democracy from the bottom up.”
- Americans of all political leanings are worried about the state of democracy, but are split on whether we simply need to elect the right leaders or whether we need more systemic change. This split is not between Democrats and Republicans, however, who are both equally likely to say that we need systemic change. But politically unaffiliated people, younger people and non-voters are all especially likely to say that our democracy needs systemic change. (Figure 2)
- To build a healthier democracy, Americans across partisan lines prioritize responsive government, less divisive leadership, and accurate news and information. (Figures 6 and 7)
- A two-thirds majority of Americans across political affiliations believe that elections can be both more secure and more accessible — only a third of Americans think we need to make an either-or choice between addressing election fraud or ensuring election accessibility (Figure 8). Most Americans want the federal government to ensure both election access and security in every state. (Figure 9)
- Republicans differ from people of other political affiliations on the question of whether racism is a barrier to political participation. Majorities of Democrats, Independents, and the politically unaffiliated agree that racism is a barrier, but 80 percent of Republicans disagree. (Figure 15) Strong majorities of Democrats, Independents and the politically unaffiliated believe that overcoming racism in America “requires more than changing people’s attitudes, it requires fundamental changes in our laws and institutions.” Republicans, however, are split on that proposition, with just under half (46 percent) believing that systemic change is necessary to address racism. (Figures 16)
- A 59 percent majority of the American public believe it is mostly their responsibility as Americans to find solutions to problems in their communities and nationally, while 41 percent say that finding solutions is mostly the government’s responsibility. Compared with previous Public Agenda surveys, this year’s results show an uptick in the percentage of Americans saying it is mostly the government’s responsibility to find solutions (Figure 11)
- Americans say they would be more likely to get involved in public affairs if they could exercise real power, build common ground, and if decision-making processes were user-friendly. (Figures 12 and 13)
The report summarizes findings from a nationally representative survey of 1,260 adult Americans 18 years and older. The survey was designed by Public Agenda and fielded May 24 to 27, 2021 by Ipsos. Respondents completed the survey in English.
The Public Agenda/USA TODAY Hidden Common Ground survey, which is also part of Public Agenda’s ongoing series of Yankelovich Democracy Monitor surveys, was fielded in May 2021. The surveys are named for and informed by the insights of Daniel Yankelovich (1924–2017), a co-founder of Public Agenda and master public opinion researcher. The research updates and expands on findings from Public Agenda’s two previous Yankelovich Democracy Monitor surveys, published in 2019 and 2020.
The Kettering Foundation served as a collaborator in this research. This research is supported in part by the Charles Koch Institute and Civic Health Project.
Public Agenda is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to creating a stronger, more inclusive, more participatory democracy for everyone. Through research and public engagement programs with local and national impact, we focus on raising up the voices of the public, bridging divides to facilitate progress, and strengthening relationships between institutions and the people they serve. Founded in 1975 by the social scientist and public opinion expert Dan Yankelovich and former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, Public Agenda works on diverse critical public issues, including health, education, environmental resilience, and civic engagement.
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