Public Agenda, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to strengthening democracy, released a new report in partnership with USA TODAY, “Putting Partisan Animosity in Perspective.” The report features findings from a representative survey of Americans on their views on partisan animosity, the ways in which it impacts their lives and the nation, and what they believe can be done to address it. “Disagreement is consistent with a healthy democracy. But the type of extreme affective polarization we all see in the media and in government threatens to prevent us from working together to meet our shared challenges,” says Andrew Seligsohn, President of Public Agenda. “Fortunately, our research shows that the majority of Americans do not have strongly negative feelings toward either Democratic or Republican voters, and a majority strongly believes that differences of opinion are good for our country. That gives us a chance to move in a positive direction.”
This Public Agenda/USA TODAY Hidden Common Ground report focuses on affective polarization, meaning negative feelings towards people whose political views differ from one’s own. The report summarizes findings from a nationally representative survey of 2,345 adult Americans. 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 cannot work together. The research finds substantial cross-partisan agreement on both general principles and priorities, and agreement on several specific policies. “The partisanship on daily display in government does not reflect the views or feelings of the public at large,” says David Schleifer, Vice President and Director of Research at Public Agenda, “We found that about 30 percent of Americans have strongly unfavorable feelings toward either Democratic or Republican other voters. While that’s a substantial minority, it’s nowhere near a majority. Most Americans are simply not so strongly embroiled in that type of intense partisanship, despite the behavior of some elected officials.”
The survey yielded six major findings:
- Americans are united in thinking that partisan hostility and divisiveness harm the country and in wanting a less contentious nation, but few think partisanship will decrease in the next ten years. Nearly three-quarters of Americans (72 percent) think it would be a good thing for our country if the American people reject political hostility and divisiveness and focus more on their common ground. But only nine percent of Americans think that political hostility and divisiveness between ordinary Americans will decrease in the next ten years. Instead, a 42 percent plurality thinks it will increase. (Figure 2)
- Most Americans do not have strongly unfavorable feelings towards either Democratic or Republican voters. While many people do have strongly negative feelings towards Democratic or Republican politicians, most do not feel this way toward voters. Across the political spectrum, 30 percent of Americans have very unfavorable feelings towards either Democratic or Republican voters. Those who feel the most unfavorably, whether towards Democratic or Republican voters, are especially likely to feel that divisiveness negatively impacts their lives and the nation. (Figure 8)
- Most Americans believe in the value of differences of opinion and dialogue, and many are trying to connect across partisan lines. A strong majority of Americans not only say they value diverse perspectives, but 45 percent say that they have often or sometimes had constructive conversations about politics with someone whose political views are opposed to their own. (Figures 14 & 15)
- Most Americans believe that the federal government should ensure voting rights for all. Yet partisan differences of opinion emerge starkly when people are asked about federal policies directly aimed at combating racism. Eighty-six percent of Americans, including strong majorities of Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and the unaffiliated, believe that the federal government should ensure that voting is accessible and easy for everyone. (Figures 18 & 19) However, partisan differences emerge when asking about systemic approaches to addressing racism. Two-thirds of Democrats believe that changing federal laws and institutions to root out racism would help bring the country together, while only one-third of Republicans agree. One-third of Republicans believe that doing so would actually drive the country further apart. (Figure 21)
- To bring the country together, Americans agree on the need for better news and information, and most want social media to stop amplifying divisiveness. When asked about 13 potential measures to bring the country together, two-thirds believe that creating more accurate, trustworthy, accessible sources of news and information would bring the country together. People feel this way regardless of whether their main news source is Fox News (65 percent), CNN or MSNBC (71 percent), or ABC, CBS, or NBC (68 percent). (Figures 23 & 25)
- Across partisan lines, most Americans agree that reducing the influence of money in politics would help bring the country together. Many people also believe that educational approaches would help unify the country, including teaching students about both America’s achievements and its shortcomings (Figures 27 & 28).
The Public Agenda/USA TODAY Hidden Common Ground survey, was fielded in September 2021. 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.