Vast Majority of Americans Say Democracy is in Crisis or Serious Trouble
August 20, 2019
But Most Also Believe Ordinary People Have a Lot of Influence “If Enough People Get Involved”
New York City – Public Agenda – the nonpartisan research and public engagement organization – today released findings from a nationally representative survey of Americans showing that the vast majority across all political affiliations are deeply worried about the state of democracy in the United States. According to the research, 39 percent of Americans said our democracy is “in crisis,” while 42 percent said our democracy is “facing serious challenges.”
The Yankelovich Democracy Monitor, created by Public Agenda in partnership with The Kettering Foundation, presents substantial new evidence that public concern about our nation’s democracy cuts across party lines, but with some notable political dimensions. A perhaps surprisingly high percentage of Republicans (25 percent) say that our democracy is in crisis, while another 46 percent of Republicans say it is facing serious challenges. Democrats are feeling anxiety about our democracy even more keenly (54 percent say it is in crisis and 38 percent say it is facing serious challenges), and very few Americans – Independents, Republicans or Democrats – say our democracy is doing well.
Although Americans think the situation is dire, they do not think it is hopeless. The Democracy Monitor found that about half of Americans believe that when enough people get involved, they have a lot of influence over how the nation addresses problems (55 percent of Republicans, 54 percent of Democrats, 47 percent of independents). Still, an undercurrent of pessimism runs strong, with 41 percent of Americans saying that ordinary people have little influence over how the nation addresses problems, and few in either party saying our democracy is likely to get better in the next few years.
Even more Americans believe that people can make a difference in their communities: 80 percent of Americans say ordinary people have a lot of influence over how communities address problems when enough people get involved.
Commenting on the inaugural report “Strengthening Democracy: What Do Americans Think?,” of the multi-year Democracy Monitor tracking survey initiative, Public Agenda President Will Friedman said, “Every day, Americans are confronted with evidence that our politics and democracy are broken and getting worse. But most people also feel that if enough people get involved they can change things for the better. Supporting and channeling that impulse in constructive ways may be where the hope lies for renewing democracy in the years ahead.”
Strong majorities across all political affiliations feel a sense of responsibility to address problems facing our nation and communities, with 67 percent of Americans saying that it is mostly our responsibility as Americans to help find solutions – it’s not enough to just vote and pay taxes.
The Democracy Monitor asked Americans to consider various approaches to increasing public engagement in democratic problem-solving – including participatory budgeting, community gatherings where people work on solutions to public issues, surveys of the public to establish priorities, online forums, and active participation civics education – and they responded with enthusiasm to all of them. The message seems to be that people are ready to invest and experiment in new ways of solving problems in their communities.
What would make people more likely to participate in civic engagement and community problem-solving? Most say they would be more likely to join such efforts if the engagement opportunity seems genuine and is likely to have real impacts. They are most likely to participate if it allows them to contribute their own skills and experiences to solving the problem, if someone they respect invites them, and if public officials are there to listen and respond.
Other findings from a deeper dive into the survey’s top-line data that will be useful to the civic engagement leaders, political campaigns and movement-building organizers:
- In a battery of questions examining perceptions of the challenges facing our democracy, on some items there was considerable common ground, with no differences by political affiliation. For example, Americans are concerned about extremes dominating political debate: 62 percent of Republicans, 59 percent of Democrats and 58 percent of Independents strongly agree that people with extreme views are getting too much attention in public life—we need to have more moderate and reasonable voices. Questions about addressing incivility in politics and more people getting involved in their communities also elicited broad agreement regardless of respondents’ political affiliation.
- The Democracy Monitor found modest differences by political affiliation in how strongly people agree that more people need to get involved in public affairs, that politicians should compromise more, and that we should reduce the influence of money on government. Despite modest variations by political affiliation on how strongly people agree, Americans across all political affiliations agree at least somewhat on the need to address these challenges facing our democracy.
- The Democracy Monitor found somewhat greater variation by political affiliation in how strongly people agree that in the media we need more honest information from reliable sources, that we need to protect the integrity of our election system and that we need to rely more on local groups and involved citizens. More Republicans than Democrats strongly agree on the need for more honest, reliable media and the need to rely more on local groups and involved citizens to solve community problems. More Democrats strongly agree on the need to protect the integrity of our election system. Nonetheless, most people across political affiliations agree at least somewhat on the need to address those challenges.
“Strengthening Democracy: What Do Americans Think?” summarizes findings from the first Yankelovich Democracy Monitor, a nationally representative survey of 1,000 American adults 18 and older. The survey was fielded from September 14 through October 15, 2018, by telephone, including cell phones, and online. Respondents completed the survey in English. Before developing the survey instrument, Public Agenda conducted three demographically diverse focus groups with adults 18 and older in July 2018 in Hicksville, New York; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; and Earth City, Missouri. For a complete methodology providing more detail, including sample characteristics and the survey’s topline with full question wording, please go to www.publicagenda.org/pages/strengthening-democracy-what-do-americans-think or email firstname.lastname@example.org
About The Yankelovich Democracy Monitor and its partners:
The Yankelovich Democracy Monitor is a multiyear study tracking Americans’ evolving views on democracy and how to strengthen it. The study is named for and informed by the insights of Daniel Yankelovich (1924–2017), a co-founder of Public Agenda and master public opinion researcher. The Democracy Monitor aims to make several distinct contributions to understanding the public’s views and values regarding the democratic renewal so sorely needed today. Rather than focusing solely on institutional policy and electoral politics, The Democracy Monitor specifically explores the roles that ordinary people and communities can play in democratic problem solving.
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 equitable progress on the issues at the heart of the American Dream. These include K-12 education, higher education, healthcare, and housing. Find Public Agenda online at PublicAgenda.org, on Facebook at facebook.com/PublicAgenda and on Twitter at @PublicAgenda.
The Kettering Foundation is a nonprofit operating foundation rooted in the American tradition of cooperative research. Established in 1927 by inventor Charles F. Kettering, the foundation is a 501(c)(3) organization that does not make grants but engages in joint research with others. The interpretations and conclusions in this publication represent the views of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles F. Kettering Foundation, its directors, or its officers. More information may be found at