Greater Voice, Greater Impact: Americans’ Views on Making Democracy Work for Everyone

July 28, 2020

Greater Voice, Greater Impact: Americans’ Views on Making Democracy Work for Everyone

The Second Report from the Annual Yankelovich Democracy Monitor

From impeachment and divisive rhetoric to an aging infrastructure and runaway health care costs, Americans have long faced evidence that neither our politics nor our government functions as it should. The 2020 coronavirus pandemic has made those challenges even more stark, turning political dysfunction, divisiveness, and inequalities into matters of life and death.

What do Americans think should be done to strengthen our democracy, and what roles do they want to play in civic and political life? This report explores those and other questions based on data from the second Yankelovich Democracy Monitor survey. This survey was fielded before the 2020 novel coronavirus outbreak began and before nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minnesota. Subsequent surveys will track how Americans’ attitudes on these questions evolve as the nation recovers from the pandemic.

The Democracy Monitor is a multiyear study designed to track Americans’ views on democracy and how to strengthen it, conducted in partnership with the Kettering Foundation. 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 contributions to understanding the public’s views and values regarding democratic renewal:

  • The Democracy Monitor is oriented toward solutions and what should be done to make progress, rather than on who is to blame for our problems.
  • This research emphasizes the roles that ordinary people and communities play in democratic problem solving, rather than focusing solely on institutions and elections.
  • The Democracy Monitor is designed to track the evolution over time of public opinion on the problems facing our democracy.

Read the first report from the Yankelovich Democracy Monitor.

Methodology in Brief 

The second annual Yankelovich Democracy Monitor, a nationally representative survey of 1,000 American adults 18 and older, was fielded from November 6 to December 28, 2019, by telephone, including cellphones, and online. A total of 750 interviews were conducted by phone and 250 were completed online. Respondents completed the survey in English. This report also includes data from the first Yankelovich Democracy Monitor survey fielded in 2018.[1]

The final data were weighted to balance the sample to known national population parameters based on U.S. Census Bureau data for each of the four census regions and to correct for systematic under- or overrepresentation of key demographics. The maximum standard error range (margin of error) for the total weighted sample is +/- 3.1 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level. It is higher for questions that were not asked of all respondents and for subgroup results.

Before developing the survey, Public Agenda conducted three demographically diverse focus groups with adults 18 and older in June and July 2019 in New Rochelle, New York; Jackson, Mississippi; and Cincinnati, Ohio.

The Kettering Foundation served as a collaborator in this research. The survey was fielded by Wiese Research Group. Public Agenda designed the survey instrument and analyzed the data.

[1] David Schleifer and Antonio Diep, “Strengthening Democracy: What Do Americans Think?,” Public Agenda, 2019. https://www.publicagenda.org/reports/strengthening-democracy-what-do-americans-think/.

Main Findings

Finding 1: Few Americans think our democracy is functioning well, and Independents are particularly pessimistic about whether it will improve. Half of Americans acknowledge that racism can make civic participation difficult.

Finding 2: Only half of Americans think the current design and structure of our government work. No matter who is in office, four in ten Americans think significant changes are needed to our government so that ordinary people have more of a voice and so government can solve problems more effectively.

Finding 3: Americans see elected officials and special interests as obstacles to ordinary people having a voice. Nonetheless, many people feel they can have influence in their communities if enough people work together. Fewer feel they can have much influence nationally.

Finding 4: People say they would be more likely to get involved in local issues if they could make a real impact. About half of Americans want their local government to implement systems that give people more direct power, such as participatory budgeting, ballot initiatives and citizen juries.

The Second Yankelovich Democracy Monitor Finds an America Ready for Change

Contacts:

Nick Obourn, nobourn@publicagenda.org, Communications Director

David Schleifer, dschleifer@publicagenda.org, Vice President, Director of Research

Social media handles: FB@publicagenda/Twitter@publicagenda/Instagram@publicagenda_

Hashtags: #YDM2 #YDM #Democracyreform

New York, NY (July 28, 2020) – Public Agenda, a non-partisan research and public engagement organization, announces the release of the second annual Yankelovich Democracy Monitor, a public opinion research report that tracks Americans’ feelings about their democracy with a solutions-focused approach. In the report, “Greater Voice, Greater Impact: Americans’ Views on Making Democracy Work for Everyone,” we found that despite deep challenges to their democracy and the ideals of democracy, Americans feel there are solutions that point in the right direction. Our research in this second report also brought focus to some of the perceived challenges of our democracy. For example, eighty percent of Americans say that our democracy is either “in crisis” or “facing serious challenges.” Half of Americans feel that racism makes it difficult for some people to participate in civic and political life, including two-thirds of Black Americans and about half of white and Latino Americans.

“We fielded the Democracy Monitor survey before nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minnesota and before COVID-19,” said David Schleifer, Vice President and Director of Research at Public Agenda. “The impacts of these events, and whether awareness of the impacts of racism grows as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement is an area we plan to track in future research. It is clear, however, that in the short term they have accelerated and intensified the desire for new ways of thinking about public participation and the role of government.”

“Greater Voice, Greater Impact: Americans’ Views on Making Democracy Work for Everyone” found that a sense of responsibility to uphold democracy remains in the majority. The 2019 report found that sixty four percent of Americans feel that It’s mostly our responsibility as Americans to help find solutions–it’s not enough to just vote and pay taxes. The research report makes clear that people want to have a greater voice in the decisions that affect their lives and are enthusiastic about democratic innovations such as participatory budgeting, ballot initiatives and citizen juries. Public Agenda recently released a report that examined participatory budgeting in New York City, where the practice has been adopted by dozens of city council members and through which notable shifts in funding priorities have emerged.

The second Yankelovich Democracy Monitor report found about half of Americans want their local governments to implement the above mentioned reforms, the most common reason being to put more control in the hands of the people. Four in ten Americans say the design and structure of our nation’s government need significant change no matter whom we elect to represent us, indicating a strong desire among Americans to rethink who democracy serves.

“One of the report’s most significant findings is that people want more equitable, deliberative and collaborative relationships with their governments,” said Matt Leighninger, Vice President for Public Engagement & Director of the Yankelovich Center at Public Agenda. “They want a greater voice in decision making and problem solving, and they are open to a wide range of new democratic reforms and practices.”

The Yankelovich Democracy Monitor is a multi-year, solutions-focused survey of Americans conducted by Public Agenda in partnership with the Kettering Foundation. To complete the survey, Public Agenda contacted a nationally representative sample of 1,000 Americans in the fall of 2018 and the fall of 2019.

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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, and on social media at FB@publicagenda/Twitter@publicagenda/Instagram@publicagenda_.