America’s Hidden Common Ground on Renewing Democracy

July 19, 2021

This 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 research updates and expands on findings from Public Agenda’s two previous Yankelovich Democracy Monitor surveys, published in 2019 and 2020. Findings include:

  1. Most Americans think our democracy is in trouble. Half of Americans think we need to change the political system, while half think we simply need to elect the right leaders.
  2. Americans across the political spectrum view elected officials’ disregard for the public and the influence of special interests as major obstacles to a responsive, healthy democracy in which people have a voice in the decisions that affect their lives.
  3. To build a healthier democracy, Americans across partisan lines emphasize responsive government, fair and secure elections, unifying leadership, and accurate news and information. Americans are united in believing that elections can be both secure and accessible and that the federal government should make sure voting is simple, convenient and hassle-free for every person in every state.
  4. Many Americans want ways to participate in democracy beyond voting. They want their local governments to create opportunities for them to deliberate, make decisions, and collaborate with elected officials. 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. More people want government to work with communities rather than want it to get out of the way.
  5. Americans of different partisan affiliations disagree on whether racism is a barrier to political participation and on whether addressing racism requires systemic change. Republicans’ views on these questions stand in contrast to those of Democrats, Independents and unaffiliated Americans; differences by racial identification are more modest.  

The report concludes with reflections on the findings and implications for moving towards a less divisive, more collaborative, and healthier democracy.

Public Agenda’s Hidden Common Ground® initiative challenges the narrative that Americans are hopelessly divided and incapable of working together. Through research, journalism, and public engagement, Hidden Common Ground helps Americans identify and strengthen their common ground, productively navigate their differences, and create fair and effective solutions to the challenges of our time.

Hidden Common Ground explores issues including overcoming divisiveness, responses to the coronavirus, health care, economic opportunity, racism and police reform, and immigration.

The Kettering Foundation is a research partner of the Hidden Common Ground initiative. Hidden Common Ground is supported by a diverse group of foundations including Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Charles Koch Institute, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Civic Health Project and through the generosity of individual donors.

The Yankelovich Democracy Monitor is a multi-year 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 and their potential solutions.

Findings from Public Agenda’s two previous Yankelovich Democracy Monitor surveys were published in 2019 and 2020

This 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 sample was randomly drawn from Ipsos’ online panel, partner online panel sources, and “river” sampling. Ipsos calibrates respondent characteristics to be representative of the U.S. Population using standard procedures such as raking-ratio adjustments. The source of these population targets is U.S. Census 2018 American Community Survey data. Post-hoc weights were made to the population characteristics on gender, age, race/ethnicity, region, and education. Unfortunately, the sample size of this survey was not large enough to analyze the views of Asian Americans separately. 

The findings include trend data from Public Agenda’s two previous Yankelovich Democracy Monitor surveys. The first was fielded September 14 through October 15, 2018, with findings published in August 2019. The second was fielded November 6 to December 28, 2019, with findings published in July 2020.

When referencing this report, please cite Public Agenda. For a complete survey methodology, download the topline. 

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.”

Key Findings:

  • 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.

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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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