The United States is one country, but Americans are living in two separate worlds.
In one version of America, the country is headed in the totally wrong direction. Billionaires control politics. Foreign governments meddle in elections. And not enough people vote to demand a change.
In the other America, things are looking up, particularly with a good president in office. But some civic functions are still broken—especially the media, which is politically biased against certain candidates.
Americans having divergent views on the health of their country’s democracy isn’t a recent development. But a new survey, co-created by The Atlantic and the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), suggests that they have become radically split in their basic perceptions of reality, especially on controversial topics such as Russian interference in the 2016 election. “We only have the thinnest of agreements of what is plaguing our election system,” said Robert P. Jones, the head of PRRI. “After that, people are viewing whatever problems they see very strongly through their partisan lenses.”
At the same time, many respondents didn’t seem to care about civic issues that have gotten major attention from scholars, journalists, and government officials, pointing to another possible perception gap between elites and everyone else. In both Americas, people care about protecting civic life. They just can’t agree on what its problems are.
In June, The Atlantic and PRRI conducted a survey in which more than 1,000 people shared their views on a number of issues related to voting and political engagement. Respondents identified a few areas as big concerns: Two-thirds said wealthy individuals and corporations have too much influence in the U.S. election system, and another two-thirds said that too few people vote. Strong majorities agreed that the media is biased against certain political candidates, and that uninformed voters are a major problem within the American electoral system.
Is the influence of wealthy individuals and corporations a major problem in America’s electoral system?
But respondents’ opinions were sharply split along partisan lines. Only 42 percent of self-identified Republicans see the outsize influence of money in politics as a big issue, compared with 82 percent of Democrats who said the same. Both Republicans and Democrats are concerned about low voter turnout, but 78 percent of Democrats said it is a major problem, versus 58 percent of Republicans. And while 81 percent of Republicans see media bias toward certain political candidates as a major problem, only 41 percent of Democrats said the same thing. In general, 91 percent of Democrats think America is on the “wrong track,” compared with 70 percent of Republicans who said the country is going in the “right direction.”
Is America on the “wrong track”?
These numbers are evidence of one of the defining features of contemporary American life: Different political camps each have their own stories about the country’s problems. Liberal politicians love to rail against the Koch brothers and other Republican mega-donors. They often point to the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission as the original sin of today’s hyper-partisan landscape, where regular people are disempowered. Similarly, Republicans have been decrying bias in the media for years, with politicians and talk-radio hosts assuring followers that they can’t trust what they read or see on television.
Is media bias against certain political candidates a major problem in America’s electoral system?
Each of these stories may contain truth, but Americans seem to assign them relative importance based on who they are and who they listen to. Age and race, in particular, affected respondents’ views on some of these questions: Older Americans are more likely than their younger peers to think media bias and too few people voting are major issues, for example. Whites are more likely than people of color to see media bias as a major problem; notably, 94 percent of self-identified white evangelical Protestants said media bias is a major or minor problem in America’s current electoral system. By far, party affiliation was the greatest source of division.
In other cases, however, ostensibly controversial issues got surprisingly little attention from respondents. Newspapers have been pounding out stories about possible collusion between the Trump administration and foreign governments before the 2016 election. On Friday, after this survey was administered, a grand jury indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers for allegedly hacking into computer and email systems with the intention of interfering in the 2016 election. The New York Times’ editorial board has called reported Russian attempts to interfere in American elections “a profound national security threat.” And yet, only 45 percent of survey respondents said outside influence from foreign governments is a major problem in American elections, along starkly partisan lines: 68 percent of Democrats versus only 22 percent of Republicans, and 40 percent of independents.
Is outside interference or influence from foreign governments a major problem in the American electoral system?
On the opposite side, 52 percent of Republicans and 31 percent of Democrats consider ineligible voters casting ballots to be a major problem—only a third of respondents in total. Yet the White House clearly thinks this is a winning issue; voter fraud is one of President Donald Trump’s favorite topics. These numbers say something different: “It’s certainly not the red-meat issue that many Republicans might think that it is,” Jones said.
Does ineligible voters casting ballots present a major problem in the American electoral system?
Here, too, people’s experiences and political persuasions help predict their perceptions of reality. Strong majorities of black and Hispanic respondents said that the suppression of eligible voters is a major problem, for example, compared with just 27 percent of white respondents. While these results seem to have been affected by partisan affiliation, less than half of white Democrats—45 percent—said voter suppression is a big issue. Meanwhile, more than two-thirds of respondents with a favorable view of Trump said that voter fraud is a bigger problem than voter suppression.
But the bigger implication is that elites, whether they’re politicians or pundits, have miscalculated what’s important to regular voters. Or, to think of it another way, perhaps they haven’t successfully persuaded people to care about issues such as the alleged Russia scandal or voter suppression. This may exacerbate the sense of unreality in today’s political environment: Breaking stories in Washington may not match the stories people truly care about.
Ultimately, this survey “is one more indication that this whole political moment is an argument about … who gets to count as an American,” Jones said. At its core, politics is all about storytelling, and narratives of identity and decline are particularly potent. No matter how earnestly Americans wish for a strong, shared civic culture, they remain stuck in their own realities, railing to change a world that even neighbors may see in radically different ways. In the long run, this may force debates about what America is for, which “may be a moment of renewal for a constitutional democracy,” Jones said. But “in the middle of it, it’s pretty fraught.”
This project is supported by grants from the Joyce, Kresge, and McKnight Foundations.