Shared concern about U.S. democracy and recognition of how it is not functioning well is an area of broad agreement within a deeply polarized nation, according to a new report from Public Agenda published July 20.
A non-profit organization based in Brooklyn, New York, Public Agenda seeks “to strengthen democracy and expand opportunity for all Americans” through its research and public engagement initiatives.
Most U.S. adults (86%) feel the nation’s democratic institutions are struggling, with 50% saying U.S. democracy is “facing serious challenges but not in crisis” and 36% that it is “in crisis.” Only 14% believe U.S. democracy is “doing well.”
These figures have remained relatively consistent since 2018, yet the stability of these overall percentages doesn’t reflect the significant ebb and flow of Republican and Democrat views depending on which party occupies the Oval Office.
For example, in 2018, only 23% of Republicans said the nation’s democracy was in crisis, compared to 57% of Democrats. Three years later, 48% of Republicans say democracy is in crisis, while only 25% of Democrats currently feel this way.
U.S. adults are evenly split on what will be required to improve the state of democracy, with 47% saying “elect the right people to represent us” and 53% saying significant changes are needed regardless of who is elected.
These overall figures are very similar to those in the subgroups, with 53% of Republicans, 48% of Democrats and 45% of Independents saying, “the right people,” and 47%, 52% and 55%, respectively, saying, “significant changes.”
Overall, the three reasons cited for believing significant changes are needed are: to create a less divisive, more constructive system (75%), to give ordinary people a greater voice (71%) and to solve problems more efficiently (63%).
These three are also the top reasons for Democrats and Independents in that order. While Republicans affirmed the first two as their top reasons, their third top reason was, “So that business can prosper without government getting in the way.”
Majorities of all U.S. adults in the survey agreed that “when enough people get involved” they can make a difference in their community (73%) and in national politics (58%).
However, majorities also feel that “elected leaders do not respect ordinary people’s opinions” (73% at the national level; 59% at the community level) and that “special interests dominate the political process” (66% national; 55% community).
These feelings were true across party lines and political affiliations, signaling a bipartisan awareness of the foundational problems facing U.S. democracy.
Presented with 11 options for how to fix the democratic systems in the U.S., the two pathways cited as the most important are “that government serves ordinary people, not the rich and powerful” and “that political leaders put aside partisan divisiveness.”
Two additional areas of agreement across party lines were found in a question about making U.S. elections both accessible and secure, and one about community-government partnerships.
“While political elites are polarized about whether the federal government should ensure fair access to voting in every state, we find a very different story among the general population,” the report said. “Super-majorities of Democrats (92%), Republicans (83%), Independents (86%) and politically unaffiliated people (81%) agree that the federal government should make sure that voting is simple, convenient and hassle-free for everyone in every state.”
On the partnership question, 64% of all respondents believe healthy democracy requires communities and governments to “work together more effectively to solve problems,” with 64% of Democrats, 66% of Republicans and 62% of Independents saying this is very important.
“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, in a press release announcing the report. “We hope these findings can help Americans join forces where they agree and productively confront the areas where they do not.”