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Poll: Most Say American System of Government is Not Sound

Some, but not overwhelming, confidence that Biden can unify

Less than half of the public feels that the American system of government is basically sound. This is the first time this view has fallen below a majority in the Monmouth University Poll. Public trust in the judgment of their fellow citizens has dropped significantly in the past generation. A majority of Americans have a great deal of concern that the country would suffer lasting damage if the opposite group’s policies were put into place. While most Democrats say a lack of compromise is the root of the problem in Washington, most Republicans feel too few officials are willing to stand firm. A majority of the public expresses some confidence in President Joe Biden’s ability to unify the country, but there is not an overwhelming belief that this will happen.

Less than half (44%) of the public believes the American system of government is basically sound. This includes 7% who say it needs no changes and 37% who say it needs some improvements. A majority (55%), though, say it is unsound at the current time – including 33% who say it is not too sound and needs many improvements and 22% who say it is not at all sound and needs significant changes. Since Monmouth started asking this question in 2017, between 50% and 55% said the American system of government was basically sound and between 45% and 49% said it was unsound. This question was first asked in a national Opinion Research Corporation survey back in late 1980, when a clear majority of 62% of the public felt our system of government was sound while 37% said it was not.

The view that the American system is not sound is held by similar majorities of Republicans (58%), Democrats (55%), and independents (54%) alike. Just one year ago, this view was marked by a sharp partisan divide, with only 28% of Republicans and 41% of independents saying it was not sound compared with 65% of Democrats.

“The increased lack of confidence in the American system is built on a foundation of partisan hostility. Those differences are no longer limited to views on policy. They now extend to an underlying distrust of our democratic institutions themselves. Partisan tribalism is coming home to roost in a way that threatens the very stability of our system,” said Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute. Murray added, “This is the environment in which this week’s impeachment trial takes place. Fear of the most fanatical part of the partisan base is a bigger driver of what many leaders are willing to do and say in public than are concerns about eroding trust in the democratic process itself.”

The poll finds that just 18% of the public has a great deal of trust and confidence in the American people as a whole when it comes to making judgments under our democratic system about the issues facing our country. Another 46% have a fair amount of trust in their fellow Americans. This 64% overall trust level is similar to prior Monmouth polls (58% in 2019 and 60% in 2016). However, this number was much higher more than a generation ago. The Gallup Poll found public trust on this question at 86% in 1976 before declining to 75% in 2004 and then to 64% in 2012. According to Monmouth’s polling, Democratic voter trust in the American people has increased since 2019, from 57% to 71%, while Republican trust has decreased 59% to 49%. Independent voter trust has gone from 56% in 2019 to 66% now.

A majority of the American public (52%) expresses a great deal of concern that the country would suffer lasting damage if people who hold core political principles different from their own were able to enact their policies. This opinion has hovered between 50% and 56% since January 2016. Another 36% have some concern about potential damage to the country if this happened. Only 1 in 10 have either not much (8%) or no (2%) concern. Majorities of Republicans (62%) and Democrats (54%) have a great deal of concern about the country suffering lasting damage if those with opposing political views were able to set policy, while 45% of independents feel the same.

“There is an abiding belief by many Americans that ‘the other side’ is not just wrong in their approach, but could actually destroy this country. This was a fringe view a generation ago,” said Murray.

Just under half (45%) of the public feels the American way of life is under a great deal of threat and 34% feel some threat, while only 1 in 5 say the threat level is either not much (14%) or not at all (7%). These overall results are similar to prior polls, but the number of Republicans who sense a great deal of threat to the American way of life has gone up from 48% in 2019 to 70% now, while the number of Democrats who feel this way has declined from 52% to 30%. This opinion among independents has remained fairly stable (46% in 2019 and 41% now).

Three in four Americans (75%) say that America is greatly divided when it comes to our most important values. Just 23% say Americans are united and in agreement on these values. The feeling that we are greatly divided has ranged from 68% (September 2019) to 78% (June 2020) since Monmouth started asking this question in 2016. This opinion has been bipartisan during that time, currently standing at 79% of Democrats, 79% of Republicans, and 70% of independents.

“The only thing we can agree upon is that we are fundamentally divided,” said Murray.

Looking ahead to the next year, 37% feel the country will become more united, which is up from 31% who felt this way just after the November 2020 election and 21% who felt this way in 2018. Another 26% believe we will become more divided, which is similar to November (25%) and down from 2018 (34%). Just over one-third (36%) say not much will change in terms of national unity (35% in 2020 and 40% in 2018). A majority (58%) of Democrats believe the country will become more united, which is up from 49% a few months ago and just 17% in 2018. Few Republicans agree (15% now and 13% in 2020, down from an already low 28% in 2018). Most Republicans, in fact, predict we will become more divided (53% now and 48% in November, up from 25% in 2018).

Most Americans are either very (19%) or somewhat (37%) confident that Biden will be able to unify the country. Another 18% are not too confident and 25% are not at all confident in the president’s ability to bring the country together.

A majority point to elected officials who are not willing to compromise (55%) as the cause of more problems in the federal government than elected officials who are not willing to stand up for their principles (41%). These results are similar to public opinion during the last years of Barack Obama’s administration, but the gap between the two views had narrowed during the Trump term – 45% lack of compromise and 41% lack of principles in 2019 – when there were just small differences among different partisans. Today, most Democrats (67%) point to a lack of compromise as the bigger problem in Washington, while most Republicans (54%) point to a lack of taking principled stands.

The Monmouth University Poll was conducted by telephone from Jan. 21 to 24, 2021 with 809 adults in the United States.  The question results in this release have a margin of error of +/- 3.5 percentage points. The poll was conducted by the Monmouth University Polling Institute in West Long Branch.

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