Polling shows that only 16% of Americans think our democracy is working. The Pew Research Center finds that only 1/3 of Americans have confidence in “the public’s wisdom in making political decisions,” a figure that has been cut nearly in half in the last 25 years. And of course, in the wake of former President Trump’s lies about the election and the violent insurrection at the Capitol, our collective confidence in our system has been deeply shaken.
But Karlyn Bowman – an expert on tracking and analyzing American public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute – says there’s reason to look on the bright side.
“I really am more of an optimist, based on what the polls are telling us,” she says. “I wouldn’t bet against America.”
Listen to the full conversation here:
This conversation has been condensed and edited.
Matt Robison: How are Americans feeling about our democratic system right now?
Karlyn Bowman: There’s no question that this is a rough patch. But there’s also been a series of new polls on patriotism. Americans love their country. So I’m actually an optimist. In polls in the late sixties and the early seventies, we were very pessimistic about America’s future. And by 1984, our confidence was restored. So there have been other very difficult periods before. We can bounce back.
Matt Robison: According to Pew, in 1958, about three quarters of Americans expressed trust in government to do what’s right. Today that’s only 17%. What’s the impact of this loss of trust?
Karlyn Bowman: Gallup polling finds that some institutions are still highly regarded. This is particularly true of the military, the police, and small businesses. We tend to be more confident in things closer to home than we are to much bigger enterprises far away. And that I think is at least in part an explanation about why you see trust in Washington going down. As government grows, trust declines. But if you focus instead on individual agencies, Americans respect them very highly.
Matt Robison: How bad is it that so many Republicans believe that the election was stolen from Donald Trump?
Karlyn Bowman: On most issues, the polls look very normal. It’s the specific questions that probe for feelings about Donald Trump where his partisans feel that they have to stick with him. At the same time, there’s this great NBC News / Wall Street Journal question which asks whether you’re more of a supporter of Donald Trump or more of a supporter of the Republican Party. And recently, for the first time in years, you had more people saying “I’m a supporter of the Republican Party” than “I’m a supporter of Donald Trump.” So some of the Trump effect may be starting to fade.
Matt Robison: How big a problem is it that we can’t seem to agree on basic facts anymore?
Karlyn Bowman: The public is generally a little factually challenged. . I don’t think that’s ever going to change. We’re inattentive to the news. We’ve got to get the kids to the soccer game and go to the grocery store. What you see in opinion surveys are only very superficial impressions. So I’m not particularly worried. It has also been a constant in our modern history that there’s a large group of people that believe in whatever the current conspiracy theory is.
Matt Robison: What about your finding earlier this year that nearly 40% of Republicans thought that political violence is justifiable?
Karlyn Bowman: Back in 1980, Gallup asked whether “really strong leadership that could try to solve problems directly without worrying about how Congress and the Supreme court might feel” is justified [in other words, do you support violent means outside our democratic system]. 63% said yes! So this isn’t totally new. But clearly there are some very dangerous people out there today and we saw some of them at the Capitol insurrection. I don’t believe that’s widespread though.
Matt Robison: Do people really want compromise, solutions, getting along?
Karlyn Bowman: Polls shows that people like what divided government produces, even though they always tell us they want politicians to get along more. I’m comforted by the fact that not all Americans are on Twitter or social media. And that the extremes of our politics on both sides are actually fairly small swath of both political parties overall. The media loves controversy. So they cover it. So what you see is the fighting. You don’t often see the bi-partisan compromises or the fact that we’re moving ahead on a lot of things.
Matt Robison: Putting it all together, how bad are things really, in terms of democracy and our ability to make things work?
Karlyn Bowman: I don’t think it’s that bad. When you ask Americans how satisfied they are with their lives, with their families, with their jobs, they’re very satisfied. Ask about their communities – they’re very satisfied. Yes, we are very dissatisfied with the way the federal government is performing. But that’s probably [more of a vague sense] of bigness and the problems that that creates. So I really am much more of an optimist. I’d say don’t bet against America.
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Matt Robison is a writer and political analyst who focuses on trends in demographics, psychology, policy, and economics that are shaping American politics. He spent a decade working on Capitol Hill as a Legislative Director and Chief of Staff to three Members of Congress, and also worked as a senior advisor, campaign manager, or consultant on several Congressional races, with a focus in New Hampshire. In 2012, he ran a come-from-behind race that national political analysts called the biggest surprise win of the election. He went on to work as Policy Director in the New Hampshire state senate, successfully helping to coordinate the legislative effort to pass Medicaid expansion. He has also done extensive private sector work on energy regulatory policy. Matt holds a Bachelor’s degree in economics from Swarthmore College and a Master’s degree in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He lives with his wife and three children in Amherst, Massachusetts.