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Just when you think you’re getting a handle on the American public’s mood in these raucous political and social times, along comes some polling data that rock your world. And I’m pleased to report that, in the case of the new American Values Survey published by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRII), the net results strike me as encouraging as they are surprising. Specifically, they indicate that the U.S. public is much less divided on many hot button social and cultural issues than politicians and the national media coverage have been indicating. In fact, the findings of this November survey suggest the gathering of a common sense consensus on these supposedly bitterly divisive matters.
The unexpected areas of agreement start with a subject close to the leading headline-maker of the day – Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump’s call for a temporary ban on travel by all non-citizen Muslims into the United States. It’s too early for a poll on this specific proposal. But I found it instructive that, according to the PRII, Americans agree by a 56 percent to 41 percent margin that “the values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life.” In 2011, only 47 percent agreed and 48 percent disagreed.
Moreover, although breaking the results down by political leanings produces differences, even 43 percent of Democrats share these suspicions of Islam. For Republican and independents, the figures are 76 percent and 57 percent, respectively.
The survey shows an even split on the question of whether immigrants “strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents” (47 percent agreed) or “constitute a burden on the U.S. because they take jobs, housing, and health care” (46 percent). But only last year, the “strengthen” option won out by 57 percent to 35 percent. The partisan gap is indeed wide, with 63 percent of Republicans holding such negative views of immigrants and 66 percent disagreeing. But 32 percent of Democrats were focused on immigrant-created economic burdens as well.
Even more suggestive of consensus on this issue, though, are the results for a slightly different question. Fully 45 percent of Democrats agreed that “illegal immigrants are at least somewhat responsible for America’s current economic woes” (as well as 70 percent of Republicans and 53 percent of independents). And check out the racial split: Majorities of white and black Americans (58 percent and 52 percent, respectively) told held illegal immigrants “at least somewhat responsible” for the nation’s economic troubles – along with 40 percent of Hispanic Americans. For good measure, so do 44 percent of the white and college-educated, who often benefit from low-wage illegal immigrant labor.
The PRII survey will scarcely comfort President Obama, Congress’ Republican leadership, or the multinational corporations who all support America’s current trade policies. Breakdowns were not provided, but 86 percent of Americans hold “corporations moving American jobs overseas…somewhat or very responsible for the present economic troubles facing the U.S.” That’s up from 74 percent in 2012. “China’s unfair trade practices” were cited by 73 percent. Not surprisingly, 72 percent of Americans believe the country is still in a recession, a figure that’s remained pretty steady 2012. Keep in mind that the current recovery began, at least technically, in mid-2009.
Large majorities also believed that “the current economic system is heavily tilted in favor of the wealthy” (79 percent); that lack of equal opportunity in America is a “big problem” (65 percent); and that “hard work is no guarantee of success” (64 percent – including 52 percent of Republicans).
And these majorities extended to numerous economic policies. Just over three-quarters of all Americans favor increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour (including 60 percent of Republicans). Eighty five percent support paid sick leave and 82 percent back paid parental leave. And although no questions were asked about desired regulatory policy changes, 69 percent of respondents blamed “burdensome government regulations” for at least some of the nation’s economic predicament.
Signs of common ground were also evident on domestic social issues that are thought to be highly polarizing. For example, relatively few Democrats (36 percent) or Republicans (43 percent) considered abortion important to them “personally.” And the partisan split on same-sex marriage was smaller, and at lower levels of salience – 28 percent for Democrats and 29 percent for Republicans.
Big divides remained on numerous issues, to be sure – like confidence in the federal government, and a $15 minimum wage (lots of Republicans climb off that boat), and police treatment of minorities. Interestingly, in this vein, minority Americans are significantly more optimistic than whites that “America’s best days are ahead of us.”
But it’s hard to finish this latest American Values Survey feeling deeply pessimistic that the nation can’t overcome its differences and create that better future. In fact, one of my biggest reasons for hopefulness is the following finding: “Nearly two-thirds (66%) of the public agrees that, ‘everyday Americans understand what the government should do better than the so-called ‘experts.’ There is broad agreement across racial, generational, and partisan lines.”