“An anxious and divided nation cast its first votes,” the headline in the Washington Post moaned this morning.
As yesterday’s RealityChek post reported, though, some impressive evidence came out last week showing that the nation isn’t all that anxious, or fatally divided in the most general terms, after all. At the same time, diving into that evidence’s internals shows no shortage of divisions – only many of the dividing lines are pretty surprising. (See the PDF linked at the bottom where it says “View complete question responses and trends.”)
For not only is the most important division by far the partisan split between Democrats and Republicans. It’s a gap that tends to be considerably wider than those between groups where divides in the last few years are supposed to have been especially and worrisomely gaping – between blacks and whites, between rich and poor, between the better educated and the less well educated.
For me, the big takeaway is that when Americans are in political moods, they get carried away by their emotions, with Republicans feeling awfully chipper about the state of the nation, and Democrats correspondingly gloomy. When they’re not preoccupied with politics, Americans seem more level-headed – and their outlooks are sunnier. But the unexpected findings scarcely stop there!
For example, let’s look at the internals of the headline satisfaction finding, which shows Americans’ feelings about the quality of their lives. A lofty 84 percent of all Americans told Gallup that they’re satisfied on this score, and 37 percent said they were “very satisfied.”
Republicans were the most satisfied Americans by a wide margin – an astonishing 96 percent called themselves satisfied, and 60 percent considered themselves “very satisfied.” The least satisfied group? Democrats. Their satisfaction levels were 77 percent satisfied and only 25 percent very satisfied.
But here’s what really grabbed my attention – and should grab yours. Keep in mind that the various groups of respondents overlap considerably (for example, both Democrats and Republicans include the wealthy and the poor, and the college-educated and the high school grads; and the both the wealthy and the poor include those identifying with both political parties).
The Democrats’ satisfaction levels were lower than those for non-whites (79 percent) and for Americans with a high school education or less (84 percent). That doesn’t sound very consistent with the notion that non-whites and those with relatively modest education levels are feeling especially downtrodden lately. But these readings definitely point to special degrees of unhappiness among Democrats. So does the fact that the “very satisfied” results for both these groups (31 percent and 34 percent, respectively) topped those for Democrats as well.
The partisan divide is even bigger, in both absolute and relative terms, for satisfaction levels regarding whether working hard can get a person ahead in America these days. In toto, 72 percent of respondents were satisfied and 43 percent were very satisfied with this situation. Non-whites’ overall satisfaction and very satisfied levels weren’t too far off those figures (71 percent and 37 percent, respectively). And the figures for those holding a high school degree at most were notably higher (77 percent and 51 percent, respectively).
But the Democrats’ results were completely in the dumps (only 47 percent and 19 percent, respectively).
Also interesting – non-whites, and Americans lacking college degrees are all more convinced than the college grads (68 percent) about the payoff of working hard, with respondents with a high school degree or less expressing the highest (77 percent) satisfaction level.
Satisfaction levels are much lower in absolute terms (43 percent overall) over the distribution of income and wealth in America – which should surprise no one. But again, those lacking a high school degree were more satisfied, and by a wide margin (49 percent), while the least satisfied (also by a wide margin) were the Democrats (21 percent).
The least educated were also more satisfied with the current rich-poor gap than college graduates (40 percent). But on this issue, non-white satisfaction levels were lower than the average (38 percent).
Gallup respondents were even less satisfied with the availability of healthcare in the United States, with only 37 percent expressing such views. Yet a familiar pattern emerges from the internals. The biggest gap was between Republicans (53 percent satisfied) and Democrats (27 percent). These also represented the highest and lowest levels of all the groups examined.
In addition, non-whites (41 percent) were more satisfied than whites the overall total (37 percent), and much more satisfied not only than the Democrats but than college grads (31 percent). The same held for Americans without high school diplomas (also 41 percent satisfied).
Finally, let’s look at a particularly explosive issue – race relations. Or at least it’s supposed to be particularly explosive. But according to the Gallup survey, there’s much more dissatisfaction than polarization – except among Democrats and Republicans.
Overall satisfaction levels are low – coming in at 36 percent. But the widest gap by far is between followers of the two parties, with 51 percent of Republican identifiers declaring themselves to be satisfied compared with only 24 percent of their Democratic counterparts. (Actually, Gallup also measured satisfaction levels according to political ideology – liberals, moderates, and conservatives. I’ve left these findings out due to the assumption because these results closely track the political parties’ results – which include independent voters. But according to this gauge, the conservative-liberal gap is somewhat wider, at 52 percent-17 percent.)
Most significantly, this partisan divide is far wider than the racial divide, with 35 percent of whites expressing satisfaction with the state of race relations and 39 percent of nonwhites so stating. Also doubtless significant: The next-least-satisfied group is college graduates, of whom only 28 percent expressed satisfaction. Further, their “very satisfied” levels (3 percent) were by far the lowest along with the Democrats’. And they were only one-third the nine percent “very satisfied” levels of non-whites.
Is the country indeed anxious? To some extent, sure. Is it divided? That’s where the answer gets especially complicated. And this complex picture indicates that, especially in this presidential campaign year, all Americans should beware of pundits and others bearing sweeping generalizations.