Even Pillars of Democracy are Controversial In These Partisan and Polarizing Times
BLOOMINGTON, Ind., June 3 — Democrats and Republicans have different views about the importance of a free press, an independent judiciary, the rights of minorities, and a potent Congress, according to a survey of public attitudes about Congress and public affairs conducted by the Indiana University Center on Representative Government.
“Democrats tend to place a higher priority on these aspects of representative democracy than Republicans do,” said Edward G. Carmines,Distinguished Professor, Warner O. Chapman Professor of Political Science and Rudy Professor at IU.
“When we asked, ‘How important is it that we have a Congress with equal power to that of the president?’, only 21 percent of Republicans said that is very important, while for Democrats, more than double, 43 percent, said it’s very important that Congress and the president have equal power. That’s striking,” said Carmines.
Forty-three percent of Republican rated an independent judiciary as very important to America’s representative government, much below the 59 percent of Democrats who said an independent judiciary is very important. A bill of rights that guarantees the rights of a political minority was seen as very important by 29 percent of Republicans, versus 55 percent of Democrats. And only 34 percent of GOP respondents regarded a free and independent press as very important, compared to 73 percent of Democrats who see the media’s role as very important.
“Any way you look at it, these differences are quite substantial,” said Carmines. “Republicans are less committed than Democrats to these institutions of American democracy that stand for a dispersal of power.”
According to Carmines, the cause of the partisan differences in the survey could be as simple as the fact that the current occupant of the White House is a Republican. General support in the GOP for Donald Trump’s policies (if not always his manner of pursuing them) causes Republicans, for now at least, to embrace a strong executive branch. “There’s no question that Trump has changed the profile of Republicans, made them less committed to these institutions of democracy,” Carmines said.
Only 52 percent of Republicans surveyed said that the checks and balances afforded by our three branches of government — the judiciary, the legislative, and the executive — are very important, compared to 72 percent of Democrats.
Whether that partisan gap will persist over time, one can only speculate. “Would our survey results be different if we had a Democratic president? We don’t know,” Carmines said.
Indiana University has been conducting its public survey for a dozen years; the annual effort is overseen by Professor Carmines.
In another survey question, partisan differences, while still evident, were less pronounced: on whether members of Congress should stand up for their principles no matter what, or compromise with their opponents in order to get something done. A majority both of Republicans and Democrats preferred compromise over rigidity — 54 percent of Republicans and 63 percent of Democrats.
“In today’s hyper-partisan environment in Washington, it’s encouraging that many Americans believe members of Congress — who have widely varying backgrounds, priorities and perspectives — should try to find common ground on difficult issues,” said LeeHamilton, who served 34 years in the U.S. House and is now a distinguished scholar at IU and a senior advisor to the Center on Representative Government.
Republicans and Democrats were in near-perfect agreement on another survey question: “How responsive is Congress to the concerns of people like you?” Unfortunately for Congress, the partisan concurrence was overwhelmingly negative toward the national legislature. Seventy-four percent of Democrats and 76 percent of Republicans said Congress is either “not at all” or “not very” responsive.
“For Congress, the path back to a better reputation lies in members doing more of the hard work of listening and negotiation — accepting differences, seeking the best compromise they can find, and moving the country forward,” said Michael M. Sample, director of the Center on Representative Government. “Congress must again become an institution we can be confident is playing a constructive role in our democracy.”
The survey also asked questions aimed at understanding which of five characteristics is most influential in shaping voters’ election choices: partisanship, gender, race and/or ethnicity, class, or religion. Far and away, both Republicans (70 percent) and Democrats (65 percent) said that a candidate’s party label is the most important factor in deciding for whom to vote, a result that Carmines called “another indicator of tribalism and polarization in our current politics. Maybe it’s not too surprising in this day and age, but it still stands out.”
No other characteristic came even close to being rated as most important, although the survey found Republicans are more likely than Democrats to give weight to a candidate’s religion, and Democrats are more likely than Republicans to give weight to a candidate’s gender, race/ethnicity, and class.
In several survey questions posing comparisons between levels of government, the federal government fared poorly. Sixty-three percent of those surveyed said that if they had a problem, they would be more likely to seek assistance in solving it from their local government. Fifty-five percent said that local government is the most responsive to their concerns. A 46 percent plurality thought state governments should exercise the most power in policymaking. Seventy percent said they believed that members of state legislatures are more ethical than members of Congress.
Interestingly, people’s more favorable attitudes about state and local government seem to be formed without deep study. Only 17 percent of those surveyed said that in following the news, they pay the most attention to local government, and just 22 percent paid the most attention to state government. More than 60 percent said they pay the most attention to federal government news.
The findings are based on a nationwide survey of 1000 people conducted in November and December 2018 by the internet polling firm YouGov Polimetrix.