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Americans: Optimistic for country, but deep skepticism

Americans want a respectful nation of laws where everyone is treated equally. But they seem to believe they are falling short of that idea.
by Dante Chinni /
Marine Corps War Memorial, Arlington Ridge Park
UNITED STATES - APRIL 23: Marine Corps War Memorial, also known as Iwo Jima Memorial, 1954, by Felix Weihs de Weldon (1907-2003), Arlington Ridge Park, Virginia, United States of America. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)De Agostini/Getty Images

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For all countries, there is a tension between the idea of what they’d like to be and the reality what they actually are. A new survey from the Pew Research Center finds the gap between America’s idealized vision of itself and its reality is especially wide right now.

Americans seem very sure of the vision they have for United States: A righteous, respectful nation of laws where everyone is treated equally. But they also seem to believe they are falling short of that idea – by quite a bit.

The Pew survey covered a wide range of topics concerning how people in the United States view their democracy, but one particular set of questions used the same phrases and asked whether they were “very important” to the country and whether they “describe the country well.” Some of the splits were remarkable.

Consider the answers on some basic ideals we hold dear.

A remarkable 84 percent of those polled said it is very important for the nation that the rights and freedoms of all Americans are respected, but only 47 percent said they believed those words described the country very or somewhat well. That’s 37-point divide between people’s wishes and the reality they see around them.

And the idea that we can sit down and have a civil discussion? The poll found that 61 percent said it is very important for the United States that tone of the nation’s political debate is respectful, yet only 25 percent say those words describe the current state of U.S. political discourse well. That’s a 36-point gap on that point.

The numbers didn’t look much better on more basic elements of governing.

More than 8 in 10 respondents, 83 percent, believe it’s very important for elected officials to face serious consequences for misconduct, but only 30 percent of those polled think those words describe the country. That’s a yawning 53-point gap between the nation’s ideal image of itself and what it perceives as its reality

An even bigger national disappointment is the inability of Democrats and Republicans to work together. A full 78 percent of those surveyed said that bipartisanship is very important for the United States, but only 19 percent believed that “Republicans and Democrats work together on issues” very well or somewhat well, a 59-point chasm.

And frankly, considering the gridlock in Washington, those 19 percent might be viewed as rosy-eyed optimists.

Is there any area where people feel America is living up what it should be? Yes, free speech. On the statement “people are free to peacefully protest,” 74 percent say it is very important and 73 percent say it describes the country very or somewhat well.

As might be expected the partisan divide rears its head in these numbers, with Republicans generally holding a sunnier view of county on some key points.

Democrats and Republicans have very different thoughts on how equally opportunity is spread in the United States. Only 37 percent of Democrats believe the phrase “everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed” describes the country very well or somewhat well. For Republicans, the number is twice as high, with 74 percent believing that statement describes the country very well or somewhat well.

And only 38 percent of Democrats believe that the statement “rights and freedoms of all people are respected” describes the country very well or somewhat well, but 60 percent of Republicans believe that.

Democrats and Republicans actually do agree on a few points.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans think elected officials are facing “serious consequences for their misconduct.” Only 29 percent of Republicans and 30 percent of Democrats believe that statement describes the country well.

Members of both parties also are united in their disbelief that “Republicans and Democrats work together on issues” – only 17 percent of Republicans and 20 percent of Democrats say that statement describes the country well.

Granted, those are not the sunniest points of agreement, but they do suggest that, even in 2018’s divided states of America, there are some areas of common ground to build on.

And viewed differently, this survey suggests some positives for the country going forward. There may be a lot of evidence that Americans think the country is on the “wrong track” in this poll, but there is also a lot of agreement on what the country should aspire to be.

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