WASHINGTON — The political and cultural upheaval of the last four years has divided the country on ever-hardening partisan and generational lines, but one feeling unites Americans as much as it did before the 2016 election.
They’re still angry. And still unsettled about the future.
The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that — despite Americans’ overall satisfaction with the state of the U.S. economy and their own personal finances — a majority say they are angry at the nation’s political and financial establishment, anxious about its economic future, and pessimistic about the country they’re leaving for the next generation.
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“Four years ago, we uncovered a deep and boiling anger across the country engulfing our political system,” said Democratic pollster Jeff Horwitt of Hart Research Associates, which conducted this survey in partnership with the Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies. “Four years later, with a very different political leader in place, that anger remains at the same level.”
The poll finds that 70 percent of Americans say they feel angry “because our political system seems to only be working for the insiders with money and power, like those on Wall Street or in Washington.” Forty-three percent say that statement describes them "very well."
That’s almost exactly the percentage that agreed with the same statement in October 2015, when the presidential election was being upended by the anti-establishment message of then-candidate Donald Trump.
Republicans report feeling somewhat less angry than they were almost four years ago, but that optimism has been offset by an uptick in anger from other groups typically more aligned with the Democratic Party.
In 2015, 39 percent of Republicans and 44 percent of Democrats said a feeling of anger at the political establishment defined them “very well.” Now, it’s 29 percent of Republicans and 54 percent of Democrats — a 10-point swing for each party, in opposite directions.
Those who are more likely to say feelings of anger describe them “very well” since 2015 include women under 50 (48 percent, up 10 points since 2015), African Americans (46 percent, up 5 points) and Hispanics (49 percent, up 11 points).
“The question that decides the 2020 election may no longer be ‘are you better or worse off than you were four years ago?’ but instead ‘are you as angry as you were four years ago?’” said Horwitt. “And if that’s the question, the answer is a deafening yes.”
Anxiety about the future in good economic times
While 69 percent of Americans say they are satisfied with their overall financial situation today, a majority — 56 percent — also say they feel “anxious and uncertain because the economy still feels rocky and unpredictable.” That’s down slightly from 61 percent in 2015.
And just 27 percent of those surveyed say they’re confident that their children’s generation will be better off than them, down from 35 percent in August 2017.
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That pessimism is reflected among all groups, regardless of age, race, income and party identification.
Majorities of adults who are under 35 (68 percent), seniors (64 percent), poor and working class (71 percent), high-income (64 percent), white (67 percent), black (73 percent) and Hispanic (64 percent) all say they are not confident that their children’s generation will be better off.
Among Republicans, 54 percent say they’re not confident, while 64 percent of independents and 78 percent of Democrats agree.
About half of Americans — 52 percent — say they do feel satisfied that the political system is being shaken up, although only one in five said they feel that “very” strongly.
Unease about change
Americans also express some ambivalence about “changes in American society and the country becoming more diverse and tolerant of different lifestyles, languages, cultures and races.”
Forty percent call those changes a step forward, while 14 percent call them a step backward. The remainder — 43 percent — say those changes are “some of both.”
Sixty-one percent of Republicans, 44 percent of independents, and 27 percent of Democrats expressed those mixed feelings.
“I think it's a step forward in the way that people are becoming more aware of the differences between them, but I think it's a step back when you bend over so much and become politically correct that you take away a person's right to think or say how they feel,” said one suburban man from Hawaii who supported Trump in 2016.
“Immigration has brought richness and a better quality of life to our people. But I think that it is often difficult for all of us to understand one another and to become a community, as new people come into society,” said a female Clinton voter from New York. “It is a difficult and sometimes fraught process that sometimes takes time.”
The poll also offers a glum view of race relations.
Six-in-ten describe either a lot or some tension between people of different races in their state.
The same share — 60 percent — say that race relations in the United States are bad, although that’s down from 70 percent in 2017 and a high of 74 percent in summer 2016.
And more than half — 56 percent — say that race relations have gotten worse since Trump became president. Another 33 percent say race relations have stayed about the same, while 10 percent say they have improved.
The poll finds some significant shifts over the last 20 years regarding the values that most Americans identify as most important to them.
Nearly nine-in-10 Americans (89 percent) identify “hard work” as a very important value, even higher than the 83 percent who said the same in a 1998 NBC/WSJ poll.
But those who say that “patriotism” is very important slid from 70 percent two decades ago to 61 percent now.
The share citing religion decreased even more, from 62 percent in 1998 to 48 percent now.
Those changes come amid a stark generational divide over which values are seen as most important.
Among those who are either Millennials or Generation Z (ages 18-38), only 42 percent rate patriotism as a “very important” value, while 79 percent of those over 55 say the same.
Just 30 percent of the younger group cite religion or belief in God as very important, while 67 percent of the older group does.
And just 32 percent of those under 38 years old call having children very important, while 54 percent of those over 55 agree.
“There is an emerging America where issues like children, religion, and patriotism are far less important,” said Republican pollster Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies. “And in America, it’s the emerging generation that calls the shots about where the country’s headed.”
The NBC/WSJ poll was conducted Aug. 10-14 of 1,000 adults — more than half reached by cellphone — and it has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points.