• Introduction
  • Overview
  • Key Findings
  • Conclusion
  • Methodology
  • Authors
  • Sponsors
  • Introduction

    The 2016 presidential election and the primary cycle of 2018 have been defined in large part by the success of outsider candidates in both parties, raising the question of whether Americans are looking for outsiders because of a deep dissatisfaction with the American establishment.

    Most people agree, and other surveys have demonstrated, that Americans have lost confidence in many of our institutions. Some observers argue that some portion of Americans are losing faith in our democratic political system. And some speculate that anti-democratic views are taking root among certain demographics across American society.

    In the 2018 American Institutional Confidence Poll conducted online by YouGov in June and July 2018, we look to assess whether support for President Trump and other anti-establishment candidates reflects a loss of confidence in institutions — or even a more serious underlying alienation from liberal democracy. The study also assesses how age, race, education, geography, and social media use correlate with confidence in American institutions, views on how well our democracy is working today, and support for democratic norms.

    In examining these questions, this survey seeks to contribute to the crucial dialogue about how best to understand the current state of American democracy and how to nurture it in the future.

    Overview

    Is America’s democracy healthy?

    It is a question asked with increasing frequency and urgency over the past several years.

    Our survey reveals that the central dynamic in our current politics is not so much a drift away from support for democracy as a drive toward a state of hyperpolarization.

    Americans’ satisfaction with the current state of our democracy and confidence in our institutions is driven by partisan affiliation.

    Self-reported adherents of the two major political parties are becoming hyperpartisan. They evaluate the current state of America’s political system and various national institutions differently, and see the other party as a fundamental threat to the country. We measured this both quantitatively, with close-ended questions, and qualitatively, using sophisticated tools to identify and gauge the intensity of emotion in answers to open-ended questions.

    “People are voting based on their hatred of other groups rather than facts or competence. As a result they have elected people who are incompetent and extremely dangerous and refuse to deal with the consequences.”


    A 63-year-old liberal Democratic woman from Pennsylvania who is “very dissatisfied” with American democracy

    The Democrats are freezing our democracy. They hate Trump so much they support the country failing economically or hav[ing] a nuclear war rather than work with the Republicans to pass new immigration and health care legislation."


    A 53-year-old conservative Republican woman from Connecticut who is “very dissatisfied” with American democracy

    We also find that young people; Upper-Midwestern white people who didn’t finish college (who were Trump swing voters in 2016); and frequent users of social media are no more alienated from our system of governance than Americans overall. Again, party affiliation, rather than these particular characteristics, is what drives respondents’ views on democracy.

    The good news is that Americans across demographic groups are not presently moving toward an anti-democratic worldview. They are not moving closer to a rejection of the concept of democracy, or of democratic norms such as regular elections and eschewing violence to settle political disputes. Although the extreme degree of polarization found in this survey is troubling, there remains a foundation of belief in democracy upon which to build.

    Four Key Findings

    Key Finding No. 1

    Satisfaction with our democracy depends on political party

    Americans’ satisfaction with the current state of our democracy is strongly correlated to partisan affiliation.

    Beyond that, there are almost no other differences in satisfaction with American democracy by race, age, region of the country or education level.

    Contrary to the dominant narrative that people who voted for Donald Trump did so as an act of revolt against the system, Republicans are actually far more satisfied with our democracy than the public as a whole. We find 76% of Republicans are satisfied with American democracy right now, compared to just 44% of Democrats.

    How Satisfied Are You With How Democracy Is Working In The United States?


    Chart Question: How Satisfied Are You With How Democracy Is Working In The United States?
    Very SatisfiedSomewhat SatisfiedNeither Satisfied Nor DissatisfiedSomewhat DissatisfiedVery Dissatisfied
    10%30%25%21%15%

    Chart Topic: by Party
    DemocratsRepublicansIndependents
    44%76%39%

    Chart Topic: by Gender
    MaleFemale
    56%51%

    Chart Topic: by Age
    18-2930-4041-5354-6364+
    55%54%52%52%54%

    Chart Topic: by Race
    WhiteBlackHispanicAsian
    51%51%53%62%

    Chart Topic: by Census Region
    EastMidwestSouthWest
    52%52%53%54%

    Chart Topic: by Education Level
    No HSHS GradSome College2-Year4-YearPost-Grad
    51%61%51%51%52%46%
    Percent responding "very satisfied" and "somewhat satisfied"
    (n = 5,400)

    Large majorities of both parties think that the opposing party rarely or never has the best interests of the country at heart, and that it constitutes at least a somewhat serious threat to the country and its people.

    How Often Do You Think That Members Of The Opposing Party Still Have The Best Interests Of The Country In Mind?


    (n = 3,807)
    • All of the Time
    • Most of the Time
    • Some of the Time
    • None of the Time
    Percent
    Democrats
    Republicans
    5%5% 12%14% 45%42% 38%39%
    Chart Question: How Often Do You Think That Members Of The Opposing Party Still Have The Best Interests Of The Country In Mind?
    Chart Topic: All of the Time
    DemocratsRepublicans
    5%5%
    Chart Question: How Often Do You Think That Members Of The Opposing Party Still Have The Best Interests Of The Country In Mind?
    Chart Topic: Most of the Time
    DemocratsRepublicans
    12%14%
    Chart Question: How Often Do You Think That Members Of The Opposing Party Still Have The Best Interests Of The Country In Mind?
    Chart Topic: Some of the Time
    DemocratsRepublicans
    45%42%
    Chart Question: How Often Do You Think That Members Of The Opposing Party Still Have The Best Interests Of The Country In Mind?
    Chart Topic: None of the Time
    DemocratsRepublicans
    38%39%

    Do You Believe That Members of The Opposing Party Are a Threat to the United States and Its People?


    (n = 3,807)
    • Very Serious Threat
    • Somewhat Serious Threat
    • Minor Threat
    • No Threat
    Percent
    Democrats
    Republicans
    35%32% 30%30% 24%23% 12%16%
    Chart Question: Do You Believe That Members of The Opposing Party Are a Threat to the United States and Its People?
    Chart Topic: Very Serious Threat
    DemocratsRepublicans
    35%32%
    Chart Question: Do You Believe That Members of The Opposing Party Are a Threat to the United States and Its People?
    Chart Topic: Somewhat Serious Threat
    DemocratsRepublicans
    30%30%
    Chart Question: Do You Believe That Members of The Opposing Party Are a Threat to the United States and Its People?
    Chart Topic: Minor Threat
    DemocratsRepublicans
    24%23%
    Chart Question: Do You Believe That Members of The Opposing Party Are a Threat to the United States and Its People?
    Chart Topic: No Threat
    DemocratsRepublicans
    12%16%

    Key Finding No. 2

    Confidence in our institutions is driven by party affiliation

    Similar to satisfaction with democracy, the survey finds that confidence in institutions is largely driven by party affiliation.

    We asked respondents to indicate their level of confidence in 20 U.S. institutions.

    The military, Google, and Amazon universally inspire a great deal of confidence. Political parties, Congress, and Facebook inspire low levels of confidence.

    However, several stark differences in confidence in institutions emerge between respondents based on partisan affiliation.

    How much confidence do you have in the following institutions? Institutional Confidence, All Respondents


    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
    • 4
    Mean confidence (ranging from "no confidence" to "a great deal of confidence")
    (n = 5,400)
    • Military3.24
    • Amazon3.12
    • Google2.96
    • Local Police2.95
    • Colleges and Universities2.90
    • Non-Profits2.89
    • FBI2.84
    • Philanthropy 2.77
    • Local Government2.75
    • Courts2.72
    • Banks2.69
    • Organized Labor2.64
    • Major Companies2.59
    • State Government2.58
    • Religion2.50
    • Press2.50
    • Executive Branch2.34
    • Facebook2.28
    • Political Parties2.12
    • Congress2.12

    How much confidence do you have in the following institutions? Institutional Confidence, All Respondents

    Mean confidence (ranging from "no confidence" to "a great deal of confidence")
    MilitaryAmazonGoogleLocal PoliceColleges and UniversitiesNon-ProfitsFBIPhilanthropy Local GovernmentCourtsBanksOrganized LaborMajor CompaniesState GovernmentReligionPressExecutive BranchFacebookPolitical PartiesCongress
    3.243.122.962.952.902.892.842.772.752.722.692.642.592.582.502.502.342.282.122.12

    Institutional confidence, Democrats only


    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
    • 4
    Mean confidence (ranging from "no confidence" to "a great deal of confidence")
    (n = 2,286)
    • Amazon3.22
    • Colleges and Universities3.20
    • Military3.15
    • Google3.14
    • FBI3.12
    • Non-Profits3.02
    • Press2.93
    • Organized Labor2.90
    • Local Police2.88
    • Philanthropy 2.87
    • Local Government2.83
    • Courts2.78
    • State Government2.67
    • Banks2.67
    • Major Companies2.53
    • Religion2.39
    • Facebook2.39
    • Political Parties2.22
    • Congress2.10
    • Executive Branch2.06

    Institutional confidence, Democrats only

    Mean confidence (ranging from "no confidence" to "a great deal of confidence")
    AmazonColleges and UniversitiesMilitaryGoogleFBINon-ProfitsPressOrganized LaborLocal PolicePhilanthropy Local GovernmentCourtsState GovernmentBanksMajor CompaniesReligionFacebookPolitical PartiesCongressExecutive Branch
    3.223.203.153.143.123.022.932.902.882.872.832.782.672.672.532.392.392.222.102.06

    Institutional confidence, Republicans only


    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
    • 4
    Mean confidence (ranging from "no confidence" to "a great deal of confidence")
    (n = 1,521)
    • Military3.63
    • Local Police3.31
    • Amazon3.07
    • Executive Branch2.98
    • Religion2.90
    • Banks2.89
    • Non-Profits2.84
    • Major Companies2.81
    • Local Government2.81
    • Philanthropy2.78
    • Courts2.77
    • Google2.74
    • State Government2.60
    • FBI2.52
    • Colleges and Universities2.51
    • Congress2.29
    • Organized Labor2.28
    • Political Parties2.19
    • Facebook2.14
    • Press1.90

    Institutional confidence, Republicans only

    Mean confidence (ranging from "no confidence" to "a great deal of confidence")
    MilitaryLocal PoliceAmazonExecutive BranchReligionBanksNon-ProfitsMajor CompaniesLocal GovernmentPhilanthropyCourtsGoogleState GovernmentFBIColleges and UniversitiesCongressOrganized LaborPolitical PartiesFacebookPress
    3.633.313.072.982.902.892.842.812.812.782.772.742.602.522.512.292.282.192.141.90

    The executive branch is the institution in which Democrats have the least confidence, while Republicans rank it the fourth highest.

    “The President is undoing illegal and unconstitutional actions of his predecessor and as a result the economy is roaring.”


    A 70-year-old moderate Republican man from California with “a great deal of confidence” in the executive branch

    “The executive is an incompetent, greedy, narcissistic sociopath.”


    A 37-year-old liberal independent man from Michigan with “no confidence” in the executive branch

    The press is the institution in which Republicans have the least confidence, while it is the seventh highest institution in which Democrats have confidence. This shows the effect of decades of Republican national politicians and pundits being more critical of the national news media than Democrats, a trend which President Trump has taken to a new extreme.

    “The press are liberals … who will do anything to post negative stuff [on] Trump or Republicans.”


    A 43-year-old conservative Republican woman from California who has “no confidence” in the press

    “Except for Fox News, I have a lot of confidence in general towards news services.”


    A 61-year-old liberal Democratic man from California who has “a great deal of confidence” in the press

    Democrats have much higher confidence in the FBI and in colleges and universities than Republicans. As both groups have been the target of the president’s ire since he took office, this could be further evidence of the power of the bully pulpit.

    “Far too many universities are indoctrinating young people with far left ideologies such as communism and socialism.”


    A 42-year-old conservative Republican man from Texas who has “hardly any confidence” in colleges and universities

    Key Finding No. 3

    Demographic characteristics other than partisanship do not strongly correlate to satisfaction with democracy

    There is no age gap in Americans’ satisfaction with democracy.

    A great deal of ink has been spilled on the question of whether support for democracy is waning among two key demographics: young people (ages 18-29); and lower-educated white people in the Upper Midwest (who were Trump swing voters in 2016). We find that neither group is less satisfied with our democracy than the nation as a whole.

    HOW SATISFIED ARE YOU WITH HOW DEMOCRACY IS WORKING IN THE UNITED STATES?


    Chart Question: HOW SATISFIED ARE YOU WITH HOW DEMOCRACY IS WORKING IN THE UNITED STATES?
    Chart Topic: Age, by quintile
    18-2930-4041-5354-6364+
    55%54%52%52%54%

    As the chart shows, the young are no less satisfied with democracy than any other age cohort. But they do show certain trends that diverge from those in other age groups.

    Support for Democratic Alternatives by Age


    Chart Question: Support for Democratic Alternatives by Age
    Chart Topic: Democracy is always preferable
    18-2930-4041-5354-6364+
    55%56%67%76%84%
    Chart Question: Support for Democratic Alternatives by Age
    Chart Topic: Non-democracies can be preferable
    18-2930-4041-5354-6364+
    32%27%20%15%11%
    Chart Question: Support for Democratic Alternatives by Age
    Chart Topic: Democracy serves the people
    18-2930-4041-5354-6364+
    52%55%62%65%74%
    Chart Question: Support for Democratic Alternatives by Age
    Chart Topic: Democracy serves the elite
    18-2930-4041-5354-6364+
    48%46%38%35%26%
    Chart Question: Support for Democratic Alternatives by Age
    Chart Topic: Public officials don't care what I think
    18-2930-4041-5354-6364+
    66%69%76%75%76%
    Chart Question: Support for Democratic Alternatives by Age
    Chart Topic: Never trust Washington to do what is right
    18-2930-4041-5354-6364+
    21%25%30%33%28%
    (n = 5,400)

    We asked respondents a series of questions about attitudes we thought might be connected to support for democracy. The young are the age group least likely to believe “democracy serves the people” and the most likely to think “democracy serves the elite.” However, the young are also the least likely to believe that “public officials don’t care what I think” and to “never trust Washington to do what is right.”

    Thus, while young people are more open to alternatives to democracy and more pessimistic about who benefits from it, they are no less satisfied with democracy than people of other age groups.

    White Midwesterners without a college degree do not have less confidence in institutions and satisfaction with democracy

    Similar to our results on younger respondents, we find white Upper-Midwestern Americans with lower levels of education are not especially disillusioned with American institutions and democracy.

    We define lower-educated, Upper-Midwestern whites as white Americans who did not complete college and live in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa. We compare this group with the overall U.S. population to see if they differ from 1) Americans overall, 2) non-white Americans, and 3) white Americans of all education levels who live in stereotypical coastal elite (and Democratic-leaning) states.

    While these voters do have lower-than-average levels of confidence in the press and in political parties, they are very similar to the national average in overall trust in government and confidence in major companies and banks.

    White Midwesterners without a college degree compared to the rest of the country


    (n = 5,400)
    • Low Education Midwest Whites
    • Coastal Whites
    • Nonwhites
    • All Americans
    Percent
    Trust Government
    Confidence in Major Companies
    Confidence in Banks
    Confidence in the Press
    Confidence in Political Parties
    16%62%71%36%31% 16%63%68%48%35% 26%60%64%57%39% 20%61%65%52%35%
    Chart Question: White Midwesterners without a college degree compared to the rest of the country
    Chart Topic: Low Education Midwest Whites
    Trust GovernmentConfidence in Major CompaniesConfidence in BanksConfidence in the PressConfidence in Political Parties
    16%62%71%36%31%
    Chart Question: White Midwesterners without a college degree compared to the rest of the country
    Chart Topic: Coastal Whites
    Trust GovernmentConfidence in Major CompaniesConfidence in BanksConfidence in the PressConfidence in Political Parties
    16%63%68%48%35%
    Chart Question: White Midwesterners without a college degree compared to the rest of the country
    Chart Topic: Nonwhites
    Trust GovernmentConfidence in Major CompaniesConfidence in BanksConfidence in the PressConfidence in Political Parties
    26%60%64%57%39%
    Chart Question: White Midwesterners without a college degree compared to the rest of the country
    Chart Topic: All Americans
    Trust GovernmentConfidence in Major CompaniesConfidence in BanksConfidence in the PressConfidence in Political Parties
    20%61%65%52%35%

    Key Finding No. 4

    Social media use is not strongly associated with dissatisfaction with democracy and national institutions

    Our survey shows that increased social media usage is not associated with lower levels of support for democracy and democratic institutions.

    We divide our respondents into three groups: those who use at least one social media platform more than 10 times a day (“always using,” 19%); those who do not use any social media platforms (“never use,” 14%); and everyone else (“use regularly,” 67%). We then compare support for democracy, confidence in the press, confidence in the FBI, and confidence in political parties across these three groups.

    Social Media Use


    Chart Question: Social Media Use
    Chart Topic: Very or somewhat satisfied with democracy
    Never UseUse RegularlyAlways Using
    48%54%53%
    Chart Question: Social Media Use
    Chart Topic: At least some confidence in press
    Never UseUse RegularlyAlways Using
    50%55%54%
    Chart Question: Social Media Use
    Chart Topic: At least some confidence in FBI
    Never UseUse RegularlyAlways Using
    63%70%71%
    Chart Question: Social Media Use
    Chart Topic: At least some confidence in political parties
    Never UseUse RegularlyAlways Using
    30%35%39%
    (n = 5,400)

    The connection between social media and satisfaction with democracy is slight. To the extent that there is a relationship, it is non-users of social media who have the lowest level of satisfaction with democracy.

    Beyond the question of general trust in institutions, social media has been implicated in a very specific threat to a healthy democracy: the spread of disinformation. With this in mind, we asked respondents two true-or-false questions about the 2016 election, of which a great deal of disinformation can be found online.

    Again, we split our respondents into three groups based on frequency of social media usage. We then sought to determine whether increased social media usage is associated with a greater belief in what is factually incorrect (“disinformation”).

    The strongest indicator of how people will answer both questions is — consistent with our findings throughout this report — party affiliation. But the pattern varies. Among Democrats, those who use social media most frequently were most likely to answer two true-or-false questions about the 2016 election incorrectly. Among Republicans, greater frequency of social media use did not correlate to a greater likelihood of answering these questions incorrectly.

    True or False: United States intelligence agencies agree that Russians attempted to sway the 2016 election in favor of Donald Trump (TRUE)


    Chart Question: True or False: United States intelligence agencies agree that Russians attempted to sway the 2016 election in favor of Donald Trump (TRUE)
    Chart Topic: No Social Media Use Republicans
    CorrectWrong
    34%66%
    Chart Question: True or False: United States intelligence agencies agree that Russians attempted to sway the 2016 election in favor of Donald Trump (TRUE)
    Chart Topic: Some Social Media Use Republicans
    CorrectWrong
    37%63%
    Chart Question: True or False: United States intelligence agencies agree that Russians attempted to sway the 2016 election in favor of Donald Trump (TRUE)
    Chart Topic: High Social Media Use Republicans
    CorrectWrong
    47%53%
    Chart Question: True or False: United States intelligence agencies agree that Russians attempted to sway the 2016 election in favor of Donald Trump (TRUE)
    Chart Topic: No Social Media Use Democrats
    CorrectWrong
    89%11%
    Chart Question: True or False: United States intelligence agencies agree that Russians attempted to sway the 2016 election in favor of Donald Trump (TRUE)
    Chart Topic: Some Social Media Use Democrats
    CorrectWrong
    90%10%
    Chart Question: True or False: United States intelligence agencies agree that Russians attempted to sway the 2016 election in favor of Donald Trump (TRUE)
    Chart Topic: High Social Media Use Democrats
    CorrectWrong
    84%16%

    True or False: Millions of Illegal Votes Were Cast in the 2016 Election (FALSE)


    Chart Question: True or False: Millions of Illegal Votes Were Cast in the 2016 Election (FALSE)
    Chart Topic: No Social Media Use Republicans
    CorrectWrong
    46%54%
    Chart Question: True or False: Millions of Illegal Votes Were Cast in the 2016 Election (FALSE)
    Chart Topic: Some Social Media Use Republicans
    CorrectWrong
    45%55%
    Chart Question: True or False: Millions of Illegal Votes Were Cast in the 2016 Election (FALSE)
    Chart Topic: High Social Media Use Republicans
    CorrectWrong
    44%56%
    Chart Question: True or False: Millions of Illegal Votes Were Cast in the 2016 Election (FALSE)
    Chart Topic: No Social Media Use Democrats
    CorrectWrong
    69%31%
    Chart Question: True or False: Millions of Illegal Votes Were Cast in the 2016 Election (FALSE)
    Chart Topic: Some Social Media Use Democrats
    CorrectWrong
    68%33%
    Chart Question: True or False: Millions of Illegal Votes Were Cast in the 2016 Election (FALSE)
    Chart Topic: High Social Media Use Democrats
    CorrectWrong
    59%41%
    (n = 5,400)

    Conclusion

    Partisanship, more than any other characteristic, drives views on our democracy

    As the data throughout this report suggests, it is partisanship — far more than age, race, education, social media usage or other characteristics — that explains Americans’ views of our democracy.

    This is clear in the results of our close-ended questions about confidence in institutions and satisfaction with American democracy. In many cases, Democrats and Republicans express highly divergent levels of confidence in various institutions. We find similar results with our open-ended questions, which confirm that attitudes toward the American system and many national institutions are suffused with hyperpartisanship. The ideological and political vitriol of what pundits often call the “culture wars” permeates people’s thoughts about many different parts of American government and society.

    Survey Methodology

    The 2018 American Institutional Confidence Poll, sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Georgetown University’s Baker Center for Leadership & Governance, surveyed a large sample size of 5,400 Americans, more than five times larger than the typical political poll. It includes over-samples of African-Americans, Latinx Americans, and Asian Americans. These samples allow us to break down confidence in institutions, satisfaction with American democracy, and support for democratic principles across a series of demographic categories.

    The survey also includes both close-ended and open-ended questions about confidence in specific institutions and satisfaction with American democracy, enabling us to go beyond quantitative snapshots of respondents’ views and form qualitative insights into their underlying reasons and feelings.

    The interviews were conducted online from June 12 to July 19, 2018, by the survey firm YouGov. The sample includes 3,000 respondents from the U.S. general population. Additionally, the poll includes samples of 800 African-Americans, 800 Latinx Americans, and 800 Asian Americans. The over-sampling allows us to analyze these racial groups separately and to make comparisons. We applied separate weights for analyzing each racial group separately and for using the combined sample to approximate the overall U.S. population.

    The poll has a margin of error (i.e., 95% confidence interval) of plus or minus 1.3 percentage points. This is the margin of error when analyzing the 5,400-person sample (using the weights) to draw conclusions about the entire population. For responses in a smaller subset of the sample, the margin of error is larger because the sample size is smaller. For instance, when separately looking at an 800-person sample of a specific racial minority group, the margin of error (i.e., 95% confidence interval) is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

    About The Authors

    Jonathan M. Ladd


    Jonathan M. Ladd is an associate professor in the McCourt School of Public Policy and the Department of Government at Georgetown University. He is the survey director and principal investigator of the 2018 American Institutional Confidence Poll.

    Joshua A. Tucker


    Joshua A. Tucker is a professor in the Wilf Family Department of Politics, director of the Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia, and co-director of the Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) lab, all at New York University. He is the co-principal investigator of the 2018 American Institutional Confidence Poll.

    Sean Kates


    Sean Kates is a PhD candidate in the Wilf Family Department of Politics at New York University. He serves as research assistant for the 2018 American Institutional Confidence Poll.

    Survey Sponsors

    Baker Center for Leadership & Governance

    The Baker Center for Leadership & Governance is housed within the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University. We cultivate future leaders, providing students with the skills, capabilities, and adaptive mindset they need to meet the rapidly evolving challenges of 21st century government, business and civil society. Much of our work centers on giving undergraduate and graduate students hands-on experience in building bridges across political, social and cultural divides.

    John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

    The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is a national foundation with strong local roots. We invest in journalism, in the arts, and in the success of cities where brothers John S. and James L. Knight once published newspapers. Our goal is to foster informed and engaged communities, which we believe are essential for a healthy democracy.