Yes, we're divided. But new AP-NORC poll shows Americans still agree on most core American values

WASHINGTON (AP) — Despite the country's deep political polarization, most Americans share many core beliefs about what it means to be an American, according to a new poll.

The poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that about 9 in 10 U.S. adults say the right to vote, the right to equal protection under the law and the right to privacy are extremely important or very important to the United States' identity as a nation. The survey also found that 84% feel the same way about the freedom of religion.

The results, which included perspectives on a number of different freedoms and rights, have only small variances between Republicans and Democrats except on the right to bear arms, which Republicans are more likely to see as core to the nation's identity. The overall findings are striking because they come at a time of extreme partisanship when political agreements seem rare and concerns are heightened over the potential for violence during a volatile presidential election year.

“If you get a bunch of normal people at random and put them in a room together and chat about issues, there’s a lot more convergence than you might imagine,” said Michael Albertus, a political science professor at the University of Chicago.

A more pessimistic assessment of the country was reflected in another finding — that only about 3 in 10 Americans believe the nation's democracy is functioning well. About half say the U.S. is a poorly functioning democracy, while 14% say the U.S. is not a democracy.

The tension between the broad consensus on the country's fundamental values and discontent with how well its form of government is working is not a surprise, experts say.

“Part of it is really our leaders are not reflecting the electorate, and they behave in a way that’s much more polarized than what the electorate is,” said Lilliana Mason, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University.

Most Americans, she said, “are pretty moderate, but they’ve been riled up to hate people of the other party for being different from them culturally, racially and religiously.”

The AP-NORC poll also found broad agreement on the importance of some key values for the U.S.’s identity as a country. About three-quarters of U.S. adults agree that a democratically elected government is extremely or very important, and about 8 in 10 think the same about the ability of people living in the U.S. to get good jobs and achieve the American dream.

But what achieving that dream means — and which values are most fundamental to American culture — isn’t something all Americans agree on.

Democrats are more likely than Republicans — 71% to 38% — to believe that the ability to come to the U.S. from elsewhere in the world to escape violence or find economic opportunities is core to the country’s identity. A majority of Republicans, 58%, think a culture grounded in Christian values and beliefs is an essential characteristic, compared to only 18% of Democrats.

Juan Sierra, 51, a naturalized citizen whose family immigrated from the Dominican Republic after a hurricane destroyed his father’s cement business, said it is very important to him that the U.S. be seen as a place of opportunity.

The industrial technician in Port St. Lucie, Florida, said he believes democracy is working and will continue to do so “as long as there are good people in government.”

Sierra also said it was extremely important that people have freedom of religion, although he had concerns over the nation’s identity being tied to Christianity.

“We’re seeing what happens right now when laws are passed and decisions are made based on someone’s religion,” he said, citing the Alabama Supreme Court ruling in February that frozen embryos can be considered children and be afforded legal protections, a decision that temporarily halted IVF procedures in the state.

Susan Johnson, a 76-year-old Republican living in the Dallas suburbs, said the nation’s standing as a beacon to others who need refuge is very important, but said that could not override concerns about border security.

“We need people working," she said. "We just need them to come the right way.”

Johnson also said she believes it's extremely important that the nation’s identity be grounded in spirituality.

“Whether or not you’re Mormon or a Muslim or a Christian, they just have to have some higher power to reach up to," she said. "The country is going to fall apart if we don’t believe in God.”

The poll found few divisions on democracy as a system in theory, but it identified one notable gap: younger Americans between the ages of 18 to 29 were less likely than those 60 and older to say the U.S. is a well-functioning democracy. They’re also less likely than older Americans to believe that some characteristics are essential to the U.S.’s character as a nation, including having a democratically elected government. About 6 in 10 younger adults see this as important, compared to about 9 in 10 older adults.

Palakjot Singh, a 21-year-old college student in Fresno, California, identified himself as a Republican and said he had a better quality of life when Donald Trump was president. He said the U.S. is not a well-functioning democracy in part because people are not open to debating different points of view compared to previous generations.

“There is not good communication," he said. "Nobody is sitting together trying to get to one point.”

Howard Lavine, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, said the generational split is understandable. Many younger people don’t remember a time when those with opposing views and from different political backgrounds could get together and “come over to your house.” Their frame of reference is the hyper partisanship of the Trump years, he said.

Joe Lagle, 55, a retired Air Force veteran in Colorado Springs who said he has not voted for either President Joe Biden or Trump, said the nation’s various rights are “all important” but believes they are being eroded by intolerance and well-meaning but shortsighted people.

Mike Maloy, 41, an engineer in Greensboro, North Carolina, said having those rights and freedoms “doesn't necessarily mean the U.S. is a functioning democracy.”

“Everything is run by a handful of people and their corporations," he said. "That's not a democracy.”

A Democrat, Maloy cited as an example this year's presidential primary in North Carolina, when Biden was the lone candidate on the ballot. He called that “frustrating” and said the result was that voters “had no choice."

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The poll of 1,282 adults was conducted March 21-25, 2024, using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.

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Associated Press polling writer Linley Sanders contributed to this report.

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The Associated Press receives support from several private foundations to enhance its explanatory coverage of elections and democracy. See more about AP’s democracy initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

04/03/2024 10:46 -0400

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