Competing Visions of America: An Evolving Identity or a Culture Under Attack?
WASHINGTON, DC (November 1, 2021) — Nearly one year into the Biden administration, a new national survey released today by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) highlights the stark differences along party lines in how Americans are experiencing changes in the country.
PRRI’s comprehensive 12th annual American Values Survey, released in partnership with the Brookings Institution, examines the widening partisan fault lines around questions of American identity, the belief that the election was stolen from Donald Trump, and beliefs that political violence might be necessary to fix the problems in America, a continuation of the far-right ideologies that contributed to the January 6 attack at the U.S. Capitol.
Anti-Democratic Beliefs and Support for Political Violence on the Right
More than two-thirds of Republicans (68%), compared to 26% of independents and 6% of Democrats, continue to believe that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump. Belief in this false claim is significantly higher among Republicans who most trust Fox News (82%) and essentially universal among those who most trust far-right news sources such as One America News (OAN) and Newsmax (97%). White evangelical Protestants (60%) are the only religious group among whom a majority believe the election was stolen from Trump.
Republicans (30%) are approximately three times as likely as Democrats (11%) to agree with the statement, “Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” Agreement with this statement rises to 40% among Republicans who most trust far-right news sources and is 32% among those who most trust Fox News. One in four white evangelicals (26%) also agree that political violence may be necessary to save the country.
Americans who believe that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump are about four times as likely as those who do not believe this falsehood to agree that true American patriots might have to resort to violence to save the country (39% vs. 10%).
Notably, Christian nationalist sympathies matter, too. Republicans (68%) are twice as likely as Democrats (33%) to agree that God has granted America a special role in human history. Americans who believe God has granted America a special role in human history are more than twice as likely as those who do not believe this to agree that violence may be necessary to save the country (27% vs. 12%).
“The social, political, and economic fabric of America is changing from the old white Christian America pattern—a reality that has created a crisis of identity and a willingness among a majority of Republicans and white evangelicals to question and undermine the legitimacy of American democratic processes,” said PRRI founder and CEO Robert P. Jones. “Students of history will recognize the dangerous perpetuation of the ‘Big Lie’ that the election was stolen and the foothold it has found among those who fear a changing America. These factors have coalesced in a white Christian nationalist ideology that is strengthened by the proliferation of far-right news sources, resulting in an unprecedented willingness by a sizable minority to believe it may be justifiable to threaten, harm, or kill their fellow citizens to restore the perceived status quo.”
American Identity in Dispute
Changing social dynamics in America have contributed to a sense of cultural protectionism, particularly among self-identified Republicans.
- Eight in ten Republicans (80%) agree that America is in danger of losing its culture and identity, compared to one-third of Democrats (33%)—a nearly 50-percentage-point difference.
- About eight in ten Republicans (79%), compared to 37% of Democrats, believe the American way of life needs to be protected from foreign influence.
- Republicans are nearly twice as likely as Democrats (70% vs. 36%) to say American culture and way of life have changed for the worse since the 1950s.
- Republicans (63%) are notably more likely than independents (37%) and Democrats (35%) to say being Christian is important to being truly American.
- A majority of Republicans (56%) agree that things have changed so much that they feel like a stranger in their own country, compared to only 31% of Democrats and 39% of independents. And 78% of Republicans who most trust far-right news outlets agree with that sentiment.
Increasing Economic Anxieties
Anxieties over the state of the economy and personal finances, including income, housing, education, and generational economic mobility, are shared by every demographic. More than eight in ten Americans (85%) agree that “the costs of housing and everyday expenses are rising faster than my income,” including a majority (51%) who completely agree. There are only modest partisan differences.
Communities of color appear to be bearing the brunt of the economic struggles. Majorities of Black Americans (68%), Hispanic Americans (68%), and other Americans of color (57%) are concerned about paying at least half of their major household expenses, compared to just under half of white Americans (48%). And a solid majority of Americans (65%), including majorities of each racial and ethnic group, believe that the country’s economic problems are the result of long-term problems and not just the result of the pandemic (32%).
Amid this economic distress, Americans are losing faith in college education as a vehicle for upward mobility. For the first time in the last five years of PRRI polling, a majority of Americans (54%) say that a college education is more of a gamble that may not pay off in the end, rather than a smart investment in the future (45%). Current sentiments represent a 10-point decline from 2016, when 55% said a college education is a smart investment. Nearly six in ten Democrats (58%) see college education as a smart investment, compared to only about four in ten independents (42%) and Republicans (37%); agreement has slipped across all partisan groups since 2016 (66%, 49%, and 52%, respectively).
When it comes to addressing economic problems, there are deep partisan divides. Just one in four Republicans (25%), compared to majorities of independents (59%) and Democrats (84%), say that it’s more important to invest in government programs to help American families and rebuild infrastructure instead of reducing government spending to lower the national debt. Black Americans (80%), Hispanic Americans (64%), and other Americans of color (70%) are much more likely than white Americans (50%) to favor investment in government programs over shrinking the national debt.
Other key findings in the 2021 American Values Survey include:
- More than six in ten Americans (63%) agree that Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that affirmed a constitutional right to abortion, was the right decision and should be upheld. Republicans (41%) are half as likely as Democrats (81%) to agree that Roe v. Wade should be upheld. Six in ten Republicans who most trust mainstream news (61%) agree, far greater than the shares of Republicans who most trust Fox News (34%) or far-right media (23%).
- One-third of Americans (34%) say they have heard nothing at all about critical race theory, 44% say they have heard a little, and only 19% say they have heard a lot. There are no significant differences among partisans, although awareness is higher than that of the public among Republicans who most trust Fox News or far right news sources (30% and 37%, respectively). When asked about what children should be taught in schools, the vast majority of Americans (84%) say “We should teach American history that includes both our best achievements and our worst mistakes as a country,” compared to only 13% who say “We should teach American history that focuses on what makes this country exceptional and great.”
- Democrats (83%) are significantly more likely than they were in both 2018 (73%) and 2015 (66%) to believe police killings of Black men are a pattern of how police treat African Americans rather than isolated incidents. These shifts among Democrats are largely driven by white Democrats’ views (82%, from 55% in 2015), and have become more aligned with the views of Black Americans (81%) over the last six years.
- A majority of Americans (62%) say that immigrants living in the United States illegally should be allowed a way to become citizens provided that they meet certain requirements, a level of support that has remained remarkably consistent since 2013.
- A majority of Americans (64%) also favor allowing Dreamers, or immigrants brought illegally to the United States as children, to gain legal resident status. The only demographic groups without majority support for this policy are Republicans (44%) and white evangelical Protestants (47%).
- On a broad list of issues facing the nation, the only issue a majority of Americans agree is critical is the coronavirus pandemic (54%).
A full copy of the 2021 American Values Survey report can be accessed at PRRI.org.
The survey was designed and conducted by PRRI among a random sample of 2,508 adults (ages 18 and over) living in all 50 states in the United States and who are part of Ipsos’s Knowledge Panel. Interviews were conducted online between September 16 and 29, 2021. The margin of error for the national survey is +/- 2.1 percentage points at the 95% level of confidence, including the design effect for the survey of 1.15. The survey was made possible by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, with additional support from the Wilbur and Hilda Glenn Family Foundation and the Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program at Shelter Rock.
PRRI is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to conducting independent research at the intersection of religion, culture, and public policy.