2018 American institutional confidence poll

The health of American democracy in an era of hyper polarization

24 Oct 2018

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. These outsiders constitute a diverse group, from President Donald Trump and his close allies on the right, to Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez on the left. The surprising success of these candidates, who were not (at least initially) aligned with their parties’ establishments, raises the question of whether Americans are looking for outsiders because of a deep dissatisfaction with the American establishment.

Most people agree, and previous surveys have demonstrated, that Americans have lost confidence in many of our institutions in recent decades. Some observers go so far as to argue that some portion of Americans are losing faith in our democratic political system. Historian Yuval Harari wrote in his recently published book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, “[M]any people in Kentucky… now have come to see the liberal [democratic] vision as either undesirable or unattainable.” And some speculate that anti-establishment, or even anti-democratic, views are taking root among certain demographics across American society, in particular younger voters; lower-educated white voters, especially in the industrial Midwestern states (who made up a strategically significant part of the Trump base); and people of all backgrounds who are heavy users of social media (which is believed to be a driver of potentially anti-democratic views).

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, seeks to test these assumptions about Americans’ views. Specifically, through a large national online survey conducted by YouGov in June and July 2018, we looked to assess whether, in fact, support for President Trump and other antiestablishment candidates reflects a loss of confidence in institutions, or even a more serious underlying alienation from liberal democracy.

The study also takes a deep dive into particular demographic groups to assess 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

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