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From #MAGA to #MeToo: A look at U.S. public opinion in 2017

In his first year as U.S. president, Donald Trump represented a clear break in style and substance from his predecessor, Barack Obama – and from many of the chief executives who came before them. The businessman-turned-politician upended Washington with unrestrained rhetoric and an “America First” agenda that included renegotiating international trade pacts, withdrawing from a worldwide climate change agreement and curtailing immigration into the United States.

At home and abroad, the public reacted strongly to the White House’s new occupant and his policies. Confidence in the U.S. president plummeted in many countries, particularly in Western Europe, while opinions of America itself also declined sharply. In the U.S., already-wide partisan gaps on fundamental political values grew even wider. A fraught relationship between Trump and the press drew frequent attention, with large majorities seeing it as unhealthy and an impediment to Americans’ ability to access important political news. And, as the country began to adjust to this new era, substantial shares in both parties – particularly women – said they were paying more attention to politics since Trump’s election.

Democrats were overwhelmingly negative in their assessments of Trump, who came to office vowing to undo Obama-era policies from the 2010 health care overhaul to environmental regulations to a program that shielded nearly 800,000 young unauthorized immigrants from deportation. Republicans were buoyed by the arrival of the first GOP president in eight years and cheered his successful nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. While some GOP members of Congress found themselves at odds with an unconventional and outspoken chief executive of their own party, Republicans appeared poised to achieve a major legislative victory at year’s end by overhauling the federal tax code.

Trump’s contentious first year was among the defining stories of 2017. But beyond the shifts in policy and approach that accompanied the transition between presidential administrations, the year revealed other important trends shaping American society.

Allegations of sexual misconduct against powerful men in entertainment, media and politics – from Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein to morning news anchor Matt Lauer to the longest-serving member of Congress, John Conyers – brought widespread attention to the issues of sexual harassment, gender discrimination and gender equality. The #MeToo campaign, which spread rapidly on Twitter and Facebook in the wake of these news stories, prompted women around the country to share stories about their personal experiences with sexual misconduct. And, when Time magazine selected its “Person of the Year” in December, the winner was not one person but the broad range of people who came forward.

Pew Research Center surveys underscored the breadth of these experiences, as well as the public’s attitudes toward them. In a poll conducted in early fall, about four-in-ten U.S. women said they had personally experienced gender discrimination or been treated unfairly because of their gender, while nearly six-in-ten women said the country hasn’t gone far enough when it comes to giving women equal rights with men. In a separate survey, many employed women reported an array of experiences with gender discrimination at work, ranging from earning less than a man for doing the same job to being treated as if they were not competent.

(Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)
(Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

Racial issues continued to draw national attention. The removal of Confederate statues by local governments in the South and elsewhere became a flashpoint as Americans debated whether the statues perpetuated racism or merely reflected a common history. In August, a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, led to violent clashes in the city’s streets, including the death of one person and the injury of 19 others when a car driven by an alleged white nationalist sped into a crowd of counterprotesters.

Discussions of race extended to other venues as well. When the NFL season began in the fall, some players protested perceived racial injustice and police mistreatment of blacks by kneeling during the national anthem, a move that provoked anger among those who saw the protests as disrespectful. Trump was among those who criticized the players; indeed, he was a frequent commenter on the nation’s racial controversies.

Against this backdrop, the public expressed rising concern about race relations. In an August survey conducted shortly after the violence in Charlottesville, nearly six-in-ten Americans said they viewed racism as a big problem in U.S. society — up 8 percentage points from 2015 and roughly double the share who held this view in November 2011. But there were stark divisions along racial and partisan lines. For example, Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents were far more likely than Republicans and Republican leaners to see racism as a big problem. A similar trend was evident on a separate question about whether white people in the U.S. benefit from societal advantages that blacks do not have: Democrats  and Democratic leaners were much more likely than Republicans and GOP leaners to say whites do benefit from such advantages.

The economy brought positive news. The national unemployment rate fell to 4.1% in October and November, the lowest level since 2000. The Dow Jones industrial average, which broke 20,000 points in January for the first time ever, soared to more than 24,000 points by the end of the year. Americans’ evaluations of the economy also improved: About four-in-ten rated national economic conditions as “excellent” or “good,” the highest share in a decade. As has historically been the case, however, views tended to be colored by the public’s partisan affiliations, with a surge in Republican optimism driving much of the overall increase in economic positivity.

Gun violence took an especially deadly toll in 2017. In October, a gunman in a Las Vegas hotel room opened fire on an open-air concert below, killing 58 people and injuring nearly 500 in the deadliest mass shooting in the country’s modern history. A month later, a man in rural Texas shot 26 people to death and injured 20 others as they attended a Sunday church service – the worst mass shooting in that state’s history. Earlier in the year, a gunman fired dozens of rounds at members of Congress, their staff members and others participating in a morning baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia, severely injuring Rep. Steve Scalise, one of the highest-ranking members of the House of Representatives.

The spate of attacks brought familiar calls for legislation to restrict access to guns. A survey the Center conducted in spring, before the shootings, found areas of agreement on some proposals, such as preventing the mentally ill from purchasing guns and requiring background checks for private gun sales and those at gun shows. More broadly, however, it shed light on the country’s complex relationship with guns, including some fundamental divides between gun owners and non-gun owners and Democrats and Republicans. While three-quarters of Democrats and Democratic leaners said gun laws should be more strict than they are today, for instance, only about a quarter of Republicans and Republican leaners (24%) agreed. And while most Republicans (56%) said there would be less crime if more Americans owned guns, just 15% of Democrats shared that view.

(Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
(Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Large partisan gaps were evident across many of the issues the Center asked about in 2017, from Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico to the threat posed by global climate change.

One area that starkly divided the parties was the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into alleged ties between Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia. The inquiry, launched in May, led to criminal charges against four former members of the campaign, including its one-time chairman, Paul Manafort.

In a survey fielded in November and December, only about a quarter of Republicans and Republican leaners (26%) said Trump officials definitely or probably had improper contacts with Russia during the campaign. By contrast, about eight-in-ten Democrats and Democratic leaners (82%) said such contacts definitely or probably occurred. Partisans were also sharply divided over whether Mueller’s investigation would be conducted fairly: While nearly seven-in-ten Democrats (68%) were confident it would be fair, just 44% of Republicans agreed. Trump himself referred to the investigation as a “witch hunt.”

In some cases, partisan shifts in opinion were dramatic. Amid Trump’s persistent criticisms of CNN and other media outlets as “fake news,” for example, partisan differences over the role of the press as a “watchdog” were wider than in more than three decades of Pew Research Center surveys. In a March survey, Democrats were roughly twice as likely as Republicans to say criticism from news organizations keeps political leaders from doing things that shouldn’t be done (89% versus 42%). When the Center last asked this question in January and February 2016, about three-quarters of both Democrats (74%) and Republicans (77%) said this.

The federal government’s handling of natural disasters also became a charged partisan issue, particularly following Hurricane Maria, which caused widespread damage and loss of life in Puerto Rico. In a survey late in the year, nearly nine-in-ten Republicans and Republican leaners (88%) said the federal government is doing a good job responding to natural disasters, a view shared by only about half (51%) of Democrats and Democratic leaners. In October 2015, there was only a 4-point gap between the parties on this question, with 82% of Democrats and 78% of Republicans saying the government does a good job handling natural disasters.

Not all issues divided the country along partisan lines. Americans across the political spectrum expressed rising worry about North Korea’s nuclear program following a series of increasingly advanced missile tests by the secretive Asian nation and an escalating war of words between Trump and the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un.

Three-quarters of Americans said in October that they view North Korea’s nuclear program as a “major threat” to the U.S., up from 64% in January and as high a share as at any point since 2005. Majorities in both parties said the U.S. should take the North’s threats very seriously; that the North is really willing to follow through on its threats to use nuclear weapons against the U.S.; and that the North is capable of launching a missile that could reach the U.S. An overwhelming majority of Americans also said they believed Trump is “really willing” to use military force against North Korea.

In both parties, majorities of Americans also agreed on some other perceived security threats facing the U.S., from cyberattacks launched by other countries to the terrorist group known as the Islamic State, which again claimed high-profile attacks in places including Manchester, England; Barcelona, Spain; and New York City, which suffered its deadliest terrorist attack since Sept. 11, 2001.

As 2017 draws to a close, some of the stories that defined the year will continue to unfold. There is little sign, for example, that the crisis in North Korea will disappear; nor do stories about sexual misconduct appear likely to subside, and the investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 election continues. The Trump administration will push forward on its policy agenda, including decisions about immigration and the border wall.

As 2018 arrives, Pew Research Center will be observing these and other important developments – and, as always, seeking to understand Americans’ views about the society they live in.

Michael Dimock is the president of Pew Research Center, where he leads a domestic and international research agenda to explain public attitudes, demographic changes and other important trends that are shaping our world. A political scientist by training, Dimock has been at the Center since 2000 and has co-authored several of its landmark research reports, including studies of trends in American political and social values and a groundbreaking examination of political polarization within the American public.