Pew Research Center conducted this study to understand Americans’ views of democracy in the United States today. For this analysis, we conducted an online survey of 11,001 U.S. adults between July 27 and Aug. 2, 2020.
Everyone who took part is a member of the Center’s American Trends Panel (ATP), an online survey panel that is recruited through national, random sampling of residential addresses. This way nearly all U.S. adults have a chance of selection. The survey is weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education and other categories. Read more about the ATP’s methodology. Here are the questions used for this report, along with responses, and its methodology.
In assessing the state of U.S. democracy, Americans continue to give their country negative ratings for living up to several key democratic ideals and principles. And in some cases, these assessments have turned less positive since 2018.
Notably, the share of Americans who say the phrase “people are free to peacefully protest” describes the United States very or somewhat well has fallen from 73% t0 60%, with the decline coming almost entirely among Democrats.
As was the case in Pew Research Center’s 2018 study of U.S. democracy, large majorities of Americans agree on the importance of a number of democratic principles – including that the rights and freedoms of all people are respected, that elected officials face serious consequences for misconduct and that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.
However, there continue to be sizable gaps between the shares of Americans who say these principles are very important and the shares saying the U.S. is doing well in living up to them. And fewer Americans see some principles as very important – notably, including the freedom to peaceful protest – than did so two years ago.
(NOTE: This survey examines the public’s views of several core democratic ideals and principles, including the freedom to peacefully protest. It was not designed to ask about reactions to specific events, including the current protests against police violence occurring in a number of cities. In June, following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, Republicans and Democrats had very different views of the demonstrations to protest Floyd’s death.)
Among the public overall, 68% say it is very important for the country that people are free to peacefully protest, down from 74% two years ago. In this case, the decline has come entirely among Republicans. Only about half of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (53%) say it is very important for the country that people are free to peacefully protest, while 33% say this is somewhat important; 13% say it is not too or not at all important. Two years ago, 64% of Republicans said that it was very important that people are free to protest peacefully.
Among Democrats and Democratic leaners, there has been no change in views in the importance of being able to protest peacefully: 82% currently say this is very important, and the same share said this two years ago. As a result, the current 36 percentage point partisan gap in the shares saying peaceful protest is very important is twice as wide as it was in early 2018 (18 points). On a similar question from a Pew Research Center telephone survey conducted in the weeks before the 2016 election, the share of Democrats saying people having the right to nonviolent protest was very important for maintaining a strong democracy was 17 points higher than among Republicans.
As a result, Democrats have become far less likely to say the U.S. is doing well in allowing peaceful protests, while continuing to say this is a very important principle. Among Republicans, by contrast, a large majority continues to say the U.S. does well in allowing such protests, but a declining share says this is very important to the country than did so two years ago.
These are among the findings of the survey of views of U.S. democracy and the political system, conducted July 27-Aug. 2 among 11,001 U.S. adults on Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel. The survey also finds:
Majority says significant changes are needed in structure of government. A 62% majority of the public says that significant changes are needed in the fundamental design and structure of American government to make it work for current times; 37% say the design and structure of government serves the country well, and significant changes are not needed. While views among the public overall have changed little since 2018, Democrats and Republicans have moved further apart in their opinions. Currently, 79% of Democrats say significant changes in the structure of government are needed, compared with 41% of Republicans.
Fewer than half of Americans say the rights and freedoms of all are respected. An overwhelming share of Americans (85%) say it is very important that the rights and freedoms of all people are respected. Yet only 41% say this describes the country very well (10%) or somewhat well (30%). Republicans (52%) are more likely than Democrats (30%) to say this describes the country well; among members of both parties, however, fewer say this than did so two years ago.
Declining share of Americans view respectful political debates as very important. Slightly more than half of adults (54%) say it is very important that the tone of political debate is respectful, down from 61% two years ago. The shift has come about equally among Republicans and Democrats. Few people in either party (30% of Republicans, 24% of Democrats) think this description – the tone of political debates is respectful – describes the country well.
Sharp decline in share of Democrats who say ‘people are free to peacefully protest’ describes this country well
Republicans and Democrats differ widely in evaluations of some aspects of the U.S. political system. But for many others, members of both parties give the country low ratings.
For example, just 27% of Republicans and 28% of Democrats say the phrase “people agree on basic facts even though they disagree politically” describes the country very or somewhat well. The shares expressing this view have declined modestly in both parties since 2018.
Small shares of Republicans (28%) and Democrats (24%) also say the phrase “people who give a lot of money to elected officials do not have more political influence than other people” describes the country well.
Yet there are substantial differences on other items: On 10 items included in the survey, the widest gaps are on whether “everyone has an equal opportunity succeed” (76% of Republicans say this describes the U.S. well, compared with 28% of Democrats) and “people are free to peacefully protest” (79% of Republicans, 43% of Democrats).
And the partisan differences on these items – especially on the freedom to protest peacefully—have widened since 2018. Two years ago, majorities in both parties (80% of Republicans, 68% of Democrats) said people had the right to peacefully protest; since then, the share of Democrats saying this describes the country well has declined 25 percentage points, while remaining largely unchanged among Republicans. The partisan gap on this item has increased to 36 points – three times what it was two years ago.
The share of Democrats who say everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed – already low, at 37% in 2018 – has fallen 9 points to 28%. Republicans’ views are largely unchanged since then (74% then, 76% now).
Democrats and Republicans also have moved further apart in their views of the balance of power between branches of government. In 2018, majorities of Republicans (59%) and Democrats (53%) said the phrase “the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government each keep the others from having too much power” describes the U.S. very or somewhat well. Today, 65% of Republicans express this view – a 6-point increase since 2018. The share of Democrats saying this has fallen 9 points to 42%.
There has been a decline in the shares of both Republicans and Democrats who say the phrase “the rights and freedoms of all people are respected” describes the country well. Just 52% of Republicans say the rights of all people are respected, down from 60% two years ago. Even fewer Democrats say this (30%), and there has been an 8-point decline since 2018.
Since 2018, Democrats’ evaluations of how well the U.S. is doing in living up to its democratic principles have declined on seven of 10 items. In contrast, Republicans’ perceptions of U.S. democratic performance have remained about the same – or become more positive – on eight of the 10 items.
Across all 10 items, the average partisan gap in evaluations of democratic performance was about 9 percentage points in 2018. Across the same 10 items today, that gap is now 16 points.
Fewer than a third of Americans say politicians face consequences for misconduct and that money doesn’t buy greater political influence
Looking at the public’s evaluations of how well the nation is doing upholding democratic ideals, the overall picture is largely negative.
Clear majorities say the country is doing well in only two areas: People are free to peacefully protest (60% say this describes the country very or somewhat well), and the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government keep one another from having too much power (53%).
In six other areas, majorities of Americans say the country is not doing well. Nearly six-in-ten (59%) say the phrase “the rights and freedoms of all people are respected” describes the country not too well or not at all well.
Even larger majorities say the country is not performing well when it comes to the government being open and transparent (69% say this does not describe the country well), the tone of political debate being respectful (72%), people agreeing on basic facts even if they disagree politically (72%), elected officials facing serious consequences for misconduct (73%) and that campaign contributions do not lead to greater political influence (also 73%).
Views of the influence of campaign donations are especially negative. About four-in-ten (43%) say the idea that campaign contributions do not result in greater political influence describes the U.S. “not at all well” – the highest share among the 10 items included in the survey.
Views of the importance of democratic values and principles
The public places great importance on a broad range of democratic ideals and principles. Across most of the 10 democratic values asked about in the survey – including respecting the rights of all, ensuring that governmental branches keep one another from having too much power, and ensuring elected officials face serious consequences for misconduct – large majorities say these are very important for the country.
However, there is considerable variance in the shares saying each is very important.
Overwhelming majorities say it is very important that rights and freedoms of all people are respected (85%) and that elected officials face serious consequences for misconduct (also 85%).
Large majorities of adults also say it’s very important that judges are not influenced by political parties or elected officials (83%), everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed (81%), government conducts its work openly and transparently (76%), and that the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government keep each other from having too much power (75%).
Compared with the other principles, people place less importance on respectful political debate (54% say this is very important). Still, a large majority says this is at least somewhat important (87%).
And, as is the case with evaluations of the nation’s performance on democratic principles, one of the widest gaps is on the freedom to protest peacefully. While 82% of Democrats say this is very important, only 53% of Republicans say the same. This 29 percentage point partisan gap is the largest of the 10 items.
Democrats are also more likely than Republicans to say it is very important that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed (86% vs. 74%) and that the tone of political debate is respectful (58% vs. 48%).
The partisan differences are less pronounced on several other items. Comparable majorities in both parties say it is very important that campaign contributions do not lead to greater political influence, the rights and freedoms of all people are respected, government is open and transparent, and judges are not influenced by parties or elected officials.
Overall, however, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say eight of the 10 items surveyed are very important to the country.
In 2018, roughly three-quarters of adults said it is very important for the country that people are free to peacefully protest, including 82% of Democrats and 64% of Republicans. The same share of Democrats says this today, but the share of Republicans who say this today (53%) has declined by 11 percentage points – the biggest decline across all 10 items.
Republican and Democratic views on basic facts and respectful political debate have moved together.
In 2018, 63% of Democrats and 57% of Republicans said it was very important that people agree on basic facts even if they disagree politically. Today, those shares are higher among both parties; 69% of Democrats now say it is very important, while 62% of Republicans say the same.
And today, smaller shares of Republicans and Democrats say it is very important that the tone of political debate is respectful. Just about half of Republicans say it’s very important (48%), and 58% of Democrats say the same.
In 2018, there was no partisan gap on the principle that elected officials face serious consequences for misconduct. But today, there is a 9 percentage point gap. Democrats have grown more likely to say it is important that elected officials face repercussions for misconduct (83% in 2018 vs. 89% today) while Republicans have become less likely to say this (84% then, 80% today).
Majority of Americans say fundamental changes in structure of government are needed
A majority of Americans (62%) say that when thinking about the fundamental design and structure of government, significant changes are needed to make it work for current times; 37% say the design and structure of government serves the country well and does not need significant changes.
These overall opinions have changed little since 2018, but Republicans and Democrats have moved in opposing directions. In 2018, half of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said significant changes to American government were needed; today, that share has dropped to 41%. A majority (57%) now says no significant changes are needed.
At the same time, Democrats have grown more likely to say significant changes are needed. In 2018, 68% of Democrats said substantial change was necessary. Today, 79% of Democrats say changes are needed to make government work for current times.
Though partisanship is the biggest factor in views on whether the fundamental design and structure of American government needs significant changes, there are similar demographic divisions within each partisan coalition – especially among Republicans.
Women in both parties are more likely than men to say government needs significant changes to work in current times. Nearly half of Republican women (48%) say such changes are needed, compared with 35% of Republican men. The gender gap among Democrats is more modest: 81% of Democratic women say this, compared with 75% of Democratic men.
Among Republicans, there are sizable age divides in views of government. A majority of Republicans under 30 years of age (63%) say government needs major changes. This sentiment is far less pronounced among older age groups: 44% of Republicans ages 30 to 49 say this, compared with 37% who are 50 to 64 and just 29% of those 65 and older.
Majorities of Democrats in all age groups say fundamental changes are needed in the design of government, though this view is more widespread among those under age 50 (82%) than those ages 50 and older (74%).