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

A recent poll shows that most Americans hold similar fundamental beliefs about what it means to be an American despite the country’s strong political divisions. The poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research revealed that about 9

By GARY FIELDS and AMELIA THOMSON DEVEAUX (Associated Press)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Despite the nation's significant political division, a recent survey indicates that the majority of Americans hold similar fundamental beliefs regarding American identity.

The survey by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research reveals that nearly 90% of American adults consider the right to vote, equal protection under the law, and privacy highly important to the nation's identity. Similarly, 84% express the same sentiment about religious freedom.

The outcomes, encompassing various freedoms and rights, display minimal differences between Republicans and Democrats, with the exception of the right to bear arms, which Republicans prioritize more as a core component of the nation’s identity. These findings are remarkable amid intense partisanship and concerns about potential violence during a volatile presidential election year when political consensus appears scarce.

“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.

Nevertheless, another discovery reflects a more pessimistic view of the country, with only about 30% of Americans believing that the nation’s democracy is functioning well. Approximately half consider the U.S. a poorly functioning democracy, while 14% assert that it is not a democracy.

The discrepancy between the wide consensus on the nation’s fundamental values and dissatisfaction with the effectiveness of its governmental system does not come as a surprise, according to experts.

“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.

Mason also noted that most Americans are quite moderate but have been stirred up to harbor animosity toward people from the opposing party due to cultural, racial, and religious differences.

The AP-NORC poll also uncovered general agreement regarding the significance of certain key values for the nation's identity. Roughly three-quarters of U.S. adults believe that a democratically elected government holds utmost importance, while about 80% share this view about the opportunity for Americans to secure good jobs and pursue the American dream.

However, not all Americans concur on the interpretation of achieving the American dream and the fundamental values of American culture.

Democrats are more inclined than Republicans, 71% to 38%, to consider the ability to come to the U.S. from elsewhere to escape violence or seek economic opportunities as fundamental to the nation’s identity. Meanwhile, a majority of Republicans, 58%, believe a culture rooted in Christian values and beliefs is an essential characteristic, in contrast to only 18% of Democrats.

Juan Sierra, 51, a naturalized citizen whose family moved from the Dominican Republic after a hurricane damaged his father’s cement business, said it is very crucial to him that the U.S. be viewed 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 mentioned 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.”

“A small group of individuals and their companies control everything,” he stated. “That’s not a democracy.”

A member of the Democratic Party, Maloy mentioned this year’s presidential primary in North Carolina as an example, when Biden was the only candidate on the ballot. He described that as “frustrating” and said the outcome was that voters “had no choice.”

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A survey of 1,282 adults was conducted from March 21 to 25, 2024, using a sample from NORC’s AmeriSpeak Panel, which aims to represent the U.S. population. The margin of error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.

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The Associated Press is supported by several private foundations to improve its explanatory coverage of elections and democracy. More information about AP’s democracy initiative can be found here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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