WASHINGTON — The American public is deeply pessimistic and divided on issues of culture and politics in ways that will last far beyond Election Day, according to the annual American Values Survey.
About 70 percent of Republican Donald Trump supporters say that America has changed for the worse since the 1950s. Roughly 70 percent of Democrat Hillary Clinton supporters said life has changed for the better.
“It’s understandable,” said Henry Olsen, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “If you grew up without a college degree and you’re old enough to remember that time, like my father is, you can take a look and say that you have not had the same opportunities today.”
The 2016 survey, conducted by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute along with the Brookings Institution, is meant to be a deeper dive into the state of the country than most polls offer, Institute CEO Robert P. Jones said Tuesday.
“This one was not designed to be the latest in the horse race,” Jones said. “What we really wanted to do was to step back from the frenzy and look at what is going on underneath.”
The survey of over 2,000 Americans was conducted last month both online and via phone call.
Part of this divide between Trump and Clinton supporters can be attributed to America’s changing demographics since the 1950s. In the 2016 survey, a significant majority of Republicans — and a minority of Democrats — said immigrants hurt traditional American values.
Some of the participants in a Brookings panel on the report pointed out that working class whites often feel that labels such as “white privilege” don’t accurately reflect the lifestyles they live, causing them to feel resentment toward other races and classes.
Some trends are relatively recent. In 2011, white evangelicals were the least likely group to say that an official can be immoral in his or her personal life while still being an ethical leader politically. In 2016, evangelicals comprise the group most likely to agree with that statement.
The report also found Americans divided across lines of race, gender, region, education and income, but the starkest contrast appeared between a subgroup of white Christians and the rest of the country.
Three-quarters of white evangelical Protestants said the country has taken a turn for the worst in the last 60 years. But over 60 percent of unaffiliated people, non-Christians, black Protestants or Hispanic Catholics have said that life has gotten better in the same time period.
“White evangelical Protestants can look back and say, ‘Fifty years ago, most Americans shared our viewpoints,’” Olsen said. “‘And today, we’re not only out of the center of America, but we wonder whether or not we have any safe spaces left.’”
Discussion also focused on how to address slowing and even reversing polarization in the United States. Karlyn Bowman, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said an essential step is for academic and political elites to initiate conversations with values, not facts and statistics.
All panelists agreed that the next president must address societal divisions, which won’t disappear on their own post-election.
“What we’re experiencing is a lot of cultural change at a really rapid time,” said Perry Bacon Jr., senior political reporter at NBC News. “Is there a way to create a system in which everyone is moving forward… (And) how do we make sure that people know we’re moving forward?”