The Public Religion Research Institute has published a new report on inequality and economic insecurity. The report, released this week with a panel discussion at The Brookings Institution, is based on findings from PRRI’s 2014 American Values Survey, which was conducted in July and August. The survey showed that registered voters are roughly split in their partisan preferences for the congressional midterm elections, but that Republicans have a substantial advantage with regard to likely voters, highlighting the Democratic Party’s long-term challenge of getting the mid-term electorate to look more like the electorate in presidential election years.
The survey indicates that Americans’ belief in the continuing existence of “the American Dream” is slipping amid growing doubts about the future and a widely shared belief (about two-thirds of Americans) that neither the government nor the economy is operating in the best interest of all Americans. But on those issues, like nearly everything, there are strong partisan divides.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe the economic system in the US unfairly favors the wealthy, but only one third of Tea Partiers and less than half of Republicans agree. More than two-thirds of Americans believe the government should do more to reduce the gap between rich and poor; 86% of Democrats and nearly two-thirds of independents say the government should do more, but less than half of Republicans and Tea Partiers agree.
Republicans are most likely (52%) to report being in excellent or good financial shape themselves, but the least likely (15%) to believe the economy has gotten better over the last two years. Less than one-third of Republicans (32%) live in households facing moderate or high economic insecurity, while more than 4-in-10 Democrats (42% do). More Americans than not believe their children’s generation will be worse off than their own, with the most pessimistic being Americans who most trust Fox News for information about current events. African Americans and Hispanic Americans are more optimistic about the economy getting better than white Americans.
On specific economic policies: about 8-in 10 Americans favor requiring companies to provide full time employees with paid leave for birth or adoption of a child and paid sick days if they or an immediately family members gets sick; about 7 in 10 favor increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour; about 2/3 of Americans agree government should to more to reduce the gap between rich and poor; about 6-in-10 Americans, but only 4-in-10 Republicans, favor increasing the tax rate on Americans making more than $250,000 per year.
On racial justice, the survey showed significant movement between 2013 and 2014 in the number of Americans who don’t think blacks and other minorities get equal treatment as whites in the criminal justice system, from 47 to 56 percent. But there are huge partisan, racial, and generational divides. Large majorities of Black Americans (84%), Democrats (69%), and Young Adults (63%) disagree that minorities get equal justice, while only minorities of Republicans (38%) and Seniors (44%) say the same. The number of white Americans who don’t believe minorities get equal justice rose from 42% in 2013 to 51% in 2014.
On the question of so-called “reverse discrimination,” 45% of Americans believe that discrimination against white Americans has become as big a problem as discrimination against black Americans and other minorities, with large majorities of Republicans (61%), Tea Partiers (73%), white evangelical Protestants (63%) and older white Americans (59%) agreeing. Almost 60% of white working class Americans believe discrimination against white Americans has become as big a problem as discrimination against black Americans and other minorities.
Henry Olsen, a conservative and a Senior Fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center, said that the data sends a message to Republican leaders that the standard GOP playbook will not be enough for the party. Opposing gay marriage won’t energize enough voters as long as the Party is not addressing the serious economic anxieties facing white working class people who make up a substantial part of the electorate in key swing states. There is a disconnect, he suggested, between people who are feeling left out economically and many party leaders’ ideological opposition to government support programs. There is a reason, he says, that every swing state Republican governor has embraced Medicaid expansion.
Joy Reid, host of the Reid Report on MSNBC, said that southern Democratic politicians used to be better at having a “dual conversation” that would address the fact that rural white voters still had needs from the government. Many southern whites who had supported the New Deal, she said, saw the Johnson Great Society programs as a betrayal. Today, she says, many white working class people are voting more out of a sense of cultural identity than on the details of economic policy.
Among the commenters was Alan Abramowitz of Emory University, who said that partisan polarization in America is the highest it has ever been. Forty or fifty years ago, people liked their own political party more than their opponents, but they respected the other party. Now, he says, we not only hate the leaders of the “other” party, we hate their voters, too.
Abramowitz said that stark racial divides are driving political polarization. The Democratic Party, he said, is already a majority-minority party, and the GOP seems to be doing nothing to improve its appeal to non-white voters. Reid said that if the Republican Party continues its current behavior, and Democrats and their progressive allies are able to do more to improve voter turnout among Hispanics, the 2020 election will be “Armageddon” for Republicans.
In the arena of religion and politics, Americans are equally split on whether they are more concerned about government interfering with the ability of people to freely practice their religion or about religious groups trying to pass laws that force their beliefs on others. White evangelical Protestants (66%) and Hispanic Protestants (57%) are the only groups with a majority that is more concerned about the government interfering with the ability of people to freely practice their religion, while White Mainline Protestants and White Catholics are more evenly split. Black Protestants, Hispanic Catholics, Jews, and Unaffiliated Americans are more likely to be concerned about religious groups trying to pass laws that force their beliefs on others.
PRRI’s Jones noted that Latinos are becoming less Catholic, and that shift is going in two directions: some are becoming evangelical Protestants but some are also joining the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated. Jones noted that white evangelical Protestants are a shrinking part of the electorate, making up about 3-in-10 seniors but only 1-in-10 millennials. Today, he said, white evangelical Protestants are about the same size in the electorates as people with no religious affiliation.
That data point provides a bit of counterpoint to recent headlines – “More Americans Favor Mixing Religion and Politics” for example -- generated by a Pew survey showing that more Americans wanted churches and other houses of worship to get involved in social and political issues. Americans are about equally split on that question, but almost two-thirds, 63%, still believe that churches should not endorse candidates.