Many Value Democratic Principles, but Few Think Democracy Is Working Well These Days

Few believe democracy is working these days, although a large majority agree democratic principles are important to the country’s identity. Most agree President Biden respects the country’s democratic institutions and traditions.

February 8, 2021

Few Americans believe democracy is functioning well in the United States these days, even as a large majority agree that core democratic principles like a fair judiciary and a democratically elected government are important to the country’s identity. Seventy percent think President Biden has at least a fair amount of respect for the country’s democratic institutions and traditions.

November’s election does not appear to have altered the public’s perception of the divisions in this country. The overwhelming majority believe the nation is deeply divided over its most important values, and, looking forward, 62% think the country will become even more divided or stay the same over the next five years.

But the public continues to be slightly more hopeful for the future.  Fifty-four percent think America’s best days are ahead compared to 45% who say they are in the past, similar to percentages found in the AP-NORC poll taken in October 2020.

However, Americans are no longer overwhelmingly negative about the direction of the country:  49% say it is heading in the right direction and 49% think it is heading in the wrong direction.  Nearly all the increase in optimism for the course of the country comes from Democrats. 

More than 8 in 10 Americans think factors such as a fair judiciary, liberties defined by the Constitution, the ability to achieve the “American Dream,” and a democratically elected government are important aspects of the country’s identity.  Less than half consider a culture formed by Christianity or European immigrants as vital to the identity of the United States. 

Overall 49% think the country is on the right track, but outlooks diverge based on partisanship. Throughout the Trump Administration, large numbers of Democrats have described the country as headed in the wrong direction. As recently as October 2020, only 6% said the country was on the right track. With the Biden administration in the White House, 76% of Democrats are now feeling optimistic. 

A majority of Republicans had a positive view of the direction of the country for most of the Trump Administration, dropping into the 30’s last summer as the protests for racial justice and the pandemic surged. In the wake of Biden’s inauguration, only 20% of Republicans say the country is heading in the right direction, while 79% think it’s heading in wrong direction.

While still negative overall, the public’s view of Congress has improved. Now that both the Senate and the House of Representatives are under Democratic control, the party’s supporters have an improved view of the institution.

Regarding the congressional leadership, Democrats have favorable impressions of both Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, and Chuck Schumer, the Senate Majority Leader.  Republicans are not as positive about their party’s congressional leaders. They have mixed views of Kevin McCarthy, the House Minority Leader, and 52% of Republicans have an unfavorable impression of Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority leader.

And when it comes to the country’s current and former occupants of the White House, 61% approve of how Biden is handling his job as president and most have a favorable impression of him and Vice President Harris.  A majority of Americans have a negative impression of Trump, while the public is closely divided about former Vice President Pence. 

While about the same number of Republicans and Democrats said America’s best days were in the future before November’s election, now two-thirds of Republicans are pessimistic about the future, while three-quarters of Democrats are optimistic.

The overwhelming majority believe the nation is deeply divided over its most important values. Only 11% think Americans are united on the most important values; before the election 14% said Americans were united. 

Looking forward, 36% expect the country to become less divided over the next five years, 33% think it will become even more divided, and 29% say things will stay the same.

The nationwide poll was conducted January 28-February 1, 2021 using the AmeriSpeak® Panel, the probability-based panel of NORC at the University of Chicago. Online and telephone interviews using landlines and cell phones were conducted with 1,055 adults. The margin of sampling error is +/- 3.8 percentage points.

  • Suggested Citation: AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.  (February, 2021).“Many Value Democratic Principles, but Few Think Democracy Is Working Well These Days.” [http://apnorc.org/projects/many-value-democratic-principles-but-few-think-democracy-is-working-well-these-days]

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