BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Democrats and Republicans have sharply contrasting views about the importance of a free press, an independent judiciary, the Bill of Rights and a potent Congress, according to a survey of public attitudes about political institutions and public affairs conducted by Indiana University's Center on Representative Government and Center on American Politics.
IU has been conducting its public opinion survey since 2007, and the annual effort is overseen by Distinguished Professor of Political Science Edward G. Carmines, the Warner O. Chapman Professor of Political Science and a Rudy Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences at IU Bloomington.
In the survey, conducted in late 2020, Republicans and Democrats expressed similar support for the checks and balances afforded by the three branches of U.S. government: 68 percent of Republicans and 73 percent of Democrats regarded checks and balances as very important.
But most survey findings exhibited several key differences in the opinions of Democrats and Republicans on issues concerning the influence of Congress in relation to the other main branches of U.S. government, as well as the media. For example:
- 25 percent of Republicans and 47 percent of Democrats said it is very important that the U.S. have a Congress with power equal to that of the president.
- 59 percent of Republicans and 67 percent of Democrats rated an independent judiciary as very important to America's representative government.
- 46 percent of Republicans and 57 percent of Democrats said it was very important to have "a Bill of Rights that guarantees the rights of a political minority."
- 57 percent of GOP respondents and 74 percent of Democratic respondents regarded a free and independent press as very important.
"At least when it comes to these aspects of American government, Democrats place more importance on them than Republicans," Carmines said. "The partisan difference is especially striking concerning a free and independent press."
The survey results did not indicate that Republicans value aspects of America's representative government less than Democrats. Instead, when respondents were asked about civil liberties, Republicans and Democrats shared different priorities.
In the abstract, Democrats were more convinced that the government should protect civil liberties.
- 76 percent of Democrats, compared to 66 percent of Republicans, felt it was very important that "all adult citizens enjoy the same legal and political rights."
- 85 percent of Democrats, versus 66 percent of Republicans, said it was very important that "all adult citizens have an equal opportunity to vote."
- 67 percent of Democrats, compared to 39 percent of Republicans, indicated it was very important that "government does not interfere with journalists or professional news organizations."
- 72 percent of Democrats, versus 51 percent of Republicans, indicated it was very important that "government protects individuals' right to engage in peaceful protest."
Republicans were more convinced that the government should protect unpopular speech and attitudes.
- 54 percent of Republicans, compared to 42 percent of Democrats, said it was very important that "government protects individuals' right to engage in unpopular speech and expression."
- 60 percent of Republicans, versus 38 percent of Democrats, indicated it was very important to America's representative government that "parties and candidates are not barred due to their political beliefs and ideologies."
Disagreements among the political parties may persist for the foreseeable future. Alongside their philosophical differences, Republicans and Democrats disagreed about the practical advantages of compromise.
When asked whether members of Congress should "compromise with their opponents to get something done" or "stand up for their principles no matter what," 73 percent of Democrats indicated they favored compromise, compared to 48 percent of Republicans who felt the same.
"It is noteworthy that Democrats and Republicans value different aspects of America's representative government," said Center on Representative Government founder Lee H. Hamilton, a former U.S. congressman from Indiana who served in the House of Representatives from 1965 to 1999.
These differences, Hamilton added, "may make it more difficult for Congress to reach negotiated compromises and instead may lead to legislative and policy gridlock."
Carmines said these results represent a disappointing departure from recent trends. Republicans and Democrats -- for the first time in 13 years of data collection -- appeared to agree that bipartisanship represented the best path forward in November 2019, when 58 percent of Republicans and 56 percent of Democrats said they supported compromise.
The survey findings are based on a nationwide survey of 1,000 respondents conducted in October and November 2020 by the internet polling firm YouGov. The questions were asked of 871 respondents who completed the post-election wave of the questionnaire.
About the Center on Representative Government:
The Center on Representative Government is a nonpartisan, educational institution that has developed an extensive array of free civics education resources and activities to improve the public's understanding of the role of representative government, to strengthen civic engagement, and to teach the skills that are essential to sustaining our form of representative democracy.