America, divided on values, seeks authoritarian leader

This story appears in the Election 2016 feature series. View the full series.
Voters cast ballots in Cleveland as early absentee voting began Oct. 12 ahead of the Nov. 8 U.S. presidential election. (CNS/Reuters/Aaron Josefczyk)
Voters cast ballots in Cleveland as early absentee voting began Oct. 12 ahead of the Nov. 8 U.S. presidential election. (CNS/Reuters/Aaron Josefczyk)

by Thomas Reese

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The 2016 election has revealed divisions in the American public, but it has taken a poll to show just how deep and dangerous those divisions are. The survey reveals a divided nation with many people disillusioned with the American political system and desirous of a leader who is not afraid to break the rules to get things done.

“We should be scared by this,” acknowledges E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Brookings Institution. “And that points to some real problems in our system.”

These results come from the 2016 American Values Survey conducted by Public Religion Research Institute.

The divisions exist not only on partisan lines, but also on racial and class lines.

A majority (56 percent) of white Americans think that the American society and culture has gotten worse since the 1950s. They are very nostalgic about the past. Meanwhile, 62 percent of blacks and 57 percent of Hispanics think things have improved. For them, the 1950s is not an idealized period, but a time of discrimination and prejudice.

How you compare the past to the present is also influenced by class. Almost two-thirds of working-class Americans think the country is worse off, while 56 percent of college-educated Americans think things are better. Those with college educations are probably living better lives than their parents, whereas those without such an education may be see themselves slipping down the economic ladder from where their parents were.

Those with the dimmest view of American society and culture are Evangelical Protestants, 74 percent of whom think we were better off in the 1950s. For them, the 1950s was a time of stability, order, and good feeling when most of the country agreed with their values.  

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Public opinion on the state of the country has gotten worse in the last four years. Today, almost three quarters of Americans think the country is off on the wrong track, as compared to 57 percent who said this in 2012. This is true even though 53 percent of Americans think the President Barack Obama has done a good job as president.

The government gets the blame for making matters worse. “Nearly six in ten (57%) Americans say the decline in American manufacturing jobs was caused by government policies and poorly negotiated trade deals,” according to the PRRI report, “while only 37% blame globalization and technological advances.” Most economists believe exactly the opposite.

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The public's view of political parties is also quite negative. Sixty-one percent of Americans say that neither political party represents their views anymore. This is up from 48 percent saying that in 1990.

Confidence in the American political process is also at risk. Only 43 percent of the public have a great deal of confidence that their vote will be counted accurately.

Two-thirds of Republicans believe voter fraud is a bigger problem than voter disenfranchisement, but only 19 percent of Democrats believe the same. On the other hand, 62 percent of Democrats believe that eligible voters being denied access to the ballot is a bigger problem than vote fraud.

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A majority (57 percent) of Americans also believe that politics and elections are controlled by people with money and by big corporations so it doesn’t matter if they vote. Only 42 percent of Americans disagree.

The survey also found that Americans tend to interact in highly segregated circles where people of different parties do not mix.

“Three-quarters of black Americans (75%) and a majority of Hispanic Americans (56%),” reports the study, have “no close friend or family member who is supporting Trump, compared to only 24% of white Americans.” Likewise, 46 percent of white working-class Americans say they have no friends or family members supporting Hillary Clinton.

Nor do churches provide a place where people of different political views mix. “More than eight in ten (83%) Trump supporters who attend religious services at least weekly estimate that most of their fellow church members are supporting Trump,” explains the report. “Similarly, more than three-quarters (78%) of Clinton supporters who attend religious services at least weekly estimate that most of their fellow church members are supporting Clinton.”

This partisan segregation leads to partisan views about the nation being reinforced rather than challenged. As a result, it is not surprising that Democrats and Republicans have serious differences.

  • “Nearly three-quarters (73%) of Republicans report the growing number of newcomers threatens American customs and values,” according to PRRI, “while only 29% of Democrats say the same.”
  • Almost three-quarters of Republicans favor building a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, compared to only 38 percent of independents and 19 percent of Democrats.
  • Only a third of Democrats think police treat minorities and whites the same, as compared to 80 percent of Republicans.
  • Roughly eight in ten black Americans and 62 percent of Hispanic Americans reject the idea that police officers treat everyone the same. In contrast, nearly two-thirds of white Americans see police officers as evenhanded.

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Partisan gridlock and distrust of the political system are leading many Americans to see an authoritarian leader as the only way to get things done, which is what scares Dionne.  

A significant portion of the country (47 percent) agrees that “because things have gotten so far off track in this country, we need a leader who is willing to break some rules if that’s what it takes to set things right.” While 52 percent disagree, 47 percent is still a huge number who would like an authoritarian leader. A majority (55 percent) of Republicans want such a leader, while a majority (57 percent) of Democrats disagree.

“The racial divides on this question are fairly modest,” reports Robert Jones of PRRI, “but the class divides are very big. A majority (55 percent) of white working-class Americans agree with that statement, but only 29% of white college-educated Americans agree with that statement.”

Jones believes that a strong leader who promises to shake things up is attractive to “Americans who see a very non-responsive political system to their situation.” They feel the parties are not in tune with them, the government is not attune to them, nobody’s got their back.

Disagreements plus lack of confidence in the political system is a dangerous mix. It can lead to the election of an authoritarian leader who could ignore laws and constitutional procedures in order to get things done. Many democratic countries have turned to dictators when they despaired of political establishments willingness and ability to get things done. We saw this happen recently in the Philippines.

During the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt feared that if the New Deal failed, the country would turn either to Huey Long on the left or Douglas MacArthur on the right. The PRRI survey shows that as a country we are approaching a political precipice. If we do not change direction and restore confidence in the political process, we could go over.

Dionne suggests that if Clinton wins, she should go to areas of the country where Trump supporters predominate to show that she is concerned about their problems.

Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center agrees and stresses the importance of listening to those who feel excluded, who “find Trump’s authoritarian demeanor reassuring rather than frightening.”

“When people feel excluded from the normal processes and from a society,” says Olsen, “they will endorse extreme measures in order to ensure that they get part of that society.”

Today, lots of people feel excluded: Blacks, Hispanics, white evangelicals, and white men with less than a college education. All of them need to be included in the conversation about the future of America.

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is]


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