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Democrats struggle to fathom how Republicans seem to so casually dismiss the events of Jan. 6, 2021; Republicans think Democrats are obsessed with that day.
Some of the reasons for both reactions lie in the results of a recent poll by the Wason Center for Civic Leadership at Christopher Newport University. Yesterday I wrote about the part of the poll dealing with education. Today I’ll examine the rest of it, much of which deals with the nature of our politically polarized society.
It doesn’t take a poll to tell us that we’re deeply divided, although this poll does shed some light on just how and why.
The nature of what happened on Jan. 6, 2021, is a good example. The survey asked: “When it comes to the events on Jan. 6th, when a crowd stormed the U.S. Capitol and disrupted the election certification process, which of the following statements best reflects your thoughts?” Notice that the question specifically deals with the violent storming of the Capitol, not the peaceful rally that preceded it.
Virginia Democrats and Republicans see this event in very different ways.
The most common Republican response — by 39% of Republicans — was that “it was a political protest protected under the First Amendment.”
The most common Democratic response — by 94% of Democrats — was that “it was an insurrection and a threat to democracy.” Only 3% of Democrats buy that “it was a political protest protected under the First Amendment.”
Now it seems fair to wonder how Republicans might feel if that had been a mob of antifa or Black Lives Matter protesters storming the Capitol. Would that still be “a political protest protected under the First Amendment”? I suspect the party of law and order might not have such an expansive view of First Amendment rights in that case. There’s no comparable question asking about, say, the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd and led to Confederate statues being toppled. I’d be curious to see the party split on that, although I’d be willing to wager that there, Democrats would be more forgiving, even supportive, while Republicans would be more critical. We don’t have that question, though.
But we do have this: 31% of Republicans in this CNU poll say that Jan. 6 “was an unfortunate event but in the past, so no need to worry about it anymore.” That was the second most common Republican response. By contrast, only 2% of Democrats feel that way.
Independents fall somewhere in the middle, as they often do on surveys, but they generally lean more toward the Democratic point of view here: 58% of independents said Jan. 6 “was an insurrection and a threat to democracy.” This is why Democrats are likely to keep talking about Jan. 6 — aside from their core belief that this was a dire threat to democracy, it also seems to be good politics.
One other thing worth noting here: 21% of Republicans agree that Jan. 6 was “an insurrection and a threat to democracy.” That was the least common Republican answer, but throughout this poll we see a significant minority of Republicans at odds with their partymates on many questions. Let’s get to those.
There is one thing that Democrats, Republicans and independents all agree on: “Political hostility and divisiveness between Republicans and Democrats” will only get worse. That’s what 66% of Republicans say, that’s what 62% of Democrats say, that’s what 60% of independents say. We are at least united on something.
The problem, though, is that the parties disagree on who’s to blame, with each quite predictably blaming the other.
For instance, 73% of Republicans say that left-wing extremism is “a major problem” while 83% of Democrats say that right-wing extremism fits that description.
Independents are fed up with both, although they’re more worried about right-wing extremism than left-wing extremism: 67% of independents say right-wing extremism is a major problem, while 54% of independents say left-wing extremism is. We don’t know if those are the same people but it’s easy to picture 54% of independents being concerned about both sides and then 13% being concerned about right-wing extremism but not left-wing extremism. This roughly mirrors independents’ view of Jan. 6, 2021, too.
The challenge here is defining extremism. The poll doesn’t, so it’s up to respondents to define it in their way. For the left-wing extremism that they’re concerned about, do conservatives mean antifa or Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? For the right-wing extremism that they’re worried about, do liberals mean white supremacists marching through Charlottesville or the Club for Growth wanting to repeal the estate tax? We don’t know.
One curiosity: There is a sizable minority in each party that’s concerned about extremism on their own side. Among Democrats, 35% say left-wing extremism is “a major problem” while 38% of Republicans say the same about right-wing extremism. In fact, that was the most common Republican answer about right-wing extremism, just ahead of 37% calling it “a minor problem” and more than the 20% who said it’s “not a problem.” Based on that, Republicans seem somewhat more concerned about right-wing extremism than Democrats are about left-wing extremism. The most common Democratic answer — by 40% — was that left-wing extremism is only “a minor problem.” Those are small differences, perhaps explainable by the poll’s margin of error, but still, the big picture point is that more than one-third of each party worries about ideologues on their own side.
Here is why there’s likely to never be any compromise on gun laws: 93% of Democrats say they should be more strict; 53% of Republicans say they’re about right — and 23% more say they should be less strict. There’s not much room for middle ground.
A caution for Republicans: Independents generally agree with Democrats — 56% of independents say gun laws should be more strict.
Republicans are also more likely to own guns, with 73% saying someone in their household owns a gun. Only 34% of Democrats say they own a gun. This is no doubt why the debate over gun laws gets so emotional: When Democrats want to restrict gun ownership, Republicans feel it’s a personal restriction on them.
The other breakdowns shouldn’t surprise anyone, either. Democrats feel if there were more guns in society, there would be more crime — 62% feel this way. Republicans don’t — only 10% of Republicans feel more guns would lead to more crime while 38% say there would be less and 49% say it wouldn’t make any difference. Independents are split but tend more toward the Republican line of thinking: 34% of independents say more guns would lead to more crime; 37% say it would make no difference.
Likewise, when asked about mass shootings, 75% of Democrats say stricter gun laws would lead to fewer such events while 63% of Republicans say they would make no difference. That’s why a mass shooting is unlikely to sway Republican lawmakers to pass any new laws: They don’t think new laws would do anything. Among independents, 44% say stricter gun laws would reduce the number of mass shootings, so once again, they’re in the middle, but closer to Republicans than Democrats.
Should teachers and other school staff be armed? Once again, a predictable partisan split: 83% of Democrats are opposed or strongly opposed; 72% of Republicans support or strongly support this. On this question, independents tilt more toward the Democratic side — 53% oppose arming teachers, 39% support the idea.
Finally, the part of the survey that fascinated me the most: questions about where people get their news. The questions aren’t specific enough for my taste.
The five most common sources of “political and election news”:
National network television: 19%
Social media: 18%
News websites or apps: 16%
Local television: 15%
Cable television: 15%
Then there was a big gap between those numbers and the next most common source; both radio and print media came in at 6%.
This is revealing — social media now outranks many other sources of news — but is also flawed. The survey doesn’t ask what level of political and election news we’re talking about. National? State? Local? National networks sure aren’t covering your local school board election.
Social media is undoubtedly where a lot of people get their news but social media isn’t generating any news; it’s only a platform where somebody else’s news gets shared. There’s no Facebook News Network. Likewise, those news websites that come at 16% might be online-only sites such as Cardinal News, or they might be news organizations that publish in a variety of formats, both print and online, such as newspapers. When people ask me whether newspapers are dying, I always point out the distinction between a news organization and its delivery mechanism. Yes, print is declining, but virtually every newspaper has a website so to say that print media ranks only 6% only covers some of the people that legacy newspapers are reaching. What is clear is that television is a big source of political information, to which I always tell people: Turn it off. Cable television networks and over-the-air television networks are great to turn to for breaking news, but if you want in-depth coverage of politics, that’s not where you’ll find it.
The followup question asks about specific news organizations. The eight most frequent sources of political and election news:
Fox News 20%
Local television station 7%
National Public Radio 7%
NBC News 6%
The Washington Post 5%
No other source raised higher than 3%. “Local newspaper” came in at a meager 2%.
These answers tell me that when people refer to political and election news, they’re primarily talking about national news, because that’s what most of these outlets above are covering. So where are people getting local political news? Or are they consuming that at all? The results don’t say but if you wonder why even local elections are getting nationalized, this answer might be revealing — that seems to be the prism through which people are seeing the world. Neither Tucker Carlson nor Rachel Maddow is going to tell you about what your local city council or board of supervisors is doing in your name.
We also don’t know what that 11% for “other” is — that’s a big percentage, relative to other sources. No doubt it’s a lot of things. I also notice that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and “other social media” get 2% apiece — that’s a total of 8% of people citing social media, more than any specific source other than Fox News and CNN. But once again, social media doesn’t produce its own news. So what news sources are people getting via social media? This could be anything from legacy newspapers sending out their links, to online sites such as ours, to crazy conspiracy sites left or right. If we combine that unclear social media figure with the unknown “other,” then that’s 19% of people getting their news through, well, we don’t know where, exactly, but it rivals the Fox News consumption and trumps CNN (no pun intended). This is how the world is changing — and not necessarily for the better.
The survey asks what impact that “misinformation spread through social or mainstream media” has on society. We don’t have cross-tabs available but the numbers suggest broad agreement across the political spectrum because 79% of those said that misinformation increases hate crimes and 82% said it increases “extreme political views.”
So the way I read this is that we all know social media is bad for us — but we’re all on there anyway.