National Survey: Sharp Partisan Divide on American Institutions

  • October 02, 2017
  • by Charles Babington

Pew Research Center survey finds Republicans increasingly say colleges—and media— are harmful to the nation.

A college degree may remain a goal of millions of Americans, but higher education’s overall reputation as a positive force in the country has suffered among conservatives.

Nearly 3 in 5 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (58 percent) now say colleges and universities have a negative impact “on the way things are going in the country.” That’s a significant increase from last year, when 45 percent held that view, and from two years ago, when only 37 percent did.

Higher education isn’t the only place where the left and right diverge: Liberals’ and conservatives’ views of the national news media are moving in opposite directions. An overwhelming majority of Republicans (and GOP-leaners)—85 percent—say the news media negatively affect the way things are going in the country, while the media’s reputation has risen lately in the eyes of Democrats (and Democratic-leaners).

These are among the findings in a new national survey by the Pew Research Center, which adds to a portrait of a nation starkly divided between left and right, with less overlap than in years past.

The survey’s most striking findings involve higher education’s reputation as either a positive or negative influence on society. In only two years, colleges’ and universities’ image among Republicans has flipped, going from mostly positive to clearly negative. Two years ago, 54 percent of these adults said colleges had a positive effect on the way things were going (while 37 percent said it was negative). Last year, the division was nearly even (43 percent positive, 45 percent negative). But in the new survey, only 36 percent of Republicans see colleges’ impact as positive.

“It’s a really dramatic change in a short period of time,” says Carroll Doherty, the center’s director of political research. The partisan divide over higher education’s impact on society, he says, is now almost as dramatic as the long-recognized divide over the news media’s role.

In contrast to Republicans, most Democrats (72 percent) say colleges and universities have a positive effect, which is little changed from recent years. Only 19 percent of Democrats say the impact is negative.

Analysts offered a variety of interpretations of the survey results. David Andersen, a political scientist at Iowa State University, says there’s “a growing sense of anti-intellectualism and an anti-elite strain within the Republican Party,” citing doubt about scientific data on climate change as an example. Samuel Abrams, a politics professor at Sarah Lawrence College, disagrees, saying Republicans are not more anti-intellectual than in previous years and pointing to what he sees as the increasing dominance on campuses of liberal faculty members, students, and ideology. Too many colleges, Abrams says, “have become liberal, intolerant places for ideas.”

The findings come from a Pew Research Center survey conducted in mid-June of 2,504 adults that probed partisan views of five major institutions: labor unions; churches and religious organizations; banks and financial institutions; the national news media; and colleges and universities. Pollsters asked whether each of these has a positive or negative effect “on the way things are going in the country.”

Democrats remain more likely than Republicans to view labor unions positively, 59 to 33 percent. Larger shares of Republicans have positive views of churches and religious institutions (73 percent of Republicans, 50 percent of Democrats), and of banks and financial institutions (46 percent of Republicans, 33 percent of Democrats).

Here’s a more detailed look at the findings.

Trust Magazine Fall 2017

Colleges and universities

The shift in survey results this year marks the first time since the center began asking the question in 2010 that most Republicans say colleges and universities have a negative impact on events in America—a sentiment even more pronounced among strong conservatives.

Since 2015, positive views of colleges’ and universities’ impact on the country have fallen 11 percentage points among Republicans with at least a college degree (from 44 to 33 percent). The drop was more dramatic among Republicans without a college degree, whose positive views of colleges’ and universities’ impact on the country have dropped 20 points (from 57 to 37 percent).

And perhaps counterintuitively, Republicans with higher incomes (which often correlate with more education) are less likely to see colleges and universities as a plus for society. Only 31 percent of Republicans in households earning at least $75,000 annually say colleges have a positive impact on the way things are going, compared with 46 percent of those in households earning less than $30,000.

That’s not to say Republicans don’t see a college degree as an asset. In a 2016 survey by the center, most Republicans said colleges help prepare people for good jobs. Moreover, most Republican college graduates—like their Democratic counterparts—said their own college experience was valuable for developing workplace skills.

Younger Republicans continue to express more positive views of colleges than do older Republicans. But the share of Republicans under age 50 who view colleges positively has fallen 21 points since 2015 (from 65 to 44 percent) while declining 15 points among those 50 and older (43 to 28 percent.)

National news media

Only 10 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaners say the news media have a positive effect on the country. Meanwhile, the share of Democrats holding a positive view of the news media’s impact has increased 11 percentage points since August 2016. Doherty calls it the biggest shift since Pew began polling on this question.

Still, about as many Democrats say the news media have a positive impact on the country (44 percent) as say there is a negative impact (46 percent).

Churches and religious organizations

Public views of the impact of churches and religious organizations on the country have changed little in recent years. Most Americans (59 percent) say these institutions have a positive impact. This includes 73 percent of Republicans and 50 percent of Democrats.

Liberal Democrats are about evenly divided on the question: 44 percent negative, 40 percent positive. By big margins, however (58 percent positive, 29 percent negative), conservative and moderate Democrats see churches as a social good.

Banks and other financial institutions

Among U.S. adults, more view the impact of banks and other financial institutions negatively (46 percent) than positively (39 percent). But positive views are considerably higher among Republicans.

By 46 to 37 percent, more Republicans say banks and financial institutions have a positive rather than negative effect on the country. Positive Republican views are up 7 percentage points since 2016. This is the first time in surveys dating to 2010 that GOP views of the impact of financial institutions have been more positive than negative.

Labor unions

Nearly half of American adults (47 percent) say labor unions have a positive impact; about a third view them negatively. While support is stronger among Democrats, positive views among Republicans are up 6 percentage points since 2016 and are above lows reached in 2010, in the economic recession’s wake.

Among Democrats, those with less education are less likely to see unions’ impact as positive. Only about half of Democrats with no more than a high school diploma (53 percent) say labor unions have a positive effect on the country, in contrast with 66 percent of Democrats with postgraduate degrees.

By contrast, Republicans with less education are more likely than those with higher levels of educational attainment to see unions’ impact as positive.