united states divided

Saint Leo University Poll Shows Most Think Nation Remains Divided

PASCO COUNTY, Fla. – As the nation inches closer to Election Day, a new Saint Leo University Polling Institute survey examined several social issues affecting the country. As in 2019, the 2020 Saint Leo poll shows an overwhelming majority of respondents (83.8 percent) say the country is more divided than ever.

The Saint Leo University Polling Institute (http://polls.saintleo.edu) first surveyed about the division of the nation in 2017 and has returned to the topic several times. The 2020 poll was conducted online from September 27 through October 2, among 1,000 total respondents nationally.

Poll respondents were asked their opinions about racial justice and divisions, and if they strongly agreed, somewhat agreed, somewhat disagreed, or strongly disagreed. The following table shows the cumulative totals over five polling years for those strongly and somewhat agreeing with test statements on key issues.

Statements2016 – %2017 – %2018 – %2019 – %2020 – %
We are more divided as a nation than ever before82.180.182.083.8
I see democracy slipping away in the United States65.268.368.475.3
At times, physical violence during demonstrations is justified17.518.615.022.0
At times, property damage during demonstrations is justified14.317.313.219.0
Not all free speech patterns should be protected35.542.234.947.0
I support the Black Lives Matter movement38.450.152.9
Confederate symbols such as statues, plaques or memorabilia should be removed from public areas42.144.4
Retaining Confederate history is important59.964.6

 “Clearly, our country has experienced multiple fractures regarding our feelings toward politics, science, and religion but perhaps the most striking ones have been those related to our views on race,” said Dr. Christopher Wolfe, associate professor of psychology at Saint Leo. “Protest and counterprotest has been associated with both physical violence and property damage at several points over the past year.”

Saint Leo’s polling shows agreement increased since 2019 for two statements:

● At times, physical violence during demonstrations is justified—up to 22.0 percent from 15.0 percent, and,

● At times, property damage during demonstrations is justified—up to 19.0 percent from 13.2 percent.

“Across multiple comparisons, from sex to religion to political party, most respondents did not believe that physical violence or property damage was justified; only around one-fifth of respondents agree that these actions could be justified in the context of demonstrations,” Wolfe said. But one comparison group, however, did demonstrate significant variability. 

Respondents within the 18 to 44 age range were just over 2.5 times more likely (38.6 percent) to endorse that physical violence was justified than respondents in the 45 to 64 (14.8 percent) range or 65 and older (13.8 percent) range. Similarly, respondents ages 18 to 44 were more likely to agree that property damage was justified (36.3 percent) three times more often than respondents 45 to 64 (11.7 percent) and four times more likely than 65 and older respondents (9.6 percent). “There is a clear difference exhibited by generation/age around the nature of justified reactions in the midst of demonstrations,” Wolfe said.

“Trying to disentangle the nature of ‘justified’ is a broad question,” Wolfe noted about the polling results. “The generational difference, however, represents a different lens on the issue. Members of this younger generation—encompassing Gen X, Gen Z, and millennials—are often remarked upon for their differences from prior generations. Though the comparisons have been both good and bad, one clear takeaway is that this younger generation both sees and acts differently in the world, often in ways that break accepted norms in society.”

Wolfe said the younger generations through their use of technology have been able to easily view how other countries respond to societal issues, and they have never known a country that is not in conflict in some manner. “They were reared in a world where force is often the avenue to change,” he said. “Leaders that once called for change through non-violence and where the few could be heard, are replaced by the voices of the many in the collective hive mind of social media. Messages once spoken are supplanted by scrolls from trolls—curated thought and snippet images conveying at best only one view of the issue.” 

The Black Lives Matter movement was established in 2013 following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death Trayvon Martin, an African-American teen. When Saint Leo polled about support for BLM in 2016, support was low at 38.4 percent. Black Lives Matter and protesting was in the news in 2016 when NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem to protest death of Blacks and police brutality. He has said he was protesting the 2015 slaying of Mario Woods by San Francisco police.

While in 2016 the support for the movement was low, support increased in 2017 to 50.1 percent and slightly more in 2020 at 52.9 percent.

“I do think it is interesting that these particular results show not much difference between 2017 and 2020 in terms of popular support for Black Lives Matter,” said Dr. Eileen O’Brien, professor of sociology and associate chair of Saint Leo’s Department of Social Sciences. “There is plenty of news/framing circulating out there that says BLM is a terrorist, socialist, anti-family organization.”

O’Brien suggested that a better question is to ask Americans if they think racism is still a problem.

The most recent poll did ask respondents if racial injustice concerns were among the issues that are important to them in their voting in the November 2020 elections. Out of 12 issues, racial injustice was ranked eighth with 53.1 percent of all poll respondents and 54.2 percent among likely voters.

With 83.8 percent of those polled saying that the nation is more divided, that may be the one opinion nearly everyone holds.

“Almost everyone agrees we are divided,” O’Brien said. “That is the only thing that seems to ring true for all. The interesting next question would be: What do people perceive as the source of that divide? Because if we can somehow get to agreeing on that, too, then maybe we can go to the source!”

About the Poll

METHODOLOGY: This national survey was conducted from September 27 through October 2, among a base of 1,000 respondents nationally, using an online instrument. The national sample has an associated margin of error of +/- 3.0 percent at a 95 percent confidence for questions asked of all 1,000 respondents.

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