But Americans Say They’re Willing to Work on Coming Together

ST. LEO, FL – While a large majority of Americans (86.2 percent) say the nation is more divided than ever, most say they are willing to work to bridge that divide, according to a new Saint Leo University Polling Institute survey.

The 2021 poll was conducted online February 7-14, among 1,000 total respondents nationally. The resulting margin of error for the results is 3.0 percentage points in either direction. The institute completed a parallel study during the same time period in Florida among 500 respondents, and the resulting margin of error is 4.5 percentage points in either direction.

The 86.2 percent or respondents saying they somewhat or strongly agree that the nation is divided is the highest percentage recorded by the Saint Leo University Polling Institute (http://polls.saintleo.edu) since it first surveyed about division of the nation in 2017. It is reasonable to say that contributing factors to the current opinion level are the recent presidential election and the insurrection on January 6 at the nation’s Capitol, said Frank Orlando, director of the Saint Leo University Polling Institute and a political scientist.

Among respondents in Florida, where Saint Leo University is based, 83 percent say the nation is split—almost equal to the 83.8 percent who responded the same way in fall 2020. The percentage was the same, 83.8, in the national poll in 2020.

Yet, the Saint Leo poll shows a willingness to reach out to the other side. Two-thirds (67.3 percent) agree they would be willing to join others in building bridges with those they disagree with in their communities, the poll shows. In Florida, 68 percent say they somewhat or strongly agree that they would try to heal the divide.

However, 40.5 percent nationally and 41.8 percent of Florida respondents say they are “very optimistic” about reducing political discord.

“On the heels of the most chaotic and divisive transfer of power in memory, it’s not surprising that we’ve never registered such a high number of voters believing that we’re more divided than ever before. It’s also not surprising that the side that won the election is more optimistic about bridging the divide,” Orlando said, referring to the fact that 59.7 percent of Democrats report some level of optimism, compared to only 35.6 percent of Republicans and 29.6 percent of independents.

“While the temperature is turning down from the events of January 6,” Orlando added, “the optimism of finding common ground may dissipate as 2021 moves on and if no bipartisan solutions to our problems are found.”

Looking at the polling results from a somewhat different perspective, those who say they are liberal also expressed more optimism. “As compared to conservative (38 percent) and moderate (37 percent) perspectives, those who say they are liberal (52.5 percent) were more likely to express optimism for reducing political discord,” said Dr. Christopher Wolfe, associate professor of psychology and a Saint Leo University Polling Institute faculty expert. “It could be argued that as a philosophical perspective on culture/government, liberal ideologies are more in line with advocating for social change and inclusion,” thus liberals may perceive that a resolution to political and ideological differences is possible.

The poll shows 57.2 percent nationally and 55.2 percent of Florida respondents note they would be willing to attend a community forum or conversation designed to engage residents on reducing political discord.

Nearly one-half (47.7 percent) of those surveyed nationally say they would be willing to volunteer or donate to nonprofit organizations dedicated to reducing political discord in their communities. In Florida polling, the percentage is higher at 51.2 percent.

Acceptance of physical violence in demonstrations varies 

The poll asked whether physical violence during demonstrations is justified. One-fifth (20.1 percent) indicate they agree that at times it is warranted. When that question was asked in 2019, 15 percent agreed, somewhat or strongly, and another 20 percent agreed in the 2020 poll. The poll among Florida respondents echoed the national results with 15 percent, 22 percent, and 21 percent agreeing in 2019, 2020, and 2021 respectively.

Younger respondents were more likely to agree that physical violence can be justified, noted Wolfe, the psychology faculty expert, “Forty (40) percent of those ages 18 to 35 agree that physical violence during demonstrations is justifiable as compared to 28 percent of those 36 to 55 and only 7 percent of those 56 and older,” he said. “Clearly, there is a generational shift in perspectives toward violence and demonstrations.”

One explanation for that can could be found in development, Wolfe said. “In the age range of 18 to 35, there are still quite a few for whom the brain has yet to finish development,” he said. “In particular, the latest areas of the brain to develop and make strong connections are those related to judgment, reasoning, and considering long-term consequences.”

Those in the younger group may be more prone to rash and sometimes violent reactions when confronted with things that make them angry or even just uncomfortable, Wolfe said.

“Many in the younger cohort may just be learning of the injustice in the world,” Wolfe said. “The access to media—seeing other folk in their communities that look like them or with whom they can relate [during demonstrations and protests]—these factors have personalized the trauma for all age groups, but maybe not in the same way. With less experience, younger individuals may feel particularly threatened. These new ideas are often in conflict with their understandings from adolescence/childhood or their cultural/religious upbringing. Conflict feels like a threat and threats activate the body’s defense mechanisms, the sympathetic nervous system. This system prepares us for action; it boils our blood and makes us hot under the collar. The newness, the personal connection, the nature of the injustice, and the feeling of personal threat all supports a greater reliance of physical violence.”

As to the finding among the older groups, “Perhaps it does simply come down to getting a bit jaded as we get older,” Wolfe said. “It evokes a feeling of ‘been there, done that’ when it comes to the possible outrage at injustice that could fuel the younger generation’s acceptance of justifiable violence.”

In terms of race, 31 percent of Black respondents say violence is sometimes justified during demonstrations, while 27.6 percent of Hispanic respondents and 16.4 percent of white respondents agree.

“The question of whether or not violence can ever be morally justified has a long, storied history across human development,” said Wolfe, the psychology faculty member. “Many have embraced the perspective that violence can be justified in the effort to save one’s own life or the life of another usually with the caveat that the threat must be direct. History, however, has demonstrated time and again that violence can become the only means by which the oppressed can create change—the only avenue left for recourse to abuse.”

Wolfe further commented that oppression can be experienced in multiple ways. One is through the lack of opportunity to make change, meaning efforts to ask for change are blocked, he said. Another is through intimidating shows of force or aggressive action by law enforcement against people of color during some of the Black Lives Matter protests, as compared to “permissive” treatment in some cases of whites at the Capitol on January 6, he said.

Examining free speech

The Saint Leo poll also asked respondents if they agree that “not all free speech patterns should be protected,” and 51.2 percent nationally somewhat or strongly agree, compared to 47 percent in 2020, and 34.9 percent in 2019. Among Florida respondents, 48.8 percent say they agree. In 2020, 47 percent said not all speech should be protected, and 34.9 percent in 2019 agreed with the statement.

As compared to white polling respondents (49.8 percent) and Hispanic respondents (48.5 percent), more Black respondents (62 percent) endorse the idea that not all speech patterns should be protected in the United States.

Wolfe observed that, “The use of hateful speech in our society continues to be a problem with recent accounts of both politicians and cultural figures using racial slurs. In a similar vein; however, hateful speech has also found ways to ‘go mainstream’ and can be heard under thin veils of ‘white nationalism.’ Many decry efforts to ‘cancel’ their perspective and support the view that any opinion they might have should be protected or supported. In the political realm, efforts to incite a mob in an attack against the Capitol by our former president and members of his political party, have also been touted as protected speech.”

About the Poll

METHODOLOGY: This national survey was conducted from February 7, 2021, through February 14, 2021, 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.

The statewide survey was also conducted from February 7, 2021, through February 14, 2021, among a base of 500 respondents, using an online instrument. The sample has an associated margin of error of +/- 4.5 percent at a 95 percent confidence for questions asked of all 500 respondents.

The Saint Leo University Polling Institute conducts its surveys using cutting-edge online methodology, which is rapidly transforming the field of survey research. The sample is drawn from large online panels, which allow for random selections that reflect accurate cross sections of all demographic groups. Online methodology has the additional advantage of allowing participants to respond to the survey at a time, place, and speed that is convenient to them, which may result in more thoughtful answers. The Saint Leo University Polling Institute develops the questionnaires, administers the surveys, and conducts analysis of the results. Panel participants typically receive a token incentive—usually $1 deposited into an iTunes or Amazon account—for their participation.

The Saint Leo University Polling Institute survey results about national and Florida politics, public policy issues, Pope Francis’ popularity, and other topics, can also be found here: http://polls.saintleo.edu. You can also follow the institute on Twitter @saintleopolls.

Media contacts:

Mary McCoy, Saint Leo University, University Writer & Media Relations, mary.mccoy02@saintleo.edu, (352) 588-7118 or cell (813) 610-8416.

Jo-Ann Johnston, Saint Leo University, University Communications jo-ann.johnston@saintleo.edu or (352) 467-0843 (cell/text).   

About Saint Leo University

Saint Leo University is one of the largest Catholic universities in the nation, offering 57 undergraduate and graduate-level degree programs to more than 18,200 students each year. Founded in 1889 by Benedictine monks, the private, nonprofit university is known for providing a values-based education to learners of all backgrounds and ages in the liberal arts tradition. Saint Leo is regionally accredited and offers a residential campus in the Tampa Bay region of Florida, 16 education centers in five states, and an online program for students anywhere. The university is home to more than 98,000 alumni. Learn more at saintleo.edu.