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Rooney Center survey reveals worries about American civil war, partisan divides

According to a new survey released by the University of Notre Dame’s Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy, about half of Democrats and one-third of Republicans believe that the United States is on the brink of a new civil war — numbers that Matthew E.K. Hall called “shockingly high.”

“I think these results highlight the extremely volatile nature of American politics in this era — especially the intense polarization that defines modern politics,” said Hall, who directs the Rooney Center.

The survey results demonstrated that Americans are profoundly concerned by the state of American democracy, though there are significant differences across party lines.

The Rooney Center facilitates research on American democracy and political institutions, as well as encouraging Notre Dame students to be engaged in civic and political life. Its programming includes weekly research workshops, a speaker series, graduate research grants and the Hesburgh Program in Public Service for undergraduates. The Center also oversees the Washington Program, a semester-long study abroad program that allows undergraduates to live, study and intern in Washington, D.C.

Hall said the survey is part of the Center’s efforts to understand “how much danger American democracy faces in the current climate, how we got here, and what can be done to protect our democracy.”

Survey respondents answered questions about voting rights, free speech and the “American way of life.” Courtesy of the Rooney Center

According to Hall, the Rooney Center contracted NORC, an independent, non-partisan research center based at the University of Chicago, to conduct the survey. The survey’s goal was to gauge support for core democratic values among the public.

Researchers surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,500 adults residing in the United States from Oct. 20 to Oct. 26, 2022.

Two key principles of American democracy — free speech and voting rights — provoked highly distinct answers from Republicans and Democrats.

Democrats tend to be more suspicious of free speech rights: 44% of survey respondents indicated that they believed government should be able to shut down media outlets if they spread disinformation. On the Republican side, 52% said this should never be allowed. On the other hand, 37.9% of Republicans disagreed with the statement, “Everyone should be allowed to vote.” This compares to just 13% of Independents and 6.7% of Democrats.

Republicans and Democrats also widely disagree on the 2020 election, according to the survey. Just under half of Republican survey respondents agreed that Joe Biden and his party “stole” the 2020 election. By contrast, 88% of Democrats disagreed with that statement.

About half of surveyed Republicans believe that there will be a substantial amount of election fraud in upcoming elections, demonstrating a deep mistrust in the stability of the American electoral system.

The survey from the Rooney center asked respondents about the 2020 election, future election fraud and the potential for another American civil war. Notably, the election fraud questions provoked very different answers from Democrats and Republicans. Courtesy of the Rooney Center

More questions and data from the survey will be released soon. However, Hall said that these results indicate that threats to democracy have never been more serious.

“Interestingly, Americans are not more divided over issues than they were in the past,” Hall said. “They simply feel more negativity toward members of the opposing political party than they did in the past.”

Given the recent midterm elections, the results of this survey are especially relevant. Hall previously said in a press release that the proceedings of the midterm elections are not necessarily anti-democratic, but they might install officials who could challenge American democracy in 2024.

“Students should understand that we are living in an unusual and—in some ways—unprecedented time in American politics. The traditional norms of our political discourse are fraying in important ways, fueled by polarization, misinformation, and distrust of institutions. And this situation poses a critical threat to our system of government,” Hall said.