Tag Archives: Pew

Bubbles

The current, extreme polarization of the American public obviously cannot be attributed to any one cause. Differences in race, religion, gender, education, culture, experience– all of those things contribute to the way any particular individual sees the world.

But if I were pressed to identify a single culprit–a single source of today’s dysfunction–I would have to point a finger at our fragmented “Wild West” information environment. And research supports that accusation.

Americans are divided – that much is obvious after a contentious presidential election and transition, and in the midst of a politicized pandemic that has prompted a wide range of reactions.

But in addition to the familiar fault line of political partisanship, a look back at Pew Research Center’s American News Pathways project finds there have consistently been dramatic divides between different groups of Americans based on where people get their information about what is going on in the world.

Pew’s Pathway Project found–unsurprisingly–that Republicans who looked to former President Donald Trump for their news were more likely to believe false or unproven claims about the pandemic and the election.

And while Americans widely agree that misinformation is a major problem, they do not see eye to eye about what actually constitutes misinformation. In many cases, one person’s truth is another’s fiction.

The Pathways project explored Americans’ news habits and attitudes, and traced how those habits influenced what they believed to be true. The project focused on claims about the Coronavirus and the 2020 election; it drew its conclusions from 10 different surveys conducted on Pew’s American Trends Panel, a nationally representative panel of U.S. adults. Each survey consisted of about 9,000 or more U.S. adults, so the “n” (as researchers like to call the number of people participating in any particular study) was sufficient to produce very reliable results.

Over the course of the year, as part of the project, the Center published more than 50 individual analyses and made data from more than 580 survey questions available to the public in an interactive data tool. We now have the opportunity to look back at the findings over the full course of the year and gather together the key takeaways that emerged.

The report that did emerge can be accessed at the link. It explored key findings in five separate areas: evidence pointing to media “echo chambers” on the left and the right, and the identity and characteristics of the Americans who consistently turned to those echo chambers: Trump’s role as a source of news;  Americans’ concerns about and views of what constitutes misinformation; the distinctive characteristics of Americans who rely on social media for their news; and a final chapter tracing changes in these beliefs and attitudes over time.

The entire report is nuanced and substantive, as is most research from Pew, but the “take away” is obvious: Americans today occupy information “bubbles” that allow them to inhabit wildly different realities.

This most recent study builds on what most thoughtful Americans have come to recognize over the past few years, and what prior studies have documented. One study that has received wide dissemination found that watching only Fox News made people less Informed than those who watched no news at all. The study found NPR and the Sunday morning television shows to be most informative.

There are fact-checking sites, and media bias sites that rate the reliability of news sources–but these sources are only useful when people access them. Ideologues of the Left and Right, who engage in confirmation bias, rarely do.

The Pew study builds on a number of others, and together they pose a critical question: since the law cannot draw a line between propaganda and truth without eviscerating the First Amendment, how do we overcome the vast informational trust chasm that the Internet has generated?

What Women Want

Less than one week to go…Polls suggest that the gender gap will be decisive.

Speaking of the “women’s vote,” on the hundredth anniversary of the expansion of the franchise to women, Pew fielded a survey to see just where we females see the movement for gender equality–how far have we come, and how far do we still have to go?

Among those who think the country still has work to do in achieving gender equality, 77% point to sexual harassment as a major obstacle to women having equal rights with men. Fewer, but still majorities, point to women not having the same legal rights as men (67%), different societal expectations for men and women (66%) and not enough women in positions of power (64%) as major obstacles to gender equality. Women are more likely than men to see each of these as a major obstacle.

Many of those who say it is important for men and women to have equal rights point to aspects of the workplace when asked about what gender equality would look like. Fully 45% volunteer that a society where women have equal rights with men would include equal pay. An additional 19% say there would be no discrimination in hiring, promotion or educational opportunities. About one-in-ten say women would be more equally represented in business or political leadership.

I look at the charts and graphs that put numbers to these observations, and I certainly have no disagreement with the essential observations. Women are still not treated as equal in either business or political life, and the obstacles are pretty much what is portrayed.

Maybe it’s because I’m old, or maybe it’s because my own insights have been formed by personal experience–I was among an early cohort that deviated from traditional expectations for women– but I think achieving genuine equality is more complicated than such surveys suggest. Modern laws and fair-minded judges will only take us so far (and needless to say, we’re having enough trouble achieving that).

Social change is slow and difficult.

Science and technology have been huge contributors to a world in which women can be equal. It is hard to overstate the impact of the birth control pill, for example; when women could reliably control their reproduction, they were suddenly free to enter the working world. It was no longer necessary to choose between motherhood (or a sex life) and a career. You could plan for both. Meanwhile, technology has remade the world of work, making brute strength far less important than mental acuity, and opening  new career possibilities for which women’s skills were well-adapted.

Social acceptance of these changes has been much slower than the changes themselves. When I graduated from law school, male attorneys were reluctantly adjusting to the newfangled emergence of what many called “lady lawyers.” Retail establishments and banks were still limiting the extension of credit to “male breadwinners.”  Social expectations ingrained over generations don’t turn on a dime.

Some people welcome change. Most don’t. My students, who have grown up in a world no longer dominated exclusively by white Christian males have a very different approach to gender equality (not to mention racial equality and sexual orientation) than the old white men who were socialized in a very different time.

White men now in their 70s and 80s were born into a world that promised them a certain status, and a significant number of them–thankfully, not all– deeply resent the “uppity” women and minorities who they believe have denied them their rightful place atop society. Their misogyny gave us Donald Trump, among other things.

That generation is dying off, and my granddaughters live in a much more equal world than the one in which I grew up. It isn’t perfect, but it’s much better.

Recognizing that attitude change is generational is certainly no reason to accept discriminatory laws, or to shrug off offensive sexual behaviors, or to stop pushing for fundamental gender fairness.

On the other hand, keeping our expectations realistic helps keep our blood pressure down.

Meanwhile, we need to vote!

 

Speaking Of Christianity…

Yesterday’s post was about the ongoing effort of Christian culture-warriors to maintain their privileged position in American society–their insistence that the laws of the land reflect their particular theological perspectives.

That effort is nothing new. What is new is their diminished percentage of the American population. A recent study by Pew was headlined “Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace.”

In Pew Research Center telephone surveys conducted in 2018 and 2019, 65% of American adults describe themselves as Christians when asked about their religion, down 12 percentage points over the past decade. Meanwhile, the religiously unaffiliated share of the population, consisting of people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” now stands at 26%, up from 17% in 2009.

Both Protestantism and Catholicism are experiencing losses of population share. Currently, 43% of U.S. adults identify with Protestantism, down from 51% in 2009. And one-in-five adults (20%) are Catholic, down from 23% in 2009. Meanwhile, all subsets of the religiously unaffiliated population – a group also known as religious “nones” – have seen their numbers swell. Self-described atheists now account for 4% of U.S. adults, up modestly but significantly from 2% in 2009; agnostics make up 5% of U.S. adults, up from 3% a decade ago; and 17% of Americans now describe their religion as “nothing in particular,” up from 12% in 2009. Members of non-Christian religions also have grown modestly as a share of the adult population.

The Pew study found that both belief and observance had declined; attendance at religious services is down, especially among younger respondents, reflecting what the report called a “generation gap.” Some forty percent of Millennials are “nones.”

Given the fact that it is evangelical Protestants, rather than members of mainline denominations, who have been most likely to demand prayer in public schools, attempt to post religious texts on public buildings, and protest laws protective of LGBTQ citizens, I was particularly interested in the following:

The share of U.S. adults who are white born-again or evangelical Protestants now stands at 16%, down from 19% a decade ago. The shrinking white evangelical share of the population reflects both demographic changes that have occurred in the United States (where white people constitute a declining share of the population) and broader religious changes in American society (where the share of all adults who identify with Christianity has declined).

The survey reported demographic information only, and didn’t get into motivations, but in addition to the normal historical ebb and flow of religious fervor, it seems likely that the embrace of Donald Trump by evangelicals has repelled people–especially young people. An article by Peter Wehner in the Atlantic makes a point that others have echoed.

The enthusiastic, uncritical embrace of President Trump by white evangelicals is among the most mind-blowing developments of the Trump era. How can a group that for decades—and especially during the Bill Clinton presidency—insisted that character counts and that personal integrity is an essential component of presidential leadership not only turn a blind eye to the ethical and moral transgressions of Donald Trump, but also constantly defend him? Why are those who have been on the vanguard of “family values” so eager to give a man with a sordid personal and sexual history a mulligan?

Wehner worries about the likely consequences of that blatant hypocrisy, a worry that other evangelicals share.

While on the Pacific Coast last week, I had lunch with Karel Coppock, whom I have known for many years and who has played an important role in my Christian pilgrimage. In speaking about the widespread, reflexive evangelical support for the president, Coppock—who is theologically orthodox and generally sympathetic to conservatism—lamented the effect this moral freak show is having, especially on the younger generation. With unusual passion, he told me, “We’re losing an entire generation. They’re just gone. It’s one of the worst things to happen to the Church.”

For years, these “pious” Christians have mounted assaults on separation of church and state. They have insisted that laws should favor their beliefs; they take as a given their right to dominate the culture. They continue to diminish and stigmatize those they label “sinners,” and fight even modest efforts to recognize the equal civic status of those others.

I’m sorry for people like Wehner who truly “walked the walk” and are helplessly watching their co-religionists betray their faith. But I’m not at all sorry that many more Americans have now seen–and rejected– the hypocrisy concealed behind a curtain of false piety.

 

 

The Sixty-Four Thousand Dollar Question

Older readers may recall a quiz show that built to a finale in which the prize was $64,000. During the time the show was popular, when a difficult question would come up in conversation, someone was likely to say “Well, that’s the 64,000 dollar question!”

I thought of that when I read the results of several recent polls showing a majority of Americans disapproving of Donald Trump–with 46% disapproving strongly. (Obama’s “strong disapproval” never approached that number.)

Pew, of course, is the gold standard of polling. Daily Kos recently reproduced Pew’s poll, and its demographic breakout of approvals/disapprovals;  the breakout prompts me to ask that $64,000 question:

Now it’s clear that there’s a dramatic racial divide in our nation’s politics, but there’s a dramatic difference among whites based on whether they have a college degree or not:

                                        APPROVE      DISAPPROVE
WHITE                                51              48
BLACK                                12              80
HISPANIC                          25              72
WHITE, COLLEGE           38              61
WHITE, NO-COLLEGE    57             41

And that white, non-college-educated cohort is Trump’s firewall. He’ll bleed support among all those other groups, but there’s relatively not much room to drop. So if he’s going to end up in the low 30s or even high 20s, very possibly within six months, it’ll be because non-college whites start abandoning him. And if Trump loses those guys, there’s nothing else propping up the GOP. And 2018 will be a political bloodbath.

The question is obvious: What will it take to erode Trump’s support among the non-college-educated whites who still support him? What is it that they see that appeals to them? The easy answer–which may or may not be the correct answer–is that he has given them someone to blame for their discontents, “others” who can be held responsible for whatever economic or social injustices they experience. African-Americans, Mexicans, Jews, immigrants, elitists….

If that is, in fact, the basis of their approval, we may wait a long time for them to realize that his policies will deepen, rather than ameliorate, their distress. If there is one thing Trump is good at, it is blaming others for his own missteps and deficits; if the economic condition of those voters declines (as it is likely to do, given the policies that he and his cabinet choices embrace–policies that will benefit the well-off at the expense of the working poor), he will blame Congress for failing to pay billions for his wall, or the courts for failing to keep “those people” out, or the media for actually reporting what he says and does.

There’s an old saying to the effect that people cannot reason themselves out of positions they didn’t reason themselves into in the first place. There was no coherent, logical, reality-based argument for supporting Trump, and overwhelming evidence that he was monumentally unfit for the Oval Office. What will it take to weaken Trump’s support among those who voted for him because they hated Hillary,or would never vote for a woman, or because they thought wealth implied competence, or because they resented having had a black President, or because they always voted for the Republican?

How long will they continue to shrug off the mounting evidence of corruption and dangerous ineptitude as “fake news”? Will they convince themselves that the Russians are really nice guys, and Trump’s cozy relationship with Putin is no big deal? How embarrassing will his behavior have to get in order for them to recognize his mental instability?

What, exactly, will it take?

Canaries in the Coal Mine

Historically—or so we are told—miners tested the breathability of the air in mines by releasing a canary into the space. If the canary continued to fly and look healthy, the air was safe; if the bird died, it wasn’t.

Recently, Pew Research published findings about the millennials who are, for all intents and purposes, our American canaries. As we older citizens die out, the values, fears and ambitions of the millennial generation will determine the direction of the country.

Pew announced six “key takeaways” about this generation. Some were unsurprising: this is a financially burdened generation, largely as a result of student loan debt; as a result, fewer millennials are married than previous cohorts at the same age. They are also the most racially diverse generation thus far.

Two of the characteristics found by Pew deserve special “canary” status.

First,

Millennials have fewer attachments to traditional political and religious institutions, but they connect to personalized networks of friends, colleagues and affinity groups through social and digital media. Half of Millennials now describe themselves as political independents and 29% are not affiliated with any religion—numbers that are at or near the highest levels of political and religious disaffiliation recorded for any generation in the last quarter-century.

My discussions with students in this age cohort anecdotally support this conclusion—and suggest that the public behaviors and pronouncements of political and religious figures is one significant reason they reject those institutions. My students are repulsed by the use of religious or patriotic language in service of discrimination and generally hateful behaviors; rather than rejecting the specific individuals or organizations guilty of such behaviors, they tend to develop a “pox on all of you” attitude.

But a less obvious finding also casts considerable light on the institutionally detached status of this generation:

Millennials are less trusting of others than older Americans are. Asked a long-standing social science survey question, “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people,” just 19% of Millennials say most people can be trusted, compared with 31% of Gen Xers, 37% of Silents and 40% of Boomers.

This really troubling absence of trust manifests itself in a number of ways: millennials don’t expect Social Security to be there for them, for example (although, interestingly, they oppose proposals to cut benefits for current recipients). Their lack of trust in a wide variety of social institutions helps explain their rejection of political and religious identification, their pervasive skepticism about media information sources, and their increased reliance on friends and colleagues.

Assuming these findings continue to hold, what does this “canary” generation tell us about America’s future?

One the one hand, greater diversity and tolerance—together with rejection of dogma and partisanship—bodes well. This generation is likely to reject racism and address the glaring flaws in the criminal justice system, likely to welcome immigrants, likely to scorn anti-LGBT bias.

On the other hand, participation in a democratic polity requires at least a minimal level of trust—trust that the information one receives is credible, trust that the operations of government are mostly fair and ethical, trust that one’s fellow citizens are basically well-intentioned. Without that trust, without social capital, societies cannot function.

The canary isn’t dead. But it’s coughing a lot.