Happy Saturday. I am pleased to be back writing after a brief vacation over the last workweek.
I wanted to send a short thread today about a new poll published this week which illustrates a big problem both for Joe Biden and for his successors — and, indeed, the future of America.
But before we get there, let’s review the poll in question. On Wednesday, Monmouth University released the results of a new survey which asked respondents if they approve of how Biden is handling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and whether they approve of the actions Congress and the president have taken in response. The results are shown here:
The big takeaway from Monmouth’s polling is that Americans are mostly united in support of the Biden Administration’s actions against Russia. 81% support the sanctions his Administration has imposed, and 78% support banning the import of Russian oil. (Note that a CBS News poll last week found 66% supported banning Vladimir Putin’s petrol even when they were told it meant gas prices would go up.)
Despite high support for Biden’s actions, however, a much lower share of Americans support how he has handled the war in Ukraine. Only 46% said they approved of his job handling it.
The disconnect is produced by at least two factors. First, it is likely that respondents’ answers in part reflect the general negativity of the situation more broadly. If I’m answering a call from Monmouth, and someone asks if I support Biden’s actions, I might think: Well, he has done what he can, but since the situation is still bad I don’t approve of him per se.
Then, there is partisan polarization. Even if Republicans and conservative Independents approve of Biden’s actions against Russia, they are primed not to give him credit for them, and it takes a lot to move their assessment of him generally. That means the war in Ukraine would inherently produce less unity at home today than it would in, say, 1980. The upshot here is that because presidents’ ratings are now bound to a more narrow range than before, a 40-50% rating now can be just as positive electorally as a 50-60% rating before.
Yet this all underscores a concerning pattern in how public opinion is responding to shocks in the modern era. The pattern has rather troubling implications for our country as a whole.
Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth Poll, wrote in the report that when interviewers asked respondents to use one word to describe the state of the country, the most common response was "divided." "This disunity remains the dominant image of the state of the country,” Murray wrote. Here is the word cloud of their responses:
Quoting now from the release:
This sentiment accounts for more than 1 in 10 responses when combined with related words such as polarized, conflicted, and fractured. Other commonly mentioned top-of-mind words are chaos, mess, confused, and disappointing. In all, 76% of poll respondents used a negative word to describe the current state of the country while just 15% used a positive one.
76% negative. And it’s hard to blame Americans for feeling this way.
The public’s opinions about the war in Ukraine remind me a lot of the implications of our collective response to covid-19. Driven mostly by backlash to public health policies by anti-vaccine Americans and fringe supporters of Donald Trump, the US realized its lack of capacity to maintain a functioning society — which had already been declining for decades.
Of course, approving of the way a president responds to a foreign conflict would not be proof of a healthy national sense of self or the resilience of our society. But the lack of unity around Biden when we otherwise approve of his actions is a symptom of the same problem. It seems to me that citizens of a healthy democracy would be able to give credit to leaders for things they support, even if they don’t like the leaders as people or are opposed to the identities and groups they represent.
Democracy requires a clear majority of people who are willing to put the general will of a society as a whole above their own narrow interests. Monmouth’s recent poll on Americans’ attitudes towards Biden and the Russia-Ukraine conflict are the latest data that suggests that, at least for many of our friends and neighbors, there are too many psychological barriers to doing that.
Since Trump ran for President in 2016, the central question about politics that I have is "Do Americans want to live in a democracy?" You mentioned opposition to a multiethnic democracy before, so the question could be refined into: "Do Americans want to live in a multiethnic democracy?" The main political conflict in the U.S. is about identity politics and one can see the increase of polarization/partisanship and the erosion of democracy from there.