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Jan Hillard: Top 20 most dramatic research findings — our political and social world in 2020

As it slips away, 2020 has been one of the most tumultuous year’s in our recent history. We would be hard pressed to name a year filled with as much political and social anxiety, uncertainty, and instability as this past year.

In spite of the continuing threat of the world-wide pandemic, elevated racial tensions, and Presidential instability, the nation by and large adhered to the Constitution, the electoral process, and commitment to the general welfare of the public.

Against the backdrop of this past year’s political and social events, are a set of findings that underscore what has changed and where the nation is heading. The Pew Research Center has curated the top 20 research findings from 2020 (John Gramlich, “20 Striking Findings from 2020,” Pew Research Center, 12/11/2020). These findings come from research conducted by Pew throughout 2020. They are presented in no particular order.

The Pew Top 20

1. Pew reports that eight in ten registered voters (83%) said that in this past Presidential election it “really mattered” who won. By comparison, in 2000 only 50% indicated this importance. This passion led to a hotly contested election with Biden and Trump receiving 81 and 74 million votes respectively.

2. The public’s views on Presidential leadership varied as widely as anytime in our history. Pew reports that across 2020, 87% of Republicans approved of Trump’s performance in office with only 6% of Democrats approving Trump. By comparison, in 2000, 25% of Democrats indicated their approval of George W. Bush. The approval ‘spread’ represented a significant challenge to governance throughout 2020.

3. Pew finds that 77% of Trump supporters and 80% of Biden supporters fundamentally disagree with the other side’s core American values. 9 out of 10 Trump and Biden supporters both believed there would be lasting harm if their candidate loses the Presidential election.

4. Based upon their views, Republicans are far more negative than Democrats in their evaluation of the news media and the propensity of “fake news.” Between 55-70% of Republicans say the news is uncaring, too critical, and damaging to democracy, with the exception of right-leaning news outlets.

5. Pew documents that 10% of adult Twitter users creating 92% of tweets. Of all active Twitter users, 69% are Democratic and 26% are Republican.

6. Nine in ten Republicans and six in ten Democrats find it likely that social media censors content related to political opinions. Republicans widely hold this viewpoint, spurred on by the new censoring of false information Trump’s tweets.

7. The ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement is supported by 65% of Americans from both majority and minority groups. Immediately after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, nearly 9 million people tweeted support for the movement.

8. Only 25% of Americans favor defunding the police, 42% favor police spending remain the same, with 32% supporting increased spending.

9. A very large majority of Americans (86%) believe that COVID brings with it important lessons for mankind. One third hold the belief that COVID is a lesson from God. Interestingly, the majority who believe COVID offers life lessons point to spending more time with loved ones and friends, helping others, and fighting for better health care. Others who hold the view that COVID is a lesson from God are likely to criticize political parties, politicians.

10. COVID brought tremendous economic hardship. By August 2020, four in ten adults reported a friend or family member as laid off, lost their job, or had taken a pay cut.

Early in the pandemic several scenarios were offered predicting the economic recovery for the country. Two scenarios stood out. First, a “V shaped” model that assumed a economic recovery would follow a strict adherence of COVID mitigation (mask wearing, staying home). Another model suggested a “W shaped” curve that assumed no long- term adherence to COVID abatement. Instead, this model predicted the country would grow tired of abatement, push to re-open businesses, and as a result, enter a second COVID crisis. Unfortunately, the “W shape” has prevailed.

11. Public opinion since COVID shows a deep division between Democrats and Republicans. Throughout the pandemic 85% of Democrats saw COVID as a major threat to the health of the country compared to 42% of Republicans. The parties also differed on responses to the virus (i.e. mask wearing). Both publics have consistently seen COVID as major threat to the economy, however differ on remedies.

12. More than half of Americans know someone who has been hospitalized or died from COVID. This is up from 15% in April and 39% in August, evidence of the significant spread. Among Black Americans, 70% report knowing someone who has been hospitalized or died. These are extraordinary numbers painting the picture of COVID’s severity over time and across the general population.

13. Throughout the pandemic, the majority of young adults in the U.S. lived with their parents. This has not occurred since an earlier crisis, the Great Depression. By July, 52% of young adults age 18-29 were living at home. This was true regardless of gender, race, or place of residence.

14. Half of Americans believe the Bible should have important influence on our laws, and that Biblical principles supersede the will of men. Nine in ten White Evangelicals hold this belief with 70% favoring the word of God as the source for public decisions.

15. COVID’s has had a significant impact on international relations. According to Pew, by April 2020 90% of the world’s population was living with closed or partially closed borders. This has impacted over 7 billion people with implications for commerce and families.

16. Pew finds that after the UK’s exit from the European Union, British public support of the EU rose to an all time high. Younger Brits, as well as those who identify as liberal offered the greatest positive assessments.

17. Views of China in the U.S. and other countries turned negative in 2020. This was driven by blame for the COVID crisis with over 60% of the public in 15 countries believing China had done a very bad job containing COVID.

18. In a number of countries, including allies, support for the U.S. dropped to its lowest level on record. Across the 13 countries surveyed by Pew, an average of only 15% of adults believed the U.S. has done a good job responding to COVID. Support for the COVID response in their own country is much higher.

19. There appears little support for the new descriptive term Latinx. Only 23% of Hispanics have heard of the term and only 3% say they use it to describe themselves. Some 65% of Hispanics prefer the term not be used.

Dr. Jan Hillard

20. Almost a half of Americans have heard of QAnon. 90% of Democrats who are aware of the conspiratorial group say it poses a danger for the U.S. 50% of Republicans see QAnon as dangerous, while 41% say QAnon is a good thing.

While this is not an exhaustive list of public opinion research findings from 2020, it does capture the most important thematic events from the past year including: the devastation from COVID, the contentious Presidential election, racial unrest, and the condition of our international relations. Given their volatility, polarization, and potential for violent conflict, any of these issues alone could be labeled a crisis. However together they present the potential for catastrophe. And while this may be too strong a descriptor for some, it is the sobering reality. It is also the reality that our Constitutional structures and public will can hold us together as long as we do not tear these safeguards apart and foment greater polarization. Our safeguards are both strong and fragile. Strong if we tend to them, fragile if we divide ourselves.

Jan Hillard is data editor for KyForward and the NKyTribune and retired Faculty Emeriti of Northern Kentucky University.

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