Amid relentless health and economic crises, along with ongoing revelations about the January 6 Capitol insurrection, California likely voters offer a very grim assessment of the political soul of the nation in the February PPIC survey. After a hopeful beginning early last year, approval of national leadership has plummeted. Certainly, this is bad news from blue California to the Democratic Party at the start of a highly consequential midterm election year. It is also a wake-up call from the nation’s most populous state, reflecting concerns that our democracy appears to be drifting off course.
To start with, 66% of California likely voters think things in the United States are generally going in the wrong direction. This is a 16-point increase since President Biden entered office, when many had hopes for positive national change after the divisive and chaotic years of Donald Trump’s presidency. Today, majorities across political parties (51% Democrats, 88% Republicans, 77% independents), and in all state regions and demographic groups, say that things in the United States are going in the wrong direction.
Moreover, 63% are pessimistic that Americans of different political views can still come together and work out their differences—a record high since PPIC started asking this question. To offer some perspective, pessimism about overcoming political differences is higher today than after white supremacists clashed with protesters in Charlottesville in 2017 and after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the resulting widespread civil unrest in 2020.
Currently, there is remarkable consensus on this issue across partisan groups (64% Democrats, 62% Republicans, 63% independents). About half or more across regions and age, gender, education, income, and racial/ethnic groups are pessimistic that Americans of different political views can work out their differences.
Moreover, democracy itself appears disappointing: 51% of California likely voters say they are not too satisfied or not at all satisfied with the way that democracy is working in the United States today—including 46% of Democrats, 56% of Republicans, and 56% of independents. Just 10% of California likely voters describe themselves as “very” satisfied while 38% are “somewhat” satisfied with the way US democracy is working. Four in ten or more across regions and demographic groups express dissatisfaction on this issue.
Most alarmingly, in the long shadow of January 6—coupled with these views of division and dysfunction—about half say more political violence is possible. In all, 48% think it will increase in the US in the next few years (12% decrease, 36% the same). There is little daylight across partisan groups (49% Democrats, 47% Republicans, 48% independents) in this grim prediction. About four in ten or more likely voters across all regions and age, gender, education, income, and racial/ethnic groups are bracing for more political violence in the US.
In looking at the near-term prospects for effective collaboration among federal elected leaders, 72% think that President Biden and the US Congress will not be able to work together and accomplish a lot in the next year (only 24% think they will). This is a 40-point increase from a year ago when President Biden was sworn into office and the Democrats took control of a closely divided Congress. This view is a throwback to high levels of pessimism when Trump was the president and the Democrats took control of the House after the 2018 midterms. The highlight of that divisive era included the House impeachment and a Senate trial of the president. Today, majorities across partisan groups, state regions, and demographic groups have low expectations for collaboration between the president and Congress.
Not surprisingly, in this political context, disapproval for President Biden and the US Congress is rising. Today, disapproval of President Biden is at 49%, compared to 31% disapproval when he entered office. Partisans are deeply divided about Biden’s job performance—19% of Democrats, 90% of Republicans, and 59% of independents are disapproving.
Meanwhile, 76% disapprove of the way that the US Congress is handling its job—a 10 point increase from abysmal ratings a year ago. Today, overwhelming majorities across partisan groups (70% Democrats, 88% Republican, 80% independents), and solid majorities across regions and demographic groups disapprove of Congress.
In their totality, our latest survey results do not bode well for Democratic fortunes in a midterm year. The party in power needs to hold on to House seats in blue California, and maybe pick up a few more to make up for expected Republican gains in red states. If California likely voters feel alienated and frustrated by the politics on display in the nation’s capital they may choose to sit out the midterm election—or take out their political frustrations on the incumbents who reflect the party in control.
Even more consequential in the long term are the bleak views we uncovered on the outlook for US democracy. Californians may take some solace in their relatively rosy view of their own state: they are generally positive in their assessment of the direction of the state, their approval ratings of the governor and legislature, and their perceptions of the prospects of getting things done in Sacramento. But California is not an island, and the nation’s political dysfunction has profound consequences for solving problems that impact the state’s residents.
This current widespread political disaffection may reflect a low point, one that gives way to a brighter outlook later this year as the omicron surge recedes, the economy improves, and normalcy returns. And it may be a tall order, but Californians would also respond more positively if elected officials could stop their petty bickering, work out their political differences, and get things done.