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Americans' Concern Grows About Government, National Discord

Americans' Concern Grows About Government, National Discord

Story Highlights

  • Mentions of government as top problem are highest in nearly a year
  • Coronavirus now ranks second, with sharp dip in citations
  • Concern about lack of unity surges to record-high 12%

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Americans are sizing up the nation's greatest challenges a bit differently this month in the aftermath of a political insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the second impeachment of former President Donald Trump and the national rollout of the coronavirus vaccine.

Amid this backdrop, the percentage of Americans citing governmental leaders or behavior as the top problem jumped to 29% -- the highest in almost a year -- from 20% in December. Also, a record-high 12% cited national discord, up from 5% last month. At the same time, mentions of the coronavirus fell 11 percentage points to 22%, while mentions of race-related issues were essentially unchanged at 10%.

Line graph. Monthly trend from January 2020 to January 2021 in mentions of the coronavirus, government, race relations and lack of unity in the country as the United States' top problem. Mentions of government lead at 29%, up from 20% in December and the highest since February 2020. Mentions of the need to unify the country are at a record high, now 12%, up from 5% in December. Mentions of racial issues are flat at 10%, although lower than the 19% in June.

Gallup measures Americans' view of the United States' top problem each month by asking respondents to say, in their own words, what the most important problem is facing the country today. The Jan. 4-15 poll was conducted in Trump's final days in office and largely captures American public opinion in the aftermath of the violent breach of the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump rioters on Jan. 6.

A few key points about the new findings:

  • This is the first month since June that the coronavirus has not led or tied for the top-ranking concern, possibly because of the recent rollout of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna coronavirus vaccines, offering hope that the pandemic may soon be brought under control. However, the decline was more pronounced among Democrats (down 18 points to 32%) than among independents (down 10 points to 18%) and Republicans (down six points to 14%).

  • This is also the first month since last February, when Trump was acquitted by the Senate after his initial impeachment trial, that the government alone has been named as the top problem.

  • The 12% of Americans citing national division and lack of unity as the top problem is the highest in Gallup's seven decades of asking this question, dating back to 1939. It came close in February 2017 (10%), shortly after Trump's inauguration, and October 2017 (11%), as political tensions were running high over Trump's downplaying of white-supremacist violence after a deadly incident in Charlottesville, Virginia, and his decision the month before to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program (DACA). Mentions of unity subsequently fell to single digits, until now.

  • The 10% of Americans mentioning racism or race relations as the top problem matches the average since August, which in turn reflects a decrease from 19% in June after racial justice protests nationwide. It is still elevated in comparison with early 2020 readings.

The next-most-frequently cited concerns in the latest poll are the election (4%), lack of respect (4%), ethical/moral/religious decline (4%) and unemployment (3%). No other issue was named by more than 2% of Americans.

Government-Related Concerns Up Among All Party Groups

As they have for the past several months, Republicans continue to be the most likely of the three political party groups to point to government or U.S. leadership as the nation's chief woe.

The 37% of Republicans citing government or leadership-related issues in January compares with 28% of Democrats and 26% of independents. However, the nine-point increase in mentions of government in January is seen about evenly among all party groups, including nine-point increases among Republicans and independents and an 11-point increase among Democrats.

Line graph. Trend from January 2020 to January 2021 in percentages of political party groups mentioning government issues as the top U.S. problem.

Republicans' verbatim responses about government range from generic concerns about Washington "corruption" and "dysfunction" to fears about increasing "socialism," the incoming Biden administration and the treatment of Trump, among other issues.

Democrats also offer general complaints about "political discourse" and the divide between Republicans and Democrats but are more focused on specific criticism of the Republican Party, Trump, "right-wing extremism," "fascism" and threats to democracy.

Political independents' responses reflect an assortment of concerns about lack of bipartisanship, poor government leadership, radicalism on both sides and specific complaints about Trump as well as Democratic leaders of Congress.

Political Independents Express Highest Concern About Lack of Unity

The surge in mentions of lack of unity as the nation's top problem this month was also bipartisan, rising eight points to 11% among Democrats, six points to 14% among independents and five points to 9% among Republicans.

Line graph. Monthly trend from January 2020 to January 2021 in Americans' mentions of lack of unity as the nation's top problem, by party. After a year when no more than 8% in any of the three U.S. party groups mentioned lack of unity, the percentages surged in January 2021 to 14% among independents, 11% among Democrats and 9% among Republicans.

"Lack of unity," "division," "divisiveness" and "disunity" are the words Americans most often used to express concern about the civic atmosphere, but others mentioned "polarization," "nobody getting along," the lack of a "common purpose," and the need for better communication.

Bottom Line

Americans became more likely to see government leadership and lack of unity as the chief problems facing the country this month, with the presidential transition from Trump to Joe Biden marred by unprecedented tension and violence, along with presidential impeachment. However, the percentages citing these are not high relative to other top issues named over the years, such as when the economy, terrorism, crime or drugs exceeded 40%. Thus, one might also look at these figures as an indication of public resilience and a sign that Americans are weathering the political storms.

View complete question responses and trends (PDF download).

Learn more about how the Gallup Poll Social Series works.

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