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60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll: Democracy

As a new administration takes office in Washington, it is fitting that this month’s poll centers on democracy

Welcome to the 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll for February 2017. As a new administration takes office in Washington, it is fitting that this month’s poll centers on democracy. In Greece, where democracy was conceived, its literal translation was “rule of the commoners” but it may have been defined most succinctly by Abraham Lincoln as, “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”  Americans have had a ringside seat for the last six years as a divided Congress and executive branch have largely talked past each other. This may be due to change as one party now has majorities in both houses of Congress as well as the White House for the first time since President Obama’s first two years in office. As the Congress begins to collaborate on doing the people’s business they might refer to these words by Martin Luther King, Jr., “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” If you could make one change in the way American democracy works, what would it be? We look forward to your answers to this and many other questions. And now the results...

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If they had to explain to someone from another country how democracy works in the United States, nearly four out of 10 Americans said they would describe their overall tone as being hopeful. Twenty-eight percent said their tone would reflect pride, 12 percent said embarrassment, 10 percent selected sarcasm and six percent chose disgust. Americans are almost always a hopeful and optimistic people and despite the rancor between our two major parties, two thirds of us still talk about our democracy with either hope or pride.

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This one was surprisingly close. Forty-five percent of Americans said it would have been more surprising to our founding fathers that Barack Obama was elected president in 2008 and 42 percent said the election of Donald Trump in 2016 would have made them flip their wigs.

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From the list provided, three out of 10 Americans think that seeing a complete history of a candidate’s tax returns would give them the most insight into whether or not to vote for someone for president followed by their emails 23 percent, websites they’ve visited 13 percent, their medical records eight percent and one out of five said none of the above. These are mostly modern inventions and do not pertain to a majority of past presidents. For future presidents it is a cautionary tale of things to come. Considering what happened during our most recent election, it should come as no surprise that Republicans were more interested in emails (29 percent) and Democrats were more focused on tax returns (50 percent).

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According to Americans, the greatest threats to democracy in the United States are money in politics 29 percent, uninformed voters 23 percent, people who don’t vote 15 percent, poorly prepared candidates for office 10 percent, the size of the federal government nine percent, and the two-party system eight percent. Despite the systemic and financial challenges noted, the surest way to preserve, protect and defend our democracy is through education. In his farewell interview on 60 Minutes, President Obama lamented the existence of fractious divisions between Americans and pointed at cable shows from both sides of the aisle as having slanted points of view that only support and affirm what their followers want to hear. Nobody said it better than Thomas Jefferson when he declared that “the foundation of Democracy rests on an educated citizenry.”

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If they had to choose between the two options, two out of three Americans said it is more important for the United States to have freedom and democracy and one out of four said having security and prosperity was more important. Security and prosperity are very important to Americans, especially in times of turmoil and uncertainty, but Americans have never wavered in their devotion to our country’s bedrock values when it comes to freedom and democracy. JFK summed it up this way, “the cost of freedom has always been high, but Americans have always paid it.”

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More than half of Americans find the rights enumerated in the First Amendment to be the most important to them personally including freedom of speech 31 percent, freedom of religion 20 percent and freedom of assembly three percent. Eighteen percent took a shot at the right to bear arms, 17 percent cast a ballot for the right to vote and nine percent said all of the above. Nothing is more important to Americans than their hard earned and cherished rights especially those found in the First Amendment to the Constitution. There is another right expressly granted in the First Amendment that is very important to many including everyone at 60 Minutes and Vanity Fair...the freedom of the press.

If you could make one change in the way American democracy works, what would it be?

This month’s featured question sparked a lot of interesting ideas and opinions. If Americans could make one change in the way American democracy works, many people said they would like to see term limits implemented and the Electoral College abolished in favor of the popular vote. Many others wanted to stop or curtail the corrosive effects of money in politics with emphasis on limiting lobbying and striking down the Citizens United decision. Many would like to shorten the election cycle and set time limits for campaigning. Finally, some would like to make voters “take an IQ test before they vote” while others said they would like to see Americans be required to vote.


This poll was conducted by telephone from November 30-December 4, 2016 among a random sample of 1,011 adults nationwide. Data collection was conducted on behalf of CBS News by SSRS of Media, PA.  Phone numbers were dialed from samples of both standard land-line and cell phonesRead more about this poll.