Americans Want Significant Change to the Political System

Red and white-tinted Scrabble tiles that spell "BE THE CHANGE," mounted on a piece of graph paper with various data points

Many politicians these days are discussing or advocating for major changes to America’s political system. During the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, one of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign taglines was “big, structural change.” Other politicians are pushing for significant overhauls of the U.S. Supreme Court or the first-ever national election standards and ban on partisan gerrymandering contained within the Freedom to Vote Act. There’s a major push for D.C. statehood and former presidential and 2021 New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang (D) is reportedly starting a political party based on the premise of political reform. There’s a consensus among much of the political class that our democracy needs reform. But what do everyday Americans feel about our political system and the need for changes to it?

In today’s Data Dive, we’re examining Americans’ views of democracy and desire for change in our political system. Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center surveyed citizens in 17 advanced economies, including the U.S., on their attitudes toward politics, economics and democracy itself. The survey, “Citizens in Advanced Economies Want Significant Changes to Their Political Systems,” revealed a common desire for significant changes to the political system across countries, including an overwhelming majority of Americans of all political persuasions.

Here are the key takeaways:

An overwhelming majority of Americans want to see significant changes to the country’s political system.

Most Americans believe our political system needs changes. Upwards of 85% of respondents say there is a need for major changes, including 42% who say our political system needs to be completely reformed. This sentiment holds true across party lines, with both 88% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents and 83% of Republican and Republican-leaning Independents in support of change. Around half of Democrats (47%) want complete reform of the political system as compared to just 38% of Republicans.

The desire for political reform also cuts across many of the other dividing lines in our country. While in many of the other countries surveyed, desire for political reform was tempered by how respondents viewed the economy — with people satisfied with the economy less likely to support political reform — this pattern does not extend to the U.S. Nearly equal numbers of economic pessimists and economic optimists favor political changes — 87% versus 82%, respectively. This gap in support is the smallest of any of the countries Pew surveyed.

Similarly, both Americans who rate our pandemic response positively and Americans who rate it negatively also support political reform at near-equal levels. 83% of Americans who approve of our COVID-19 response also support political reform. Meanwhile, 88% of Americans who do not approve of our pandemic response support reform — a gap of only five percentage points. Again, this gap is the smallest of all the countries surveyed.

No matter which way you cut it, Americans of all political persuasions and views want to see political reform. Even those who are generally satisfied with other aspects of American life (like the economy) are overwhelmingly in favor of changes. In a society as divided as ours seemingly is, this kind of consensus is rare.

At the same time, Americans are not confident our politics can be effectively reformed.

Even as Americans are nearly unanimous in their desire for political reform, most don’t believe our political system can be effectively changed. 58% of Americans have little confidence that reform can be effective, which is more than twice the number of Americans who think the system can change.

A majority of Americans also express dissatisfaction with how democracy is working.

While the full survey of countries found general satisfaction with how democracy is working, Americans are markedly more dissatisfied. Only 41% of Americans are satisfied with how our democracy is working, and only 5% are very satisfied. Americans’ views of democracy are more in line with Italians and Spaniards — whose countries are both known for political instability — than Germans or Canadians. Unsurprisingly, Americans dissatisfied with democracy are more likely to support political reform, although again a similar percentage of Americans who are satisfied with democracy support reform too.

Despite controversy over whether the government assumed too much power in responding to the pandemic, most Americans still believe the government respects personal freedoms.

Many of the actions government officials took to mitigate the pandemic in the U.S., from stay-at-home orders to mask and vaccine mandates, provoked intense controversy. In one instance, armed protesters demonstrated at the Michigan capitol against public health measures in the state. Yet, despite the attention devoted to such protests and actions, most Americans still believe the government respects our personal freedoms. 63% agree the government respects our personal freedoms, similar to the overall median in countries surveyed. A vocal minority, however — 35% — believe the government does not respect freedoms. This sentiment is stronger in Americans who do not support the Democratic Party — defined in the survey as the party currently in power. However, even a majority of these Americans still believe the government respects their personal freedoms.

Most Americans also wish to see change in our country’s economic and health care systems.

A large majority of Americans also desire significant economic reform — with 66% agreeing that the U.S.’s economic system needs major changes or needs to be completely reformed. Support for economic reform is, unsurprisingly, much higher among Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents, with 80% in favor of major changes compared to only 50% of Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents. Likewise, a resounding 76% of Americans also support major changes to the health care system, with majorities in both parties in favor. However, greater numbers of Democrats want complete reform of health care. Among the countries surveyed, America is a clear outlier, with only Greece rivaling the U.S. in support for significant health care reform.

With so many Americans expressing discontent with democracy, our economy and health care system, it’s no surprise there’s a near-unanimous consensus for political reform. This consensus cuts across partisan lines and holds true for Americans no matter how they feel about our democracy or the economy. Pew’s findings suggest that there may be no better time to pursue wide-ranging political reforms than now.