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Publicly Available Published by De Gruyter June 3, 2022

Introduction: Volume 20 Issue 1: Public Opinion in America

From the journal The Forum

This issue of The Forum is dedicated to the question of what, and how, citizens think about politics in America today. The state of public opinion is a subject of perpetual fascination for political practitioners and observers alike. But while there is broad agreement that Americans have become increasingly divided over political matters in recent years, the nature and boundaries of those divisions remain a topic of unending investigation and discussion.

In this special issue, a set of experts in the field contribute a series of studies that collectively offer a valuable portrait of the American public in the 2020s. The image that emerges from this research contains clarity, but also complexity. Partisanship, polarization, and social tensions are important and even foundational components of today’s mass politics. But overly simplistic accounts of the current era can also exaggerate the degree of political conflict that now exists in the mass public, ignoring evidence of enduring complication and nuance.

As the articles in this issue demonstrate, citizens indeed disagree sharply about a number of contemporary issues—from the roots of economic inequality to the fairness of the vote-counting in the last presidential election. These differences of opinion increasingly follow familiar lines of partisanship and group identity even on subjects, like the advisability of allowing college athletes to receive financial compensation, that are not traditionally the subject of prominent debate in the political arena. Views of venerable public institutions like the U.S. Supreme Court are reliably shaped by whether they deliver favorable outcomes to one side or the other in a partisan or ideological conflict.

Yet there are also important limits to the power of party and identity in the mind of the citizen. Appeals to partisan loyalties or antipathies do not always prove effective in mobilizing electoral participation. A substantial share of citizens remain sufficiently ambivalent about party politics that they decline to identify themselves as partisans—a reluctance that can be motivated by several important considerations. Nationalist sentiments, though often claimed to reflect and even exacerbate ethnic divisions in American society today, do not pit members of different racial groups against each other as much as conventional wisdom can suggest. And, despite common assumptions that the typical voter has become an enthusiastic combatant in an ongoing array of political battles, many Americans continue to express a preference for a climate of national cooperation and compromise focused on resolving disputes and solving problems.

Elizabeth Suhay, Mark Tenenbaum, and Austin Bertola begin our survey of the political thought of the contemporary citizen by investigating the growth of partisan differences over the reasons for, and proper responses to, economic inequality in America. Their demonstration of a widening gap between the parties since the 1980s provides a valuable reminder that economic policy remains a central subject of partisan disagreement and polarization in an era often described as dominated by “culture war” conflicts. Christopher M. Federico, Christina Farhart, Joseph Vitriol, and Agnieszka Golec de Zavala then shift the focus to another topic of intense partisan debate: the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election. Their research finds that collective narcissism is an important psychological factor accounting for the belief among many Republicans and conservatives that Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump was fraudulent.

The federal judiciary has at least one thing in common with big-time sports: many people claim that both should ideally avoid becoming “politicized.” But these days, it is clear that the reach of politics extends to nearly every major institution in American life. Kevin J. Wallsten, Tatishe M. Nteta and Lauren A. McCarthy demonstrate that support for permitting the financial compensation of college athletes is influenced by respondents’ racial identities and attitudes, reflecting the widespread perception that such a policy disproportionately benefits African Americans. Logan Strother and Shana Gadarian show that popular evaluations of the Supreme Court’s neutrality and legitimacy reflect citizens’ degree of agreement with the decisions that the Court hands down—suggesting that controversial or unpopular rulings hold the potential to seriously damage the respect granted the Court as an institution by the American public.

But even in an era of strong partisanship, party isn’t the only thing that matters. Mia Costa, Melissa Barales-Lopez, Naina Bhalla, John J. Cho, Katherine E. Christie, Chris Jun, Thomas C. Paul and Emma M. Wagner employ survey experiments to demonstrate that campaign appeals invoking affective partisanship do not consistently inspire heightened citizen engagement. Samara Klar, Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan analyze the nature of partisan leaners—nominal independents who express a preference for one of the major parties. They find that “leaning” has different patterns of motivation on each partisan side: Republican leaners are more likely than Democratic leaners to decline an overt partisan identity as a means of expressing dissatisfaction with the ideological extremity of their preferred party, while Democratic leaners appear to invest more meaning in the positive identity of independence.

Does the rise of political nationalism in the Trump era represent a new dimension of ethnic conflict in American public opinion, as some commentators suggest? Alvaro J. Corral, David L. Leal and Joe R. Tafoya investigate the degree of difference in attitudes among members of different racial groups, finding broad similarities across White, Black, and Latino respondents on measures of nationalism, national identity, and national pride. Jennifer Wolak adds a final contribution to this issue’s picture of complexity by noting the substantial continued popularity of compromise in a polarized age. She finds the roots of this enduring appeal in the personal experiences of citizens who are accustomed to maintaining social relationships with people with whom they disagree, providing a reminder that many regular Americans view today’s political warfare with more frustration than fascination.

In our book review section, Gwen Prowse reviews The Economic Other by Meghan Condon and Amber Wichowsky, and Andrew Rudalevige reviews The Toddler-in-Chief: What Donald J. Trump Teaches Us About the Modern Presidency by Daniel Drezner.

Corresponding author: Dave Hopkins, E-mail:

Published Online: 2022-06-03

© 2022 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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