New study shows concern on state of government

Thousands of President Donald Trump’s supporters storm the U.S. Capitol building following a “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C. The protesters stormed the historic building, breaking windows and clashing violently with police. Trump supporters had gathered in the nation’s capital to protest the ratification of President-elect Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory over Trump in the 2020 election. 

Editor’s note: This story originated at the Idaho Capital Sun, a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in Idaho.

A survey commissioned by a Boise-based institute has found that 20 percent of Mountain West residents think violence is justified when the government fails its people. Meanwhile, a large share of those surveyed believe the U.S. is heading in the wrong direction, and are concerned about the health of American democracy.

The findings are part of new research released this month by the Frank Church Institute at Boise State University.

The report says that 20 percent of people surveyed this fall in Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming and Montana said they believe political violence is justified when things have gotten to the point that the government is not acting in the best interest of the people. The survey found 58 percent of respondents believe political violence is not justified in a democracy, and the remainder were unsure.

“It was (a surprise) for me perhaps,” Garry V. Wenske, executive director of the Frank Church Institute, said in a telephone interview. “I think it reflects a lot of other surveys done around the country, where you read about people who are unhappy and taking it out as they did on Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol. It is something to be concerned about in the future, in that many people responding to a poll believe it is acceptable.”

About 85 percent of adults in Mountain West states are concerned about the health of democracy in the United States, according to the survey. That includes 50 percent of survey respondents who said they are “very concerned” and 35 percent of respondents who told researchers they are “somewhat concerned.”

Digging deeper, the survey found that 83 percent of adults are worried about misrepresentation of facts and misinformation.

“Signs of optimism or hope are hard to detect in this extensive new research from the Rocky Mountain states. Fear, alienation and mistrust characterize the minds of these Americans,” said Peter Fenn, a Frank Church Institute board member and political analyst, in a written statement.

“The worry barometer is elevated so high that one of the world’s most successful democracies is vulnerable to political hyper-partisanship, disinformation and dysfunction,” Fenn wrote. “The good news is that people expect elected officials to work together to repair the damage.”

Two-thirds of respondents, or 66 percent, said they want their elected officials to work together and find common ground when it comes to solutions. Nearly 30 percent said term limits or holding politicians accountable for unethical or illegal behavior are most likely to strengthen a democracy.

Other findings of the survey include:

80 percent of respondents believe Americans with different political viewpoints have a hard time talking with each other.

71 percent of Mountain West respondents believe the country is headed down the wrong track; in Idaho, 76 percent of respondents said they believe that.

47 percent of Mountain West respondents said they believe their own state is headed down the wrong track.

Despite thinking the country is on the wrong track, 62 percent of people said they have a “very favorable” or “somewhat favorable” view of the United States.

35 percent have a “very favorable” or “somewhat favorable” view of the presidency.

61 percent have “a lot” or “some” confidence in their local government.

59 percent believe Americans living in rural areas do not have enough influence in national politics.

31 percent said they watch Fox News at least once a week, the highest rate among any of the 16 news and information sources asked about in the survey.

Now that the survey results are in, Wenske said the Frank Church Institute plans to share the findings with some of its peer organizations across the Mountain West, convene conferences and discuss the findings in greater detail.

The Washington, D.C.-based research and polling firm Morning Consult conducted the survey of 1,899 adults in Idaho, Montana, Utah, Wyoming and Nevada from Sept. 24 through Oct. 26.

The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points. The full findings of the survey are available online.

This is the first time the Frank Church Institute has partnered with a survey firm to ask these questions, Wenske said, so there was no previous baseline research to compare this survey with to determine how residents’ views have changed over time. However, this survey could be used as a baseline to compare with future surveys.

The Frank Church Institute is a nonpartisan institute based at Boise State University. It was named after the late U.S. Sen. Frank Church, a Democrat from Idaho. The institute was established in 1982 to promote civic engagement and an understanding of public policy, with an emphasis on foreign policy. The institute sponsors the annual Frank Church Conference, the Frank and Bethine Church chair of public affairs and awards scholarships at Boise State.

Clark Corbin has covered every Idaho legislative session since 2011 gavel-to-gavel. Find more from Corbin and the Idaho Capital Sun at idahocapitalsun.com/.