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Are Americans really committed to democracy in the 2024 election?


Zachary Roth, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
February 8, 2024

With former President Donald Trump having all but wrapped up the GOP presidential nomination, one issue looks set to be at the center of the general election campaign: the threat to democracy.

In a major campaign speech in Pennsylvania in January, President Joe Biden detailed Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, his efforts to use violence to hold on to power, and his promises of “revenge” and “retribution” against political enemies.

“Trump’s assault on democracy isn’t just part of his past,” Biden declared. “It’s what he’s promising for the future.”

To combat the charge, Team Trump has sought to muddy the waters by claiming, without evidence, that in fact it’s the president who threatens democracy. Trump says the criminal indictments in four cases brought against him are the proof — though there’s no evidence that Biden influenced prosecutors in any of them. Trump also points to a case pending before the Supreme Court, in which Biden also has no involvement, that would rule Trump ineligible for the ballot.

“They’ve weaponized government, and he’s saying I’m a threat to democracy,” Trump said at an Iowa rally last month, accusing Biden of “pathetic fearmongering.”

All of which brings up a question: How do ordinary Americans regard democracy? Some people might assume that, though voters are deeply divided over just about everything, there is agreement on democracy as the way to resolve differences.

And yet, nearly half the electorate say they plan to vote for a candidate who already has gravely undermined democracy, and promises to do so again if re-elected. Does that suggest Americans’ commitment to democracy — not just to holding elections, but to the norms that undergird liberal democracy, like the rule of law and an impartial justice system — isn’t as ironclad as we’d like to think?

Recently, a trove of information has emerged to shed light on the question. A series of polls, surveys, focus groups, and other analyses — many released since the start of the year — has aimed to gauge Americans’ views on democracy: how important it is, how well it’s working, and whether there are times when democratic values should be jettisoned.

The findings are varied and not easy to summarize, but a few themes stand out: Dissatisfaction with how democracy is performing is sky-high across the political spectrum. Large majorities say democracy is at risk. And, perhaps most importantly: A growing share of Americans appears willing, in our ultra-polarized times, to put partisan or ideological loyalties ahead of democracy.

 Former President Donald Trump speaks to guests during a campaign rally on Jan. 6, 2024 in Clinton, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

“When you are living in a more polarized time, it is going to be more likely that people are going to find excuses for their principles to be pushed to the side, because in that moment their political identity is more important than almost any other identity,” said Joe Goldman, the president of the Democracy Fund, a pro-democracy advocacy organization, and a co-author of a long-term study released this month by the group on Americans’ views of democracy.

That’s a highly dangerous situation, democracy advocates say. A clear and cross-partisan pro-democracy consensus among the public could act as a crucial bulwark against the kind of authoritarian steps that Trump has said he’ll take if re-elected — and could make it harder for him to win in the first place. Without that consensus, the threat to democracy will continue to grow.

Questioning of democracy

Going back to the founding, there’s been a strain of thinking that distrusted democracy as a system that can lead to mob rule and tyranny.

“It’s pretty clear that our founders hated democracy,” said Michael Schudson, a professor at Columbia Journalism School, who has studied the history of American civic life. “They were trying to get away from it. Democracy was a form of government from the past that led to, essentially, anarchy.”

Even today, many leading conservatives insist on calling the U.S. not a democracy but a republic.

“By the way, the United States is not a democracy,” Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., now the House speaker, said in a 2019 church sermon. “Do you know what a democracy is? Two wolves and a sheep deciding what’s for dinner. You don’t want to be in a democracy. Majority rule: not always a good thing.”

But there’s no question that recent years have seen a rise in the number of Americans who say democracy isn’t working well — or even who question it as a system and express support for alternatives.

A Jan. 10 analysis by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, which summarized results from seven high-quality recent polls, found broad agreement that “American democracy is not working.”

One typical poll included in the UVA analysis, released this month by Gallup, found just 28% of respondents, a new low, said they were satisfied with how democracy is functioning.

An overwhelming number of respondents to a PRRI survey from last year — 84% of Democrats, 77% of Republicans, and 73% of independents — said that U.S. democracy is at risk. And 2 out of 3 respondents to a Jan. 31 Quinnipiac poll said U.S. democracy is in danger of collapse.

Challenges for Democrats

A set of focus group conversations with mostly undecided voters in Georgia, Wisconsin, and Nevada, conducted Jan. 24 by the progressive polling firm Navigator Research and viewed by States Newsroom, found similar views. But the focus groups also underscored the challenges that Democrats might have in convincing voters that Trump is to blame for democracy’s troubles.

Participants almost universally said, when asked, that U.S. democracy is not working well. One Nevada man described it as a corpse, an assessment that many other participants appeared to agree with.

But asked why, almost no one pointed to Trump and his lies about the 2020 election, his role in the violence of Jan. 6, or his promises to govern as an authoritarian. Many participants, instead, talked about feeling that their vote doesn’t matter because politicians on both sides ignore the views of regular people — concerns that existed long before the tumult of the Trump era.

“It’s self-interest on both sides,” said a Georgia woman. “From the lobbyists, from the politicians, to make it the way they want instead of the way we want.”

“Both sides are trying to say (democracy is under attack), but they’re trying to just point at the other side and make everyone believe it’s the other side,” said a Wisconsin man. “I tend to think it’s more about the entities that are in power just wanting to remain in power. And that’s the best way to do that, is to make sure that we think it is under attack, but from the other side.”

The Stony Brook University political scientist Stanley Feldman summed up the challenge in an interview with the New York Times.

“Voting to protect democracy isn’t as straightforward as it may seem. Democracy is an abstraction to many voters,” said Feldman. “To many Republicans, bringing criminal charges against Trump at this point looks like the Biden administration is trying to subvert democracy by getting rid of a candidate who can win in November.”

‘Preserving democracy’ still seems urgent

Still, at least in the abstract, people appear to value democracy and to see preserving it as important.

When the Quinnipiac poll asked people to choose which of 10 issues was the most urgent, the top choice, at 24%, was “preserving democracy”. Over 80 percent of participants in the Democracy Fund study, who were surveyed at different times from 2017 to 2022, said democracy is a fairly or very good political system. And only 8 percent were found to be “consistently authoritarian” in their responses.

But when Democracy Fund asked a series of questions aimed at gauging support for key tenets of liberal democracy — including about authoritarian rule, about using violence to advance political goals, and about accepting election results — only 27% always gave the pro-democracy answer.

Perhaps even more troubling, this willingness to deprioritize democracy corresponded closely to partisan interests. For instance, in September 2020, 81% of Republicans said it would be important for the loser of that year’s election to acknowledge the winner. In November — the month when the election was called for Biden, and Trump refused to concede defeat — that figure was 31%.

 President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event January 5, 2024 in Pennsylvania. In his first campaign event of the 2024 election season, Biden said democracy and fundamental freedoms are under threat if former President Donald Trump returns to the White House. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

“The results show that support for foundational principles of liberal democracy are discouragingly soft and inconsistent,” the study’s authors conclude, adding: “There is a significant segment of the population that may be willing to embrace or accept the cause of authoritarian figures if and when it is in their partisan and political interests.”

Plenty of other polling evidence points toward the same conclusion. A CNN poll from October found that 67% of likely Republican primary voters in South Carolina said Trump’s efforts to overturn the election, if true, are not relevant to his fitness for the presidency.

An AP/NORC poll released in December found that 87% of Democrats said a Trump win in 2024 would damage democracy, while 82% of Republicans said the same thing about a Biden win.

And a University of Virginia poll released in October found that 41% of Biden supporters and 38% of Trump supporters said the other side is so extreme that it’s OK to use violence to stop them. The same poll found that 31% of Trump supporters and 24% of Biden supporters thought the U.S. should explore non-democratic forms of government.

“Support for various aspects of liberal democracy has always been spongier than we’d like to think,” said Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the New America think tank and a co-author of the Democracy Fund report. “But what’s distinct to this moment is that one party has elevated leaders that show no restraint and no respect for these foundational aspects of liberal democracy.”

“(So) you have people who are willing to tolerate tremendous incursions on the foundations of democracy as long as it’s their side that’s doing it,” Drutman continued, “and you have a party with leaders who are willing to take advantage.”

How to reduce polarization

There are some reasons for hope. Last June, a Stanford University project convened a nationally representative sample of 600 registered voters of all political stripes for lengthy deliberative conversations, in groups of 10, on issues affecting U.S. democracy, including voter access, election administration, and campaign finance.

The organizers consistently found that the conversations led participants to become less polarized across partisan lines in their opinions, with Republicans moving towards Democrats and vice versa.

For instance, only 30% of Republicans started out supporting the idea of letting people register to vote online. But after the conversations, a majority joined most Democrats in backing the idea.

Conversely, only 44% of Democrats started out liking the idea of requiring audits of a random sample of ballots to ensure that votes are counted accurately. After the conversations, 58% joined most Republicans in support.

Views even on seemingly more controversial ideas like having nonpartisan officials, not partisan lawmakers, draw district lines, or restoring voting rights to ex-felons, changed dramatically, especially among Republicans, said James Fishkin, a Stanford political scientist who helped organize the conversations.

Fishkin said the results suggest to him that once the campaign focuses more squarely on the threat to democracy, voters will start to grasp the need to protect it.

“The norms that make democracy work do matter to people, and the idea that democracy might come to an end is such an awesome threat that people haven’t really thought about it,” said Fishkin. ‘They’re thinking about inflation and the so-called crisis at the border, they’re not thinking about the end of democracy as we know it. I think once the public focuses on it, you may well get a different answer.”

But to Drutman, the threat will persist as long as the nation remains hyper-polarized, with one party willing to trample democratic norms.

“One argument is that there is an anti-MAGA majority out there of people who are committed enough to democracy that some small sliver of the electorate will continue to elect Democrats,” Drutman said. “But democracy can’t fundamentally depend on one party winning forever.”

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kim Lyons for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Pennsylvania Capital-Star under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.