Poll Shows Americans Don’t Believe in “American Democracy”

December 21, 2021
7 min read
Photo credit: Dgmorn / Shutterstock.com
American democracy faces a challenge not seen since the 1850s in the run-up to the US Civil War.

Partisanship, which has long plagued politics over policy issues, now divides the public over principle: Is voting a right or a privilege? Should it be easy or hard to vote? Who ultimately decides the outcome of an election, voters or elected officials? The outcome of this struggle will determine who controls Congress after the 2022 election and who occupies the White House after the 2024 election.

The world, and specifically US allies such as Japan, have an important stake in the future of American democracy. The image of the United States as the apotheosis of democratic governance has long been an important element of its global soft power. Two decades ago, in a survey of seven advanced economies, the Pew Research Center found that a median of 47% liked US-style democracy and 40% disliked it. But the Trump presidency undermined that image. A recent Pew survey of the same nations found a median of 56%, including two-thirds of Japanese survey respondents, believe that while US democracy used to be a good example, it has not been so in recent years.

The challenge facing the United States is how to restore its international image and, more importantly, its own public’s faith in the functioning of American democracy—and, by extension, people’s trust in the government’s ability to solve their problems. The current reform effort is taking place against a backdrop of public indifference: just two-thirds of eligible voters cast ballots in the 2020 US presidential election. This was the largest turnout in more than a century; however, this figure trails the turnout numbers in Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, among others (but notably not Japan, where the 2017 turnout was just 54% of registered voters).

The current struggle to reform American democracy is a partisan struggle masked by philosophical rationalizations.

The current struggle to reform American democracy is a partisan struggle masked by philosophical rationalizations. Democrats advocate broadening voter participation as a fundamental right, in part because they tend to win elections when turnout is high. Republicans argue that voting is a privilege, favoring limiting participation because they tend to benefit when turnout is low. The result has been a deepening national divide such that the promise of the right to vote in the United States depends increasingly on where Americans happen to live: a blue state controlled by the Democrats or a red state ruled by Republicans.

In the face of widespread challenges—the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, persistent economic inequality— a majority of Americans (55%) say the government should do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people.

But, at the same time, just 24% of Americans voice trust in their government, a near-historic low. There is nothing to suggest this sentiment will change because there is little difference between generations in such views: only 28% of baby boomers (those aged 57 to 75) express trust, a sentiment nearly matched (25%) by millennials (those aged 25 to 40). And, as has been the case since the Eisenhower administration, support for government is partisan. Today, 36% of Democrats but only 9% of Republicans have faith in their government. In 2020, when Donald Trump was still president, those numbers were largely reversed.


of Democrats but only 9% of Republicans have faith in their government.

Skepticism about government, despite a desire to see governmental action, is rooted in dissatisfaction with the state of American democracy. Half the American public is dissatisfied with the way democracy is working in the United States, with Republicans less satisfied than Democrats. In 2017, at the beginning of the Trump administration, this partisanship was reversed, with Democrats more dissatisfied than Republicans, suggesting Americans’ judgement about democracy is not about fairness but about partisan outcomes.

Views on the role of government and the state of American democracy drive public sentiment regarding the need to reform the US political system. Three-quarters of those who do not trust the government and a similar share of those who are dissatisfied with democracy back some kind of political reform.

The outcome of the last election and the assault on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, have only deepened this crisis of American democracy.

A fundamental tenet of any democracy is that the losers of an election accept the outcome. A majority of Americans accept the outcome of the presidential race and condemn the insurrection. But two-thirds of Republican voters say Joe Biden is not the legitimate winner of the 2020 Presidential election, a charge former President Donald Trump continues to make. A similar share of Republicans believe the election was stolen from Trump.

Half of Americans say the storming of the Capitol made them less confident in the stability of democracy in the United States. Yet nearly a quarter of Trump voters support those who broke into the Capitol to disrupt the certification of the presidential election.

But who are the Americans voicing these anti-democratic sentiments? They are largely—but not exclusively—the Trump electoral base. More than eight in ten Republicans who get their news from Fox and six in ten white Evangelical Protestants think the election was stolen. And among the strongest supporters of the January 6 riot were Fox News viewers and conservatives.

It is such sentiments that have led nearly seven in ten Americans to be concerned about the growing extremism in the Republican party. The most insidious example of such zealotry is the far-right conspiracy movement known as QAnon. Roughly one in seven (15%) Americans, including more than one in four Republicans (28%), believe that things have gotten so far off track that true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save the country. Notably, 13% of Independents and 7% of Democrats also agree about the possible resort to violence, starkly highlighting how dissatisfaction with government and American democracy—not only on the right, but to a lesser degree from the center and on the left—threatens to fuel future upheaval rather than peaceful democratic reform.

Prospects for such revitalization are currently stymied by partisanship. At the most basic level, Democrats overwhelming (78%) believe that voting is a fundamental right and should not be restricted. Two-thirds of Republicans voice the view that voting is a privilege that can be limited. Belief that voting is a basic right is most widespread among minorities, younger people, and the highly educated—all core Democratic constituencies. Those who back voting restrictions are more likely to be white, older, and less educated—the typical Republican voter.

Democrats overwhelming (78%) believe that voting is a fundamental right and should not be restricted. Two-thirds of Republicans voice the view that voting is a privilege that can be limited.

This fundamental difference about the right to vote is at the center of many of the current fights, both in Washington and in state capitals, over reforming US democracy. More than half (55%) of Democrats but only 14% of Republicans strongly support automatically registering all eligible citizens to vote. Two-thirds of Democrats but only a quarter of Republicans strongly back making it easier to vote in person before election day. And it is whites and the less educated, largely Trump voters, who are most likely to oppose making it easier to vote.

These differences are playing out in Congress and at the state level. Reform legislation proposed by progressives on Capitol Hill has gone nowhere, stymied by opposition from a couple of moderate Democrats and nearly all Republicans. At the state level, at least 25 states have enacted laws to expand access to voting early or by mail and to make voter registration easier. At the same time, at least 18 states have passed laws to make mail-in and early voting more difficult, impose harsher voter identification requirements, and enable state legislatures to overturn outcomes. Notably, states that Trump won are making it harder to vote and states that Biden won are making it easier.

There is a great deal of hyperbole and scare mongering surrounding the current debate over the state of and proposed reform of American democracy. The outcome is unclear. But this struggle over the soul of the US political system seems destined to further deepen the partisan divide in the United States. This will result in even greater American domestic preoccupation, make it even more difficult for Washington to exert global leadership, and will further tarnish the image of the United States around the world as that “shining city on the hill.”

This piece was written for and originally published by the Japanese news magazine Foresight.

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