With a deadly pandemic, a devastating recession, and massive civil rights protests across the country, the U.S. is facing a historically tumultuous election year. Even before these staggering events, a polarized electorate and a norm-challenging president had called into question the resilience of our democratic institutions. What do Americans think about our political system, elections, and institutions today? In a new report, Democracy Maybe: Attitudes on Authoritarianism in America, Lee Drutman, Joe Goldman, and Larry Diamond break down recent survey data to find both reason for hope and significant signs of trouble.
While nearly nine in ten Americans (87%) consistently say that a democratic political system is a good way to govern, the new report finds that one third of Americans (33%) have expressed support for a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with Congress or elections at least once across three years of research, and one quarter (23%) have expressed support for army rule in this time. Further, some of the support expressed for democratic ideals disappears quickly when questions are posed in real world situations.
In the wake of recent high-profile controversies over the use of the military to quell civil unrest, it’s striking that 13% of respondents say it would be a good thing for American military leaders to suspend elections, close down the legislature, and temporarily take charge of the government in order to address extreme corruption. An additional 18% of respondents say they are not sure if it would be a good thing for the military to take such an action.
Perhaps more alarming is how Americans might react to the 2020 election if the results are called into question:
29% of Republicans say it would be appropriate for President Trump to refuse to leave office if he claimed to have evidence of illegal voting in the 2020 election.
57% of Democrats say that it would be appropriate for a Democrat to call for a do-over election if they claimed to have evidence of interference by a foreign government.
38% of Democrats say it would be appropriate to call for a do-over if a candidate won the popular vote but lost the electoral college.
“It’s positive that the vast majority of Americans say democracy is their preferred system of government,” said Lee Drutman, senior fellow, Political Reform program, New America. “But this support is soft, and in a highly polarized America we’re seeing that partisanship can overwhelm support for long-established norms.”
“This is a wakeup call for all Americans, especially elected officials and civic leaders, to step up in support of free and fair elections,” said Joe Goldman, president of Democracy Fund. “While most Americans express support for democracy in the abstract, distrust for our political system is high and many partisans are primed to question the results of an election. This more than anything should rally our leaders around doing everything possible to ensure they give voters no reason to doubt come November.”
“This is a vulnerable moment for our democracy,” said Larry Diamond, senior fellow, Hoover Institution. “The data shows a great deal of cynicism about fundamental democratic institutions that almost all Americans used to take for granted – and a dangerous reservoir of willingness to support actions that would undermine our democracy.”
The full report can be downloaded on voterstudygroup.com.
About Democracy Fund
The Democracy Fund Voter Study Group is a research collaboration of more than two dozen analysts and scholars from across the political spectrum. Created in the wake of the 2016 election, the Voter Study Group’s goal is to better understand the American electorate by examining and delivering insights on the evolving views of American voters. Research and analysis from Voter Study Group members can be found at www.voterstudygroup.org and on Twitter @democracyfund.
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