This article was originally published in The Hill, August 2, 2018.
John Adams was not particularly optimistic about democracy. In an 1814 letter, he wrote: “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” A new study of American public attitudes suggests our democracy indeed may be heading toward a cliff, but it also suggests ways we can pull it back toward health and long-term survival.
The study was commissioned by Freedom House, the George W. Bush Institute, and the Penn Biden Center. It’s notable, during this polarized era, in part because of its bipartisan sponsorship and design. Our Democratic polling firm carried out the research jointly with a Republican polling firm. (The views here are strictly our own, however.)
The study — which included 10 focus groups and a nationally representative phone poll of 1,400 voting age adults with a representative mix of Democrats, Republicans and independents — finds Americans feel our democracy is at the edge of a crisis of confidence. Although there has been no fall-off in recent years in the public’s overwhelming support for the idea of democracy, the level of dissatisfaction with our democracy’s performance is alarming. In three key questions in the survey, a 55 percent majority say our democracy is weak, 68 percent say it is getting weaker, and 79 percent are concerned about our democracy’s condition.
While many elements of public opinion about our government follow partisan patterns, serious concern about the health of our democracy crosses party lines. Over two-thirds feel this among Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike.
Comments from participants in our research show this is not only about Donald Trump. The democratic ills they cite almost entirely pre-date President Trump — things such as increased political polarization, the growing role of special interest money in politics, and declining trust in the federal government, media outlets and other public and civic institutions. These trends all have been building for decades, but now are reaching a breaking point for the public.
Yet, in two related ways, Trump bears responsibility for deepening this crisis of democratic confidence.
First, his comments have fanned America’s always smoldering flames of racial resentment. A new Quinnipiac poll shows a 49-47 percent plurality believes not just that he has inflamed racial tensions but that the president does, in fact, hold racist views. Our survey finds “racism and discrimination” is one of the two things that concern the public most about our democracy (from a list of 11 factors), roughly tied with “big money in politics.” Among all adults under 40, and all non-whites, it is the top concern. This is the first study to identify racial tensions as a primary factor now undermining our democracy.
Our focus groups underscored how people perceive that Trump is exacerbating racial tensions. An African-American woman in Indianapolis said: “America has a tone since Trump that has brought out things that were suppressed. … People hold it in but now it’s coming out and boiling over.” Her point seemed to be confirmed by a Trump voter in Pittsburgh, who said: “We got … people that went into construction — getting smashed by illegal immigrants — there are very few white American men working on the construction sites.” In one group, white and non-white voters sparred about NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, a conflict that Trump inflamed beginning with his campaign.
Disturbingly, a 50-41 percent majority of whites in our survey saw “equal rights and protections for minorities” getting better in America, while a 63-31 percent majority of non-whites saw it getting worse.
Second, while democratic principles remain important to most Americans, Trump has built his strategy partly on rallying those who place little value on democratic notions of equality and freedom of the press. Only 7 percent of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 voters do not say it is important to live in a democracy; but among Trump’s voters, the figure is over three times as high, 22 percent.
That is still a minority. But given Trump’s roughly 63 million votes in 2016, that 22 percent translates to over 13 million people. As we saw from the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville — which happened a year ago next Sunday — it only takes hundreds or thousands of people with low regard for democracy to have a corrosive impact on our political system.
Trump has actively played to this fringe, by calling the press “the enemy of the people,” attacking the patriotism of his partisan rivals, denigrating the idea of an independent judiciary, and refusing to protect America’s electoral system from confirmed foreign interference. If Trump is not the source of America’s democratic crisis, he is certainly working hard to deepen it.
Fortunately, the study shows steps that leaders can take to push back on such assaults on our democracy. It shows overwhelming, bipartisan support for steps such as stronger limits and disclosure of federal campaign contributions, rules to make it easier to vote, and stronger protections against racial bias in policing and criminal sentencing. Above all, the research shows strong public desire for a new call to public service, as in JFK’s day, with 81 percent supporting incentives for young people to serve their country or community.
All this suggests that, if there is some tendency toward democratic suicide, as John Adams speculated, the driving force is not our public, but rather certain leaders, such as Mr. Trump.