There's been a lot of talk recently about the future of democracy in the United States. Just how committed is the American public to democratic principles? How does the public think democracy is working in practice? Are there differences between - or within - the parties in their support for and feelings about democracy? This month’s newsletter, co-written with Stephen Medvic, the Honorable and Mrs. John C. Kunkel Professor of Government at Franklin & Marshall College, looks at these questions to determine what Pennsylvanians think about the state of democracy in America.
Donald Trump’s behavior as president prompted many to express concern about the fate of American democracy, and the last months of his administration triggered outright panic. The January 6th raid on the Capitol, Republican members of Congress voting to stop the certification of the presidential election results, and GOP state legislators’ attempts to curtail voting rights in 43 states, suggest that support for American democracy is not shared equally between the parties. But do the actions of some Republican elites, or of a small group of Trump true-believers, reflect the attitudes of rank-and-file Republican voters?
We tried to find some answers to this question in the March 2021 Franklin & Marshall College survey of registered voters in the state. We asked respondents about their support for certain principles of democracy as well as for their assessment of how particular aspects of American democracy are working in practice. We then mapped those findings onto the factions found within each party.
Democratic Principles and Practice
The principles of democracy we asked about included whether leaders sometimes have to break the rules to get things done; whether citizens deserve an equal say in how government runs; whether there should be barriers to voting; whether citizens should be allowed to say whatever they think even if their views are unpopular; and whether it’s important to protect the rights of defendants in civil and criminal trials.
To gauge how respondents think American democracy is working in practice, we asked if citizens think the decisions of federal judges are fair and impartial; if the actions of the US House and Senate represent the collective will of the American people; if elections in the United States are free and fair; if the federal government is corrupt; and if the federal government’s operations are open and transparent.
The good news from the survey is that Pennsylvanians of all parties seem committed to democratic principles. On a ten-point scale, where ten represents strong agreement with all five democratic principles and five represents agreeing “somewhat” with each principle, the average score was 7.1. The bad news from the survey is that most voters in the state do not believe that American democracy is working as it should in practice. The average score on the democracy-in-practice questions was 2.4, which means that respondents disagreed with statements describing a well-functioning democracy.
Both Republicans and Democrats support democratic principles (with scores of 6.6 and 7.5, respectively) and both are likely to disagree that American democracy is working well (1.8 and 3.1, respectively). But, Republicans are significantly less likely to think American democracy is working well.
Democracy and Partisanship
In Pennsylvania, the party is closely split between Trump Republicans, about two in five (43%) Pennsylvania Republicans, and traditional Republicans, who also represent about two in five of the state’s Republicans (39%). We found no significant differences between the two sets of Republicans in terms of overall support for democratic principles, but we do see noticeable differences in their support for specific principles. For instance, one in seven (14%) Trump Republicans “strongly agreed” that a leader may sometimes have to break the rules to get things done compared to only one in 25 (4%) traditional Republicans who believe that strongly. And while about half (49%) of traditional Republicans agree that there should be no barriers to voting in the United States, only one in four (29%) Trump Republicans agree. Indeed, more than half (55%) of Trump Republicans “strongly disagreed” with that statement, compared to only a third (34%) of traditional Republicans.
But the essential difference between these factions is in their assessments of American democracy in practice. Trump Republicans (average score of 1.1) are much less likely than traditional Republicans (2.4) to agree with all five statements that the American system is working (see Figure 1). The bottom line is that, while all respondents tend to think that the system isn’t working as we’d expect it to, Trump Republicans are especially likely to hold that perspective.
The differences among Democrats are not as stark. Self-described centrist Democrats (45%) outnumber progressive Democrats (33%) in the state, but the differences in these groups’ ratings of democratic ideals and democracy-in-practice do not differ.
Though there may be other ways to measure support for democracy, we have uncovered pretty clear evidence that Republicans, including those in the Trump faction of the party, are supportive of democratic principles in general. What is also clear is that all voters, and Trump Republicans especially, are dissatisfied with the way democracy is working.
The recent assault on democracy by some Trump loyalists and by so many Republican elected officials is deeply troubling, but so is the widely-held dissatisfaction with the practice of American democracy. In fact, when respondents were asked to identify the most important problem facing the state today, one in four (27%) named government and/or politicians, which is only slightly less than those saying COVID-19 (31%). This sentiment is bipartisan: of those who named government and/or politicians as the biggest problem, 43 percent were Republicans and 41 percent were Democrats.
The evidence in our survey suggests that it’s not democracy, per se, that the public rejects. Instead, both Democrats and Republicans are dissatisfied with the way democracy currently functions in the United States. Perhaps the democratic malaise we are experiencing is actually discontent with our representative form of democracy. The basic elements of that system – just two parties, over-representation of numerical minorities, countless checks and balances – have been in place for close to two hundred years. Perhaps it’s time to introduce newer forms of democratic practices, for instance, changes to how elections are conducted and new forums for deliberation by members of the public, to reinvigorate our politics and help citizens realize a system that functions as they believe it should.
References & Resources
Question Wording and Coding Information for Democratic Ideals, Democracy in Practice, Christian Nationalism, and Racial Attitude Scales
The Honorable and Mrs. John C. Kunkel Professor of Government
Franklin & Marshall College Poll Newsletter
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