In an age of growing challenges both at home and abroad to the fundamental tenets of American democracy, a new poll from the George W. Bush Institute, the University of Pennsylvania’s Biden Center, and Freedom House has been released to shed light on what Americans actually believe about the state of their democracy.
Some of the findings are not surprising: Americans overwhelmingly support democratic government and believe it is important to keep the system we have inherited. Others are worrisome: Only 42 percent of nonwhite Americans are satisfied with “the way democracy is working in our country.” Among white respondents, the figure is only marginally better at 51 percent. For political activists and leaders seeking to preserve and strengthen democracy in America, the poll revealed both noteworthy concerns and potential opportunities:
There was a partisan gap among respondents when asked whether America was in “real danger of becoming a nondemocratic, authoritarian country.” Among self-identified Democrats, 57 percent said there was a real danger of this, while 37 percent of Republican respondents said the danger is real.
By a similar token, a majority of respondents said the state of American democracy is weak, and two-thirds believe it is getting weaker. Unsurprisingly, Republicans were more likely than Democrats to say that the state of democracy is strong, however they still split almost evenly over whether it is getting stronger (45 percent) or weaker (47 percent).
While the poll makes no claims about correlation or causation, it appears that part of this cynicism may be tied to Americans’ widespread frustration with the influence of money in politics. Eighty percent of respondents said the “influence of money in politics” is getting worse rather than better. When broken down by party, 81 percent of Democrats and 70 percent of Republicans said that new laws being enacted mostly favor special interests and their lobbyists. Overall, only 17 percent of respondents agreed with this statement: “The laws enacted by our national government these days mostly reflect what the people want.”
Despite the lack of confidence expressed by respondents, it seems that democratic values are still alive and well and in America. Fifty-four percent, for example, affirmed that “in our democracy, it is more important that the majority does not trample on the rights of individuals and small groups,” against 39 percent that agreed “it is more important that the will of the majority prevails.” While poll respondents may have had different minority groups in mind, this suggests overall support for the idea that elected representatives do not have a mandate to impose certain laws and policies without regard for the rights and interests of those who may be harmed or disagree.
The poll also offered clues about which messaging strategies resonate most strongly with Americans. In the section dedicated to this question, 86 percent of respondents felt more favorable about American democracy after hearing this statement: “Today, there is a great need for us all to act as responsible citizens – things like voting, volunteering, taking time to stay informed, and standing up for what’s right – so that the freedoms and rights we cherish don’t get whittled away.”