Do Americans Value Democracy?
Brace yourselves, this isn’t going to be pretty: A deep dive into the best survey data we have on the ideas and attitudes that shape the political conflict in the United States – Part I
A quick note before we get started: Our one-year anniversary is coming up! I started writing Democracy Americana on November 21, 2022. To mark the occasion, I would like to do our first-ever Q+A: Please send me your questions and I will try to answer a few of them next week. I’d say anything is fair game – questions about American history and politics, but also whatever else might interest you. I wouldn’t mind spending at least a few minutes writing about something slightly more cheerful than the usual. You can leave your questions in the comments to this piece, or feel free to send them in via social media or email.
Cover illustration: iStock / Credit: Paul Campbell
“The political temperature in America is hot,” Robert P. Jones, the president and founder of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), summarized his major takeaway from the 2023 American Values Survey when he introduced the results at a live event in late October. The survey’s findings were released to the public in a report titled “Threats to American Democracy Ahead of an Unprecedented Presidential Election.” And just to make sure no one was under any illusion about how dire the situation was, the first part of the report opens with the headline “State of the country: Pessimism, political violence, paranoia.”
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Pessimism, political violence, paranoia. That sounds pretty dramatic. Unfortunately, it’s also an entirely adequate characterization of the picture the survey paints.
In general, I am skeptical of much of what the polling and survey industry produces, and critical of the role it is playing in the political discourse. It can be very difficult to identify the signal among all the noise that is constantly being released. And too often, polling is taken to mirror public opinion – when it actually does as much to create and construct that which it professes to merely represent. There is no static “public opinion” (singular) that exists independently of the discourse out there, it can’t be captured in supposedly objective numbers. At worst, the fixation on polling data can have the effect of de-politicizing politics: Instead of a deliberative process in which political leaders are part of an ongoing discussion with the electorate about the direction the polity should take, “politics” degenerates into a “Do as the polls tell you” zombie spectacle.
And yet, the American Values Survey (AVS) deserves a lot of attention. We already discussed it two weeks ago on Is This Democracy. But the results have stuck with me, and I have found myself talking about the survey a lot. I’d like to reflect more extensively on what the AVS unearthed, on what to make of these findings, and how to situate them in the broader context of America’s long-standing struggle over democracy. Almost exactly one year before the 2024 presidential election, this is as good an indication as any of the current state of American politics and society.
The American Values Survey stands out precisely because it is not concerned with the horse race, not all about favorability ratings and making far-fetched predictions about future election results. The AVS aims at something deeper – that which underlies the day-to-day squabbles. As the introduction to the AVS puts it: “The survey illuminates Americans’ concerns about the overall direction of the country, the state of the economy and inflation, public education, social connectedness, and the broader health of our democracy.” That last dimension is key: “the broader health of our democracy.” Because in order to get there, the AVS asks questions that, as my co-host Liliana Mason explained on Is This Democracy, not many other surveys tackle – it asks about where people stand on democracy vs authoritarianism, attitudes towards political violence, ideas about national identity, culture, and religious values that determine what vision for America’s future people support or fear.
This is the 14th annual American Values Survey, conducted by the PRRI in partnership with the Brookings Institution. Interviews with 2,525 adults, a representative sample from across the United States, were conducted in the last week of August. And the results are… not exactly encouraging.
Everyone is worried about democracy
According to the American Values Survey, about three quarters of Americans say democracy is at stake in the next election. In a vacuum, this sounds reassuring: Everybody is very worried about threats to democracy. That’s good, right?
Unfortunately, these numbers do not indicate a robust pro-democracy consensus – this is not the (small-d) democratic majority standing up against the MAGA threat. Actually, those on the Right, very much including people who vote for Trump, are at least as concerned about what may happen to democracy in the next election as those in the anti-MAGA camp are. In fact, about as many Americans believe Biden winning reelection would “threaten American democracy and way of life” as there are people thinking Trump coming back to power would endanger democratic self-government.
This finding may be counterintuitive, but it is in line with data from other recent surveys. According to polling conducted by Grinnell College and released on October 19, for instance, Republicans are even more worried than Democrats. “Do you think American democracy is under major threat, minor threat, or no threat at all?” the Grinnell poll asked. 91 percent of Republicans (64 percent major threat, 27 percent minor threat) and 87 percent of Democrats (56 percent major threat, 31 percent minor threat) saw democracy at risk.
What’s going on here? First of all, these results indicate how prevalent the Big Lie is, how pervasive election conspiracies are on the Right. Was the 2020 election stolen from Trump? Overall, about one third of Americans believe it was – and a whopping 63 percent of Republicans do. There is a strong correlation between such conspiratorial beliefs and the type of information environment in which people exist: Among all Americans who indicate Fox News is their most trusted news source, 65 percent say the election was stolen; among those who rely mostly on far-right news sources, we are looking at 92 percent – the Big Lie is the only truth in those circles.
Secondly, I believe these AVS results should serve as a reminder that asking people about just “democracy” doesn’t work. The term means very different things to different people and groups, the visions of what American “democracy” should be, what type of order a functioning democracy should generate, differ widely. The first question we need to ask whenever someone says “democracy” is: What kind of democracy, how much, and for whom – who is included, and who is not? The people who vote for Trump clearly don’t share the vision of egalitarian multiracial pluralism. What they worry about is losing *their* democracy: A restricted version of democracy that leaves entrenched hierarchies of race, gender, and religion largely intact. They are committed to defending their white Christian patriarchal democracy – and determined to prevent multiracial pluralism. From a normative perspective, their preferred order is certainly not very democratic. But it is in line with what used to be the norm across the “West” until very recently. Historically, the term “democracy” applied to societies that varied significantly in terms of who was actually allowed and enabled to participate in the political process as equals – and even more so with regards to whether or not the democratic promise was extended to other spheres of life beyond politics, to the workplace, the family, the public square. The ethno-religious nationalism that animates and defines today’s Right allows for such a restricted form of democracy as long as it excludes people who are not white and not Christian, or at least puts them in their “rightful” place. Here is the kind of “illiberal democracy” that Victor Orbán champions in Hungary and reactionaries on either side of the Atlantic celebrate as a role model.
When the 2023 American Values Survey came out, the result that got the most public attention was this: “Today, nearly a quarter of Americans (23%) agree that ‘because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country,’ up from 15% in 2021.” Broken down by party, a third of Republicans agree that “patriots may have to resort to violence,” compared to 13 percent of Democrats; but the numbers have increased considerably in both camps over the past few years.
As Lily Mason, whose work is centered around the question of political violence, explained on Is This Democracy, the exact numbers are a bit of an outlier compared to what other surveys, including Lily’s own, have found. They are likely a little too high overall, or at least higher than in other studies; and they are probably inflated slightly among Republicans because of the exact wording of the question, because their political identity revolves so much around the idea that they are “American patriots.” For the same reason, however, the Democratic numbers might be too low, as Democrats tend to be primed to react negatively to the “patriots” framing.
In any case, there is little doubt that these numbers are alarmingly high – and there is no reason to question the overall trend: Americans are increasingly likely to regard political violence as a legitimate and necessary response to the situation they face. That’s not great.
It’s interesting to look at what other attitudes are associated with this embrace of political violence. In the AVS, it most clearly correlates with support for Trump and a Christian nationalist ideology, and it was most prevalent among those who believed in the Big Lie or Great Replacement conspiracy theories – as well as those who denied the existence of systemic racism and lamented that the country had become “too feminist.” Political violence is not entirely a rightwing problem – but these correlations are evidence that it primarily is. That’s even more obvious when we situate the survey’s findings in the context of the role political violence has played in American politics. There is a big difference between indicating in a survey that political violence might be acceptable and actually committing violent acts. Actual political violence has been on the rise too – and it is predominantly coming from the Right. There is also only one major party in the United States today in which condoning and stoking violence will not get you in trouble: It is certainly not keeping anyone from being a member in good standing with their party in Congress, or from being the clear favorite to be the Republican Party’s next presidential nominee.
Sliding towards authoritarianism
The American Values Survey posed an interesting question that approximates support for authoritarian, autocratic measures. Interviewees were asked to agree or disagree with the statement “Because things have gotten so far off track in this country, we need a leader who is willing to break some rules if that’s what it takes to set things right.” Overall, 38 percent agreed, 59 percent disagreed. But almost half of Republicans, 48 percent, are on board with “breaking some rules” – meaning: some of those pesky rules that sustain constitutional government and the democratic order.
These results shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who’s been paying attention to the trajectory on which the Republican Party has been for a long time. Trump’s appealed to the Right in 2016 precisely because he made it clear he wouldn’t be bound by the rules. That’s exactly what reactionary intellectual/pundit Michael Anton captured so precisely in his infamous “Flight 93” essay, published shortly before the 2016 election, in which he made the case for Donald Trump by presenting the Democrats as a fundamental threat to America, akin to the terrorists of 9/11: Anton called on the Right to embrace Trumpism because Trump would be willing to go much further to stop this “Un-American” threat than any of the “ordinary” Republicans who were “merely reactive,” who would keep playing by the rules of the game, and for whom Anton had nothing but contempt. Since Trump, in this interpretation, wasn’t constrained by norms, traditions, or precedents, he alone could be counted on to do whatever was necessary to fight back against the “wholesale cultural and political change” – to “charge the cockpit,” in Anton’s crude analogy, like the passengers of Flight 93 on 9/11. What the American Values Survey is picking up here is how the “Flight 93” mentality is taking over not just the rightwing intellectual sphere, where it’s been hegemonic for a while, but ever larger parts of the Republican Party and its voters as well. It is now “Flight 93” politics, all the time.
The fact that so many people desire a leader who is unburdened by norms while the percentage of Americans who respect the rules of the political system is decreasing is a reminder of how high the stakes of the political conflict currently are – or, at least: are perceived to be. As much as the mainstream political discourse likes to pretend that we are having a debate over policy issues, that we all share a vision for this country, only differ on the best way to get there: Voters understand that what actually defines American politics is a struggle between fundamentally incompatible ideas of what this country should be going forward. They don’t feel quite the same need as mainstream media outlets do to sanitize this conflict, nor their conviction that if the stakes are indeed existential, then breaking the rules might not only be justified, but necessary.
The role of Christian nationalism
One third of Americans overall and a majority (52 percent) of Republicans agree that “God intended America to be a new promised land where European Christians could create a society that could be an example to the rest of the world.” In a related question, 75 percent of Republicans think “the founders of the United States intended it to be a Christian nation with Western European values” – a white Christian nation, that is. It is an idea of the nation’s history and identity that is not confined to the Right: It is shared by 52 percent of Americans and still 35 percent of Democrats.
From a (small-d) democratic perspective, that’s a problem, because these ideas are, to put it mildly, in tension with multiracial, pluralistic democracy. Not surprisingly, they also correlate strongly with fundamentally anti-democratic attitudes: For instance, according to the AVS, “Americans who believe that America was designed by God to be a promised land for European Christians are significantly more likely than those who disagree to say that true American patriots may have to resort to violence to save the country (39% vs. 16%).”
This is not a new phenomenon. In fundamental ways, what we often describe as the American project has been shaped by two competing visions from the very beginning. One is captured in the idea that all men – all people – are created equal. Who had a claim to be counted among the people has always been contested. But there was undoubtedly an aspirational vision there: A civic nationalism that defined the country as a place where everyone could become American if they subscribed to the principles of egalitarian democracy. But for most of the country’s history, status and resources have been distributed in accordance with a very different vision – that of America as a land of and for white Christians, where white Christians had a right to be at the top and determine the boundaries of who and what was “American.”
The current form of white Christian nationalism that is so prevalent on the Right is a specific iteration of this anti-egalitarian vision. What distinguishes the current situation from previous eras is the fact that the clash between those fundamentally incompatible ideas of what America is and should be maps so clearly onto the struggle between the two major parties. Everything in American politics comes back to this fundamental reality: The conflict over whether America ought to forever remain a white Christian supremacy or be finally transformed into the egalitarian, multiracial democracy it never has been yet is a partisan battle. As long as the fault lines between those visions align with those in the fight between the two major parties, democracy itself is on the ballot in every election.
Since the whole piece is significantly longer than Substack will accommodate, we’ll have to split it up. Stay tuned for Part II, which will come out shortly: Protecting the “American way of life,” a nation of pessimists, the pitfalls of Bidenomics, abortion, anti-feminist radicalization, education and gender wars, and more QAnon than any democracy can be reasonably expected to handle…
And please don’t forget: Send in your questions for the one-year anniversary Q+A!
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