How Can Democracy Possibly Work Under Such Conditions?
Pervasive pessimism and nostalgia, waning support for a racial reckoning, anti-feminist retrenchment, and so many conspiracies… A deep dive into the American Values Survey, Part II
Before we get started: A big thank you to everyone who sent in questions for the one-year anniversary Q+A! I’ve received some really interesting ones and I am excited to tackle as many of them as I can in upcoming newsletters. Coming very soon.
Cover illustration: iStock / Credit: Paul Campbell
When the 2023 American Values Survey was published in late October, most of the headlines were devoted to the rising percentage of Americans regarding political violence as justified and potentially necessary, to the fact that about as many people think 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, to the increasing number of Republicans who embrace authoritarianism. I focused on these aspects last week in Part I of my reflection on some of the best publicly available survey data on the ideas and attitudes that shape the political conflict in the United States.
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But there is so much more in there: On the staunch partisan and generational differences in what Americans see as the most pressing challenges facing the country; the widespread nostalgia for a less pluralistic, less equal past; and all those issues that are coded as “polarizing” in the mainstream discourse – racism, education, abortion, gender politics and lgbtq rights. On some of these “wedge issues,” the results are genuinely encouraging, I promise; on others, they are deeply concerning and even, to me, downright terrifying. Ready to dive back in?
Gotta get those priorities right
Do Americans prefer a presidential candidate who is best at managing the economy – or one who is best at “protecting and preserving American culture and the American way of life”? For anyone who wants to understand the current political conflict in the United States – and what is driving the anti-democratic radicalization on the Right, specifically – this question provides an excellent starting point. Overall, a slight majority (51%) prefers a candidate who is best equipped to handle the economy. But there is a significant partisan gap, as most Republicans actually want someone who can preserve American culture (58%) over one who can manage the economy (40%).
This result tracks with another question asked in the survey, about people’s issue priorities. Increasing costs of housing and everyday expenses is the one issue that majorities of both Republicans and Democrats regard as critical. Beyond that, there is not much consensus to be found. Democrats view climate change, gun safety, health care, the health of democracy, and growing social inequality as crucial. Republicans, on the other hand, worry mostly about “what children are learning in public schools,” crime, immigration, and human trafficking.
The differences between Republicans and Democrats in what they prioritize in a political leader may seem straightforward enough: Democrats care about the economy, and Republicans only about culture and feelings. While that’s not wrong (I mean, it’s literally in the question: economy or culture), I think it’s likely to invoke ideas and associations about what is going on here that are not helpful. The term “culture” is the crux of the matter. Just like the word “identity,” it inevitably misleads people into thinking we are dealing with ephemeral, arcane issues of secondary importance, somehow detached from the socio-economic realities that shape people’s lives. But the stakes are so much higher than that.
The challenge is to properly unpack what “American culture and the American way of life” actually means. In the survey, the people who defined this as their priority were also much more likely to be worried about immigration, support Christian nationalism, and agree that the country had become “too feminine.” In this interpretation, what needs to be protected is a white, Christian, patriarchal way of life in accordance with traditional and/or divinely ordained hierarchies of race, gender, and religion. There is nothing ephemeral or aloof about this “culture”: In this context, the term indicates a preference for a very specific, all-encompassing societal order. What we often refer to as the “culture wars” is a struggle over what “America” should be, who should get to define it, who should get to delineate the boundaries of who or what counts as “American,” who should have the right to shape society in their own image and have their own image reflected back at them in the public square. This isn’t just political theater. It’s about power and status in all spheres of life, very much including politics and the economy. Think of the “culture wars” as equality and national identity wars – a struggle over nothing less than the question of who has a right to be at the top, because they embody the essence of “real America,” and who doesn’t really belong and is, at best, tolerated, their status always conditional on them shutting up and accepting their “rightful” place further down the ladder. So, yes, Republicans are fixated on culture rather than specific economic policy issues. But the “real American” way of life they envision comes with a pretty clear understanding of how power and resources should be distributed. It’s not so much that they aren’t anxious about the economy – but their economic concern is downstream from the “cultural” anxiety.
It is probably not all that surprising that older Americans are leaning more strongly towards wanting a presidential candidate who focuses on preserving the “American way of life.” Not all the issues addressed in the 2023 AVS map neatly onto generational fault lines. But there is significant age gap here that also manifests in the answer to the question of whether “American culture and way of life has mostly changed for the worse” since the 1950s. Overall, 55% agree that things have indeed changed for the worse since the middle decades of the twentieth century. But there are still marked generational differences, as this narrative of decline is shared by 49% of Generation Z and millennials, 58% of Generation X, 60% of baby boomers, and 67% of the Silent Generation. More important, however, is the partisan divide: Almost three quarters (73%) of Republicans agree that things were better in the 1950s – but only about one third (34%) of Democrats. There is certainly a great deal of pessimism among Americans today. But whether or not that pessimism and sense of skeptical frustration translate into support for a reactionary political project seems to depend largely on whether or not it is tied to a vision of America that is vastly more white, Christian, and patriarchal – the kind of pre-civil rights era America.
Is Bidenomics the solution?
All of this – the division over economic vs cultural concerns, the pervasive pessimism, the easily weaponized nostalgia – has massive implications not just for our understanding of the conflict, but also for the question of how to manage it politically. Joe Biden’s instinct is to emphasize economic matters – the mythical pocketbook – and good governance, to unite the country around a message of Bidenomics. This was captured in his State of the Union address in January: The president talked at length about economic policies, the job market and especially manufacturing jobs, semiconductors and infrastructure, better health care and a fairer tax system, antitrust enforcement and reigning in corrupt forms of capitalism. This was, for better or worse, a pocketbook speech, with some economic populism mixed in.
The American Values Survey could be interpreted as evidence that Bidenomics is, if nothing else, good politics, a smart messaging strategy – if the goal is to mobilize and unite Democrats, as they indicated a preference for a political leader who focuses on the economy. Then again, the survey data is more ambiguous than that: Among groups leaning Democratic, the most economically anxious are people of color and young people. And young people, especially, are a pronounced weakness for Biden. It’s important to note that Gen Z and Millenials haven’t exactly been flocking to Trump in recent years and have instead mobilized strongly as part of successive anti-MAGA election cycles, at least in blue and purple states. But whatever else may be true, younger generations certainly don’t seem to be trusting Bidenomics enough to be uniting enthusiastically behind Joe Biden. That ought to be cause for concern.
And what about those on the other side of the aisle? Could the Bidenomics approach actually slow down or even reverse the anti-democratic radicalization on the Right? I have registered my skepticism before, and I read the AVS as more evidence that Bidenomics is unlikely to be the solution. An approach focused on economics seems rather ill-suited to “lowering the temperature” and bridging the divide when most Republicans, and especially those in the MAGA camp, are focused a lot more on the “culture wars” over who deserves equality and who gets to define national identity. If what people on the Right, especially the mythical white working class, are concerned about is not so much the decline of manufacturing and industry per se, but their relative decline of societal status associated with the undermining of white Christian patriarchal dominance, Bidenomics as a strategy based on alleviating economic anxiety and its downstream effects will struggle to reach them.
Conventional political campaign wisdom, certainly among the Democratic establishment, stipulates that economic concerns and pocketbook issues will ultimately override matters of culture and identity. I’m doubtful this was ever an adequate diagnosis of how people define their political interests, as it doesn’t grapple seriously with how “pocketbook issues” and “culture wars” are inevitably intertwined. In our current situation, the conventional wisdom seems entirely unable to grasp the depth of the conflict between two fundamentally incompatible visions of what America is supposed to be. Rather than discarding the results of the AVS as merely the manifestation of mass delusion or propaganda-induced false consciousness, we should assume that people on the conservative base know what they are doing: A large percentage of them seems to be defining their key interest as the preservation of a white, Christian, patriarchal “American way of life.” If that is so, they are likely to be unimpressed by Bidenomics, even if it effects their pocketbook in immediate, positive ways – and unlikely to see Joe Biden as anything but the leader of a fundamentally illegitimate, Un-American faction that is pursuing a project of destroying America by turning it into a multiracial, pluralistic nightmare.
Big Issues: The good
Let’s take a closer look at what the American Values Survey unearthed about where the nation stands on the most hotly contested “culture wars” issues. And why not start with what can be described, from a small-d democratic perspective, as the good news (finally!).
On abortion, the country is divided – but it is not split in the middle. The AVS results provide yet more evidence that a relatively stable majority of almost two thirds of Americans believes abortion should be legal in most or all cases. This is not necessarily a recent development: These trends have generally held for decades. And yet, the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision to abolish the right to abortion in the summer of 2022 has drastically altered the landscape: It made abortion a much more salient issue among Democrats, almost half of whom (49%) now consider it among the most critical issues, compared to just 32% of Republicans who regard it as equally important.
In that sense, the politics of abortion has been turned upside down. While Republicans are often described as single-issue voters on abortion, according to the AVS, this is a much more adequate characterization of Democrats today: Half of them proclaim they would only vote for a candidate who shares their views on abortion – only 38% of Republicans say the same. And on this, there is now ample proof of concept in practice: Protecting abortion rights wins elections. Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, seven states have voted on abortion-related ballot measures (California, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, Vermont, Ohio) – those who support abortion rights won in every single one of them.
Inarguably the most encouraging takeaway from the whole survey: Americans really don’t like book banners, and when it comes to U.S. history, at least, they are not big on restricting the discussion of supposedly “divisive” topics in education either. 94% – let me say that again: ninety-four percent! – agree that “we should teach our children both the good and bad aspects of our history so that they can learn from the past.” That’s almost everyone. Meanwhile, only 4% - four! – argue that “we should not teach children history that could make them feel uncomfortable or guilty about what their ancestors did in the past.”
That is absolutely remarkable. And the exact phrasing is important: history that could make kids feel “uncomfortable” – that is precisely the kind of language Republicans have been using in their censorship bills in red states. They are doing it against the explicit will of the people – even the will of their own supporters: Fewer than 10% of Republicans, for instance, support the banning of books that include depictions of slavery from being taught in public schools.
Big issues: The ambiguous
“Americans are divided over whether the recent killings of Black Americans by police are isolated incidents (48%),” the AVS report explains, “or part of a broader pattern of how police treat Black Americans (48%).” These numbers constitute a return to 2015 levels after 56% had agreed with a more systemic interpretation in 2020.
This isn’t a new revelation from the American Values Survey, but it is an important reminder: The support among white Americans for a racial reckoning that would have meaningfully addressed systemic, institutional racism in general and police violence against Black people specifically peaked in the summer of 2020 – and has significantly decreased since.
Although that is not included in the AVS, public perceptions of Black Lives Matter protests reveal a similar dynamic: When BLM started in 2013/14, it was broadly unpopular, especially among white Americans. But as racial attitudes have generally moved left, specifically in the late Obama era and then during Trump’s reign, BLM’s popularity rose – and then exploded during the anti-racist mass protests in the summer of 2020. At that point, around two thirds of Americans approved of BLM and supported BLM-led protests. But support has since dropped – mostly among white Americans and disproportionately among men, Republicans, and older people.
There are still signs, however, that the broader trends of the past decade have not been completely reversed. It continues to be true that white Democrats display increasingly liberal racial attitudes. It wasn’t until after the 2020 election, for instance, that a majority of Democrats supported affirmative action for the very first time. But in terms of racial attitudes, Americans are strongly polarized along party lines, and the signs of a retrenchment beyond just the Republican camp are unmistakable. The racial reckoning that seemed possible, perhaps, in the summer of 2020, did not come – now a counter-reckoning is gaining steam.
Counter-reckoning might also be the right term to describe what is happening in the realm of gender attitudes and politics. We are experiencing a moment of anti-feminist counter-mobilization and gender retrenchment – call if the post-#MeToo backlash. According to the AVS, a majority of 53% still opposes banning “the discussion of sexual orientation and/or gender identity in public schools,” compared to just 43% who favor it. But notice how Republicans have a lot more public support for their weaponized “discomfort” here than they do for their attempts to censor history.
The anti-feminist retrenchment manifests most clearly in how widespread the idea is that America has become “too soft and feminine” – the country in split in half: 48% agree that’s the case, 48% disagree.
As you would expect, the partisan gap is massive: While agreement with the statement that things have become “too feminine” has gone down slightly among Democrats in recent years, it has gone up significantly among Republicans, from 53% in 2011 to 72% today. Sadly, the anti-feminist grievance is not something that will just go away over time via generational change. Among GenZ men (those born in the mid-90s through about 2010), 60% agree that America has “become too soft and feminine.” I find that depressing.
Finally, the American Values Survey asked about trans rights. At first sight, things have been trending in a disastrous direction. “A majority of Americans today,” the AVS report states, “favor laws that require transgender individuals to use bathrooms that correspond to their sex at birth rather than their current gender identity (54% favor, 40% oppose).” That’s a significant shift compared to 2016, when the first wave of Republican bathroom bills very much failed and garnered widespread opposition rather than support. In fact, when the AVS asked the same question in 2016, only 35% favored the bills, while 53% opposed them – meaning we are looking at about a 20-point shift in favor of discriminatory anti-trans legislation over the past seven years.
A similar trend manifests with regards to gender-affirming health care. Just over the past year, since the summer of 2022, support for bills banning such care for minors has gone up across the board and in either party: from 44% to 49% overall, from 61% to 72% among Republicans, from 22% to 28% among Democrats.
It is not all bad, however, and there are indicators suggesting that things might not be quite as bleak as they seem. It is important to note that restricting trans rights is not among the priorities for any of the groups surveyed in the AVS. Once again, we have proof of concept: Anti-trans crusading has not been an electoral winner for Republicans since 2020 – there is very little evidence that GOP voters are mobilized by this issue.
Most importantly, the AVS strongly suggests that support for anti-trans legislation is less driven by consistent and stable ideological leanings and much more a function of how the issue is being presented. In the survey, when people were asked whether or not “trans activists have gone too far in recent years,” a majority (54%) said they indeed had. But among the same group of people, an even stronger majority of 58% agreed that “Restricting the right of transgender people is just another form of discrimination.”
It is evidently possible to phrase the issue in a way that activates a general “woke gone wild / activists be too radical” sensibility. This is not surprising, considering that much of the mainstream media coverage has been focused on “the trans problem” as a national emergency akin to an epidemic, and an armada of ostensibly liberal / centrist opinionists have been committed to the narrative of radical trans activists pushing teens into transitioning too fast. But when the “trans question” is presented to people as what it is: a civil rights issue, an equality issue, an issue of one of the most marginalized groups in the country being under assault, most Americans think that’s not ok. There is still hope.
Big issues: The ugly
I’ll have to end on a shocker – well, maybe I am just professing my ignorance here, but I will admit that I was shocked. From the AVS report: “Since March 2021, the share of QAnon believers has increased significantly, from 14% to 23% today. The percentage of Americans who completely reject QAnon beliefs has significantly decreased from 40% to 29% in 2023.” What on earth is going on here?
Alright, let’s take a step back and look at how the survey sought to measure support for the QAnon conspiracy. They broke it down into three questions and asked people whether or not they agreed that “(1) The government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation; (2) There is a storm coming soon that will sweep away the elites in power and restore the rightful leaders; (3) Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” The third part takes up the same question we have already discussed in Part I, about the increasing acceptance of political violence. Overall, this seems adequate to me: The questions do not sanitize this inherently violent conspiracy theory – they capture how out there, how deranged and extreme this stuff is.
And yet, judged by their answers to these questions, 29% of Republicans qualify as QAnon believers, up from 23% two years ago. And while support is lower on the Democratic side, we encounter the same trend, as the number of Democratic QAnon believers has doubled – doubled! – since March 2021, from 7% to 14%. At least as worrying is the fact that over the same time, the proportion of Democrats who completely reject QAnon has decreased from 58% to 43%.
If you are thinking: wait, maybe this is mostly just a function of support for one of the three questions they asked, maybe the third one, about patriotic violence, that is least QAnon-specific? Sadly, that’s not the explanation. Agreement with the other two statements is actually higher – the “Satan-worshipping pedophiles are controlling the government, media, and financial worlds” part, for instance, is supported by 25% of Americans – one fourth! –, compared to 15% in 2021.
Again, I am sure a number of caveats apply. As always with this kind of survey data, it is probably not productive to fixate on the exact percentages, which are inevitably influenced by the specific phrasing of the questions. But is there a plausible reason to doubt the general magnitude of the problem, and the devastating trends over recent years? I am asking sincerely: I readily admit I am not anywhere close to an expert on this matter. I was, of course, aware that millions of people had an affinity to this conspiracy theory – but I didn’t think it had reached such an enormous scale. And why has this spread so much over the past two years, and in Democratic circles as well? I realize I have some digging, reading, listening to do.
I don’t have any grand conclusion, let alone a solution to offer. But these results are indicative of a deeply troubled society – a fundamentally unhealthy social and political culture. In a healthy political environment, all those in power, across party lines, would regard this as a national emergency and mobilize all available resources of the state and civil society in an all-out effort to reverse those trends. In America, that is evidently not happening. It is increasingly difficult to see how we can make democracy work under such conditions.
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