Taking the Temperature of American Democracy
Many see next year's election as a historic test of American democracy. What does a national survey say about how “democratic” the attitudes of the voters themselves are?
The findings of the 2023 American Values Survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) have just been released, under the title Threats to American Democracy Ahead of an Unprecedented Presidential Election. Participants in the survey weren’t asked about their trust in election results, but the survey makes it clear that’s not the only controversy. Nine out of 10 members of both parties told PRRI that a victory by the other side would pose a threat to democracy.
There’s considerable nuance in what Americans take “democracy” to mean, or what threats to it might encompass. The latter can range from varying degrees of certainty that the country was meant to be a “Christian nation” to believing that government, media and finance are “controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation.” (One in four “completely” or “mostly” agreed with the latter statement.)
“The QAnon responses were really interesting to us — all these things are disproven, not true, but we’re seeing slight upticks in the number of Americans who think that elements of QAnon are real,” says PRRI CEO Melissa Deckman. “When you get caught up in those conspiracies, it leads to greater mistrust of institutions, lack of trust in each other and more suspicion.”
Deckman is also worried by the rising number of survey respondents who believe violence could be an acceptable strategy of last resort. Almost one in four agreed that this might be necessary, though 18 percent agreed “mostly” rather than “completely.”
“I think that’s something that’s really important to monitor, and to name,” says Deckman.
What else does the survey say about the current “temperature” of American democracy? There’s enough detail in PRRI’s report for numerous attempts to answer this question. Here’s a review of some of the data points and what they might reveal about both democratic and “antidemocratic” attitudes currently in the air.
Prospects for Violence
Over the past three years, the total percentage of people who agreed with the statement “Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country” has increased (from 18 to 23 percent). The increase has occurred in the “mostly agree” category over this period (see chart).
Nathan Kalmoe, executive administrative director for the Center for Communication and Civic Renewal (CCCR) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, studies political violence. He’s the author of Radical American Partisanship: Mapping Violent Hostility, Its Causes, and the Consequences for Democracy.
Kalmoe would agree that we’re in an especially precarious time but doesn’t think there’s much chance that 23 percent of Americans would actually carry out violent actions. Violent attitudes aren’t the same thing as violent intentions or violent behavior.
“Each time you take a step from attitude to intention, and intention to acting on that intention, you are losing a ton of people,” he says. There’s also substantially less support if “violence” means lethal force as opposed to (still unwanted) low-level aggression.
It’s a meaningful attitude nonetheless, Kalmoe says. His interest in studying and writing a book about violence (with co-author Lilliana Mason) revolves around interpersonal influence. “We wanted to understand how it can make things worse when people encourage violence through their attitudes and their conversations, and how people can make things better by saying violence is not acceptable in a democracy.”
A multiyear study of threats and harassment experienced by local government officials offers some perspective on the relative frequency of attacks. (One percent is still too high.)
Alike and Very Different
One way to gain perspective on the fear that both Democrats and Republicans expressed that losing the presidency would mean harm to democracy is to look at how differently they ranked the importance of a set of issues that would seem to have inherent “democratic” character. (See chart.)
Almost half (49 percent) of respondents to the American Values Survey said the statement, “The Democratic Party has been taken over by Socialists” came closest to their views, while the remainder (48 percent) said the same of, “The Republican Party has been taken over by racists.”
However, other findings show that most Americans share inclusive attitudes that don’t line up with recent efforts by state legislators. Hundreds of bills have been put forward in recent years to restrict the rights of the LGBTQ community, and much attention has been given to limiting how slavery can be taught and talked about in classrooms.
Although some have raised concerns that frank discussion of slavery could be upsetting to some students, support for banning such material was low, across party lines. Moreover, 94 percent agreed with the statement, “We should teach our children both the good and bad aspects of our history so that they can learn from the past.”
A Christian Nation?
The relationship between religious beliefs and public policy has become a source of increasing controversy, reflected in fights over abortion, pushback against LGBTQ rights and legislative efforts to return elements of religion to public schools.
Just over half (52 percent) of those PRRI reached “mostly” or “completely” agreed with the idea that the founders meant for the U.S. to be a Christian nation. The exact meaning of this response is hard to interpret. PRRI also found that 60 percent of Americans believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
The picture is even less clear when the results of PRRI's Survey of American Religion are added to the mix. In 2022, close to one in three (27 percent) of all Americans said they were "religiously unaffiliated." Nearly four in 10 (38 percent) in the 18-29 age range said this.
Nearly two-thirds agreed that we are “becoming a minority-rule country where laws do not reflect the will of the majority.” More than three-fourths said America is “going in the wrong direction.” (By contrast, a new report from the American Communities Project finds that 87 percent of Americans believe their own lives are on the right track, and 63 percent say the same of their communities.)
That’s not all. Nearly two-thirds of Americans are dissatisfied with their choices in the presidential election, according to a September Pew Research Center report. Only 10 percent feel “hopeful” when thinking about politics, more than half “angry" — but more than anything else (65 percent), politics makes them feel “exhausted.”
“For all the money that gets spent on political ads, and all of the campaign door-knockers, the people that have the most impact are ordinary people talking to the people that they know and care about.”