Doubting democracy?

Some question whether this whole experiment in self-governance is coming to an end. It's not.

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It’s been said that public opinion polls are rather like children in a garden, digging things up all the time to see how they’re growing. This is obvious right now, more than a year out from Nov. 5, 2024, with poll after poll regarding potential presidential matchups jockeying for headlines. Such polls are staples of political commentary and analysis, but at this point on the election calendar, it’s fair to say individual polls don’t mean much.

When one goes beyond the weekly horse race, though, it can be worth more than a glance and a shrug. That’s the case with new data from the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, which uncovered an alarming lack of support for democratic norms – up to and including the breakup of the United States – among a sizeable number of Americans. From the Center’s summary of the findings:

A stunning number of Americans endorse policies that could challenge the U.S. Constitution, even as a majority express a preference for democracy over other forms of governance. A significant share of respondents also expressed doubts about both the future of democracy and even the United States as it is currently composed. Roughly two in five (41%) of respondents leaning towards Donald Trump in 2024 at least somewhat agreed with the idea of red states seceding from the Union to form their own separate country, while 30% of Biden supporters expressed a similar sentiment, but for blue states. Disturbingly, nearly one-third (31%) of Trump supporters and about a quarter (24%) of Biden supporters at least somewhat agree that democracy is no longer a viable system and that the country should explore alternative forms of government to ensure stability and progress.

The study polled 2,008 registered voters from Aug. 25 to Sept. 11 to gauge sentiments as the 2024 presidential race looms.

It gets worse:

›› 41% of self-identified Biden supporters and 38% of those who said they support Trump at least somewhat support using violence to stop “the other side.”

›› 30% of Trump supporters and 25% of Biden supporters at least somewhat support suspending elections in times of crisis.

›› 45% of Trump supporters and 30% of Biden supporters agree that if the government believes protests may be disruptive to “the public order,” they should be limited under the law.

Here’s the full report on the study from UVA, whose director, Larry Sabato, punctuated with this comment: “The divide between Trump and Biden voters is deep, wide, and dangerous. The scope is unprecedented, and it will not be easily fixed.”

Yes, it’s just one poll. But we would be remiss to simply dismiss it, given that its results generally track with other recent research in this neighborhood. There is a dark current running through America, and it can’t be easily explained away via our preferred partisan lenses. A not-insignificant portion of the American people believe we cannot solve our shared problems via democratic means.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. We’ve just emerged from a once-in-a-century pandemic that killed hundreds of thousands of Americans, frayed our social connections, amplified conspiracy theorists, and undermined trust in our institutions. It was a mass trauma with mass aftershocks – since 2020, we’ve all been on a frightening trajectory driven largely by inflation and insurrection. Rampant disinformation compounds every problem, so it’s not unthinkable to question whether this whole experiment in self-governance is coming to an end.

It’s not. It’s important to remember that our nation has faced similarly existential challenges many times since 1776. Each time, we’ve emerged with our democratic way of life and our core egalitarian values intact. Every era in our history is distinct and unique, of course, but the through-line is clear.

Last February, we convened a Civic Saturday at the Nebraska History Museum. The topic was confidence in U.S. democracy, from the founders’ first leap of faith to the ones we make every day as co-creators of our modern, shared democratic reality. After absorbing these latest poll results, we’re reminded of that bright February Saturday’s civic sermon:

Here’s the thing about the current despair over American democracy: If it persists too long and too loudly, it risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Taking part in the democracy-is-doomed refrains can, in fact, doom democracy.

I don’t suggest ignoring this popular sentiment. And I’m not naive to the challenges we face. But I’d suggest we all remember that despite it all, our American system remains awfully extraordinary.

 Why? Because it comes from us. Our democratic roots run deep. Our devotion to equality is unwavering, even if our track record is uneven. Our laws, institutions, and traditions are derived from the collective empathy and hope and optimism of our people. 

This makes our democracy incredibly dynamic and resilient. It’s unlike any other system in the world. It doesn’t disintegrate with the election of a populist demagogue. It’s tough. Because it comes from here (holds hand to heart) 

Eric Liu, the father of Civic Saturdays, often says democracy works only if enough people believe democracy works. Of course, he’s right; while most current polling suggests we’re pretty sour about the way things are going right now, we do share an underlying belief that we all will get through this together – and what’s more, we’ll be better off when we reach the other side.

You can’t manufacture this mindset. We’re believers. And it’s this belief that moves us forward, even today, with confidence in our ideals and our ideas. In America, exchanging ideas is not just some detached, academic exercise. Speaking up and advocating for change can be as empowering as they are powerful: When we use our voices, whether it’s speaking truth to power or to one another, we walk in the footsteps of those patriots throughout our history who cast away the established order, the status quo, of their time.

This American character is so important right now. This is unmistakably a threshold chapter in our national story. It certainly bears all the hallmarks, at least – an unsettled citizenry, political and social turbulence, and new technologies disrupting just about everything. 

If we stay true to form, this turbulent period will eventually give rise to a new era of change and progress that is more efficient, equitable, and durable than what came before it. This has happened before, and God willing, it’ll happen again. 

It’s true. We Americans are, at our core, an optimistic, forward-looking people. So let’s keep the faith, let’s spread the faith, and let’s keep pushing on. Right here and right now, there is no more urgent and important duty.

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