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New study finds increase in support for democracy — but weaker support among politically disengaged and conservatives

- March 13, 2018
Support for democracy is lower among people with less formal education, who don’t follow the news and who don’t vote, a poll finds. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

The election of Donald Trump — as well as trends in certain other democracies — has spawned real concern that democratic institutions are under threat. To be sure, systematic data do not suggest a massive decline in democracy across the world. But clearly this does not mean that any trends toward autocracy can be ignored.

One specific concern throughout the past few years is whether ordinary citizens are truly committed to democracy. Here again, the data have proved equivocal: There has not been a consistent or meaningful decline in support for democracy across multiple countries. Similarly, although a weakening commitment to democracy has been blamed on younger people, there is no clear evidence that, say, the “millennial” cohort is any different from older cohorts when they were the same age as millennials are now.

A new report sheds some important light on this debate. Co-written by Lee Drutman, Larry Diamond and Joe Goldman, it is one of a continuing series of reports produced by the Voter Study Group. (Disclosure: I am the research director of the Voter Study Group.) In this report, based on a July survey with 5,000 Americans, four key findings stand out:

1) Support for democracy is actually higher in this survey than several earlier surveys.

Compared with surveys in the 1990s and 2000s, the percentage of Americans who say that “a strong leader who does not have to bother with Congress and elections” is a “fairly” or “very good” way of governing the country has declined. The percentage who say that “having the army rule” is good was similar to 2011. The percentage who say that a “democratic” political system is fairly or very bad has also declined slightly.

Of course, these views are held by a minority of Americans overall. Most Americans do support democracy. That’s true among younger cohorts, too. In fact, in this survey, younger cohorts were actually less likely to favor a “strong leader” and no more likely than older cohorts to favor “army rule.”

2) The key ingredient in shaky support for democracy is a lack of engagement with politics.

If you want to find people who are tempted by authoritarian alternatives to democracy, find people who aren’t really paying much attention to politics. This finding comes through again and again in this report. Support for democracy is lower among people with less formal education, who don’t follow the news and who don’t vote.

In a sense, this is encouraging: We should be really concerned if people who care deeply about politics and vote in every election are also the people tempted by army rule. But it does suggest that shaky support for democracy is not easily remedied. There will always be a sizable chunk of Americans who grow up without much interest in politics and who haven’t necessarily been fully socialized into democratic norms.

3) Shaky support for democracy is more visible among conservatives.

In the report, a willingness to consider a “strong leader” system or put less priority on democracy is more visible among self-identified conservatives — and particularly among those who express conservative views on social and racial issues. Indeed, support for anti-democratic political systems is especially strong among those who think that being white and European is important to American identity. Of course, this same correlation is visible in real politics — as regimes that have sought to weaken democratic institutions often espouse an exclusive national identity based on racial characteristics.

One cautionary note, however: Whether anti-democratic sentiments are more prominent on the left or right may also depend on which party occupies the White House. This survey was obviously conducted with a President Trump. But in other surveys conducted during the Obama administration, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to agree that it could be justifiable for the president to “close Congress” and govern by himself. So it remains to be seen how much anti-democratic sentiments are durable products of a particular worldview as opposed to an expedient rationalization of partisanship.

4) Don’t count on “the people” for unwavering support of democracy.

The report also sounds a note of concern: Across a range of five questions, nearly half of Americans gave at least one answer that was less than fully supportive of democracy.

Clearly this is not ideal. But it is also worth asking: Is it unusual? The history of American public opinion has shown that ordinary citizens are often not stalwart defenders of democratic norms. They are weakly committed to civil liberties for unpopular groups, for example. This is why political leaders and institutions, not ordinary citizens, often must be the key defenders of democratic norms — even if they themselves are not perfect either.

There is much more in this report, which I encourage you to read.

[Additional disclosure: The Democracy Fund, which supports the work of the Voter Study Group, has also provided funding for this site, The Monkey Cage.]