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Should you worry about American democracy? Here’s what our new poll finds.

- October 24, 2018
Voters wait in line for early voting at the Cobb County West Park Government Center on Oct. 18 in Marietta, Ga. (Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

In just two weeks, Americans will vote in a midterm election that may well decide what party controls Congress and the legislative agenda for the next two years.

But as Americans head into this democratic exercise, some observers wonder whether the country has become dissatisfied with democracy. Young Americans seem more willing to embrace nondemocratic modes of government, and traditionally disadvantaged minority groups less likely to find living in a democracy of absolute importance. Trust in political institutions and adherence to traditional democratic norms look to be in decline.

Our 2018 American Institutional Confidence Poll, sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Georgetown University’s Baker Center for Leadership & Governance, explores these issues. Conducted in June and July, our research finds a mixed picture — including attitudes toward democratic institutions that vary strongly by partisan identity. What might that say about our democratic future?

How we conducted our research

Under our poll’s auspices, survey firm YouGov conducted 5,400 online interviews from June 12 to July 19. The sample includes a nationally representative 3,000 respondents from the U.S. general population, as well as additional over-samples of 800 African Americans, 800 Latinx Americans and 800 Asian Americans. The poll asked respondents both closed- and open-ended questions on a host of subjects, including their satisfaction and support for democracy and confidence in various public and private institutions.

Is anyone happy with democracy? 

Yes. But only 40 percent of respondents reported being “somewhat” or “very” satisfied with “how democracy is working in the United States.” Even if we remove the quarter of respondents who report being “neither satisfied nor dissatisfied” with democracy, only around 53 percent view American democracy positively. This level of satisfaction is consistent across various groups when we divide the sample by race, age, region of the country or education level.

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But there is one way that satisfaction varies, and profoundly: by partisanship. The poll finds that 76 percent of self-identified Republicans are satisfied with American democracy, compared with just 44 percent of Democrats and 39 percent of independents. While we might expect Republicans to be happier in a country where their party controls the executive and legislative branches, these results suggest that many citizens are viewing democracy only through a partisan lens — or in other words, that they’re satisfied with democracy when their party is on top.

Confidence in U.S. institutions is divided along partisan lines 

One of this survey’s unique benefits is that it asks about a series of institutions associated with American democracy with both multiple choice and open-ended questions. We asked respondents to rate how much confidence they had in 20 public and private institutions, and then asked them to explain in their own words why they rated each institution as they did.

In the table below, we show how self-identified Democrats (second column) and Republicans (third column) rank different institutions. In the fourth column, we calculate what we call a “partisan gap,” with high negative numbers representing institutions ranked higher by Republicans and high positive numbers institutions ranked higher by Democrats. As you can see, a few institutions were rated relatively favorably by overall — for instance, the military, Amazon.com and nonprofit organizations — while others were rated unfavorably overall, including political parties, Facebook and Congress.

Levels of institutional confidence, by partisanship
Data: 2018 American Institutional Confidence Poll, https://bakercenter.georgetown.edu/aicpoll/
Figure: Sean Kates

But as you can see, Democrats and Republicans view many of these institutions quite differently. Some differences aren’t surprising; for decades, Democrats have been tied closely to organized labor, and Republicans to banks and major companies. But other differences seem to have grown from more recent polarization.

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For instance, if you’ve followed President Trump’s frequent attacks on journalists and news organizations, it may not be surprising that Republicans have far lower confidence in the press than do Democrats. On the flip side, Democrats have extremely low levels of confidence in the executive branch, ranking it dead last, while Republicans overwhelmingly find it trustworthy. The story is similar for the FBI, which Trump has repeatedly attacked, and for universities, which Republicans and conservative media have for years now been attacking as indoctrinating students with liberal bias.

What does this mean for democracy? 

Scholars of democracy usually believe that one of the keystones of a strong democracy is the public’s acceptance that power will alternate between different parties or factions. That includes considering democratic institutions as legitimate, no matter which party currently occupies the particular office. That acceptance and respect has historically been the norm in American politics.

The breakdown of that norm may be a blip because of the current political environment — or it may be the beginning of a long-term trend. It’s worth watching.

Voters in both parties are angry and negative

In the open-ended responses, we asked individuals to explain why they had a particular level of confidence in their rated institutions.

Using a common text-analysis tool, we were able to grade how frequently respondents showed anger or used negatively charged language. In the figures below, you can see that a substantial minority showed both. While their anger was generally directed at different institutions, Republicans and Democrats showed anger or negativity at roughly the same rate.

Percentage of responses including anger, by institution
Data: 2018 American Institutional Confidence Poll, https://bakercenter.georgetown.edu/aicpoll/
Figure: Sean Kates


Percentage of negatively charged responses, by institution
Data: 2018 American Institutional Confidence Poll, https://bakercenter.georgetown.edu/aicpoll/
Figure: Sean Kates

Apparently, a large number of our respondents harbor not a sober disagreement with current policy, but a far more deeply felt distaste. That reinforces an overall picture of citizens deeply riven by partisanship in a way that undermines confidence in U.S. democracy.

There’s a lot more in the 2018 American Institutional Confidence Poll, including how much respondents support various democratic norms; their opinions about particular politicians and policies; their media and social media diet; and a wide range of demographics and attributes. We invite you to view the full report or download the data.

Sean Kates is a PhD candidate in the department of politics at New York University. 

Jonathan Ladd is an associate professor in the McCourt School of Public Policy and the department of government at Georgetown University.