Americans think democracy is in peril in the 2024 election

Americans are worried about their democracy to an unprecedented degree. Only 28 percent of adults said they were satisfied with the way democracy is working in the U.S. in a December Gallup survey. That's lower even than the 35 percent in a survey right after the Jan. 6 insurrection, which came amid former President Donald Trump's repeated and ongoing claims that the 2020 election was "stolen" from him. In an AP-NORC poll from Nov. 30 to Dec. 4, 67 percent said the outcome of the 2024 election will be extremely or very important for the future of democracy in the country. It's a message both Trump and President Joe Biden are echoing as they gear up for a likely rematch in November.

This is perhaps unsurprising in light of the lack of faith in elections that helped provoke the Jan. 6 insurrection and continued efforts by Trump and other Republicans to paint the 2020 results as fraudulent. "I see a lot of ways in which our democracy has already deteriorated," said Susan Stokes, a political science professor at the University of Chicago who studies comparative democracies. "In the best-case scenario, it would take a while to come back."

These sentiments have shown up in many surveys. In an August Morning Consult/Bipartisan Policy Center poll, 82 percent of voters said they were worried about democracy in the U.S. Half of voters even said having a functioning democracy was a bigger immediate concern than having a strong economy in a YouGov/CBS News poll from January. Two in three Americans were concerned about a repeat of Jan. 6 in a December Navigator poll, and 85 percent were worried about political violence in the future.

But while significant shares of both Republicans and Democrats say they're worried about democracy, their specific concerns about why democracy is under threat reveal deep partisan cracks.

In the Navigator poll, Democrats were especially worried that events similar to the Jan. 6 insurrection could happen again, with 87 percent saying they were somewhat or very concerned. The vast majority of Democrats in that poll, 94 percent, were worried about Republican members of Congress assisting or encouraging the organizers of the Jan. 6 attack and allowing "white supremacist factions" present during the attack to play a "dominant role" in deciding the direction of the Republican Party — as were more than 70 percent of independents. Both Democrats and independents saw the Republican Party as more prone to political violence than the Democratic Party, by 69 and 15 percentage points, respectively.

Democrats are also much more concerned about what a second Trump term would mean for the health of democracy. Eighty-seven percent think electing Trump will weaken democracy, according to the AP-NORC poll. It's a sentiment Biden has been hammering home. To mark the third anniversary of Jan. 6, Biden gave a speech in Pennsylvania where he said preserving American democracy is "what the 2024 election is all about" and argued that Trump poses a danger to it. "The choice is clear. Donald Trump's campaign is about him, not America, not you," he said. "He's willing to sacrifice our democracy, put himself in power."

These worries have likely been heightened by Trump's inflammatory rhetoric on the campaign trail. When Fox News host Sean Hannity asked him in December to reassure Americans that he wouldn't abuse power to seek retribution if reelected, Trump said in front of a live audience that he would not be a "dictator … other than day one." While he then specified that he was referring to immigration and energy policies, the comment was particularly striking because of the former president's history of praising authoritarian leaders in public and statements promising to "root out" internal enemies. Multiple reports have detailed how Trump's team plans to rebuild the federal government in ways that would increase his power.

Trump's explicit denial of election results isn't the only concerning thing about his candidacy, either. The front-runner for the GOP nomination is facing 91 charges in four criminal cases around the country, including for his part in Jan. 6. In addition, he was just ordered to pay an $83 million judgment in a civil defamation suit brought by the writer E. Jean Carroll, and his business practices remain the subject of another civil case in New York. Accordingly, 82 percent of Democrats said Trump was not fit for the presidency in a YouGov/Yahoo News poll from September, with nine in 10 saying the criminal charges against him are a problem.

In light of all this, many experts on authoritarianism and democracy are concerned about a second Trump presidency as well. "The former president's commitment to a kind of strongman style of politics, and a kind of rhetoric of politics of retribution — I think it's all very, very dangerous," Stokes said. "We've seen this in other countries."

But the partisan splits on all of these polls suggest that Republicans disagree. Furthermore, they actually have similar concerns about Biden. Eighty-two percent of Republicans in the AP-NORC poll said reelecting Biden would weaken democracy, while 93 percent in the YouGov/Yahoo News poll said Biden was not fit to be president (though age seems to play a larger role in Biden's case). They also have other concerns about democracy, particularly election integrity — a sentiment that could certainly contribute to a Jan. 6 repeat if Trump were to lose this year.

In fact, Republicans were much more likely than Democrats to be dissatisfied with the current state of American democracy in the Gallup poll: only 17 percent were satisfied, compared to 38 percent of Democrats. That may partly be because the results of the 2020 election were not what they wanted to see, but also because denying the results of the 2020 election has remained prevalent in the party, including among elected officials and candidates. More than two-thirds of Republicans have consistently said they believe Biden did not win the election legitimately.

When it comes to the criminal charges Trump faces, fewer Republicans (40 percent) said in the YouGov/Yahoo News poll that they were a problem for his fitness for office. But it's also clear that Republicans tend to see these charges, and related challenges to Trump's presidential candidacy, as unfair and politically motivated. They may even make some Republicans more likely to support the former president. Only 14 percent of Republicans thought Trump bore responsibility for Jan. 6 in a mid-December University of Maryland/Washington Post poll. Sixty-seven percent in that survey thought the events had no bearing on his fitness for the presidency, and 68 percent thought he was innocent.

In a 538/Ipsos poll from January, 84 percent of likely Republican primary voters said they believed rulings in Maine and Colorado — which said Trump should be kept off primary ballots based on his actions surrounding Jan. 6 — were politically motivated, while just 21 percent thought they were justified by the law (respondents could say both were true). A plurality (47 percent) in that survey also thought efforts to remove Trump from the ballot would actually make Trump more likely to win in a general election against Biden. Even Trump's former GOP primary opponent Ron DeSantis suggested in December that Trump's first indictment actually seemed to rally the party's base to his defense.

Some of Trump's more extreme statements attacking Democrats have also seemed to inspire more loyalty among Republicans. For example, a poll of likely Iowa caucusgoers showed that Trump's statement that the "radical left thugs that live like vermin" need to be rooted out, made a plurality more likely to support him. This may be a sign of our intense and increasing partisan polarization — particularly negative partisanship, in which partisan preferences are driven primarily by dislike of the opposing party.

"Republicans are more aware of Trump's threat than they often lead on," said Steven Levitsky, a professor of political science and government at Harvard University. "But they're willing to accept it because they are so fearful of, are [so] opposed to the alternative." It's a phenomenon that is easily exploited, he said. Classic strategies for an authoritarian are to "paint the other side as beyond the pale as an existential threat, which justifies the emergency, justifies stealing the election, justifies the coup, justifies the crackdown."

Indeed, Trump's and the Republican Party's election strategy has partly hinged on pointing the finger at Democrats, and especially Biden, as posing an existential threat to the country. Republicans in general have long tried to paint Biden as too old and absent as a leader. Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley has claimed the U.S. is less safe because of Biden's age, making it a central pitch of her candidacy and calling for mental competency tests for politicians over the age of 75.

"The other strategy," Levitsky said, "is to paint the other guys as just as authoritarian as you are. So you know, it's a wash." And Trump's done that too, turning the legal charges he's facing against Democrats as proof that Biden is the one "weaponizing government against his political opponents" and promising to prosecute Biden in retaliation if he returns to office.

Ultimately, none of Trump's anti-democratic rhetoric or alleged crimes have appeared to slow his steady march toward securing the Republican nomination. Indeed, surveys seem to hint that Biden's perceived corruption, age and the activities of his son Hunter are almost as concerning to voters as a whole as Trump's potential convictions. In a YouGov/Yahoo News poll from Sept. 14-18, 51 percent of voters said Trump and his family were corrupt and 47 percent said Biden and his family were corrupt. (When asked who was more corrupt, 41 percent said the former and 38 percent said the latter, though as usual the partisan divides were stark.)

In a Survey USA poll from October that found Trump and Biden nearly even in a potential head-to-head matchup, Biden edged ahead by 3 points among likely voters in a scenario where Trump was convicted of a crime but not sent to prison, and moved ahead by 13 points in a scenario where Trump was convicted and imprisoned. But voters shifted even more decidedly to Trump in other scenarios, including a 21-point Trump lead if Biden were to suffer a serious medical issue. And in a scenario where Hunter Biden is convicted but not sentenced to prison, Trump bested Biden by 1 point, despite there being no evidence Biden was involved in his son's activities during the period under investigation.

With both presumptive nominees painting 2024's presidential contest as a test for the survival of democracy, and both claiming the other is making anti-democratic attacks, it's not a surprise that voters feel the state of democracy is in danger. Republicans' fears in large part stem from the fact that their front-runner has sowed doubt in the integrity of democracy itself, while Democrats are deeply concerned about how these doubts could prompt instability echoing, or surpassing, that of the Jan. 6 insurrection.

For Stokes, providing better information about how democratic institutions and processes function, like election systems and criminal prosecutions (such as those Trump is facing), is key to strengthening and renewing the public's faith in democracy. "Talking about democracy writ large is important, but also how these institutions work, and why it's valuable to have them … That just has to happen over and over again."

But in the meantime, widespread frustration and distrust could undoubtedly have major impacts on how the November election goes down. Levitsky suggested that leaving these issues to be evaluated by voters is asking too much of them, saying the Republican Party could have done more to keep Trump and his movement in check. "Far and away the best route to preserving our democracy in 2024 would have been Republicans in the Senate voting to convict Donald Trump" during his impeachment trial, he said.

But with many Republicans convinced of Trump's innocence and distrustful of elections and government more broadly, Levitsky noted that whether voters accept the election results or whether political turmoil and violence follows is an open question, particularly in the case of another defeat for Trump. "[In] one world, in which it's a close election, Trump claims fraud, and there is a lot of conflict and a degree of crisis," he said.

Mary Radcliffe contributed research.

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