In one way or another, the scholars and journalists in The New Republic’s special May issue all examine the state of democracy here or abroad. It is their work to diagnose and prognosticate, to analyze and warn. And to them, the situation is plain: Our system of government is crumbling. Around the world, autocracy looms. The tasks ahead could not be more urgent. But what of the people who are not necessarily glued to the news, whose jobs do not require them to track, in detail, every grotesque new contrivance of the Republican Party, every vain counter by the Democrats? How worried are they?
TNR’s exclusive poll suggests that nearly half of Americans are very worried indeed. Their concern does not demonstrate a strong partisan divide: 44 percent of Republicans agree with 48 percent of Democrats that our political system is in such trouble that it needs no less than major changes or even “a complete overhaul.” And respondents were not optimistic about the prospects of any such overhaul arriving: Only a quarter of Republicans and 36 percent of Democrats feel confident about how democracy will look in 10 or 20 years.
Dig a little deeper into the data, however, and it becomes clear that the two groups have “very different problems in mind,” said Guy Molyneux of Hart Research Associates, the polling firm that conducted the survey for TNR: “not only different, but in many cases even polar opposites.” Perhaps the origins of the divergence can be traced to how differently members of the political parties conceive of the nature of our government. When asked to describe what democracy means to them, 47 percent of Republicans named the protection of individual rights and liberties, while just 22 percent named majority rule—the textbook definition, it apparently does not go without saying, of a democratic political system. (By contrast, Democrats chose majority rule as their top answer, though they, too, hold a surprising diversity of beliefs on this question.)
When the survey investigated respondents’ views about what exactly threatens democracy, the distance between Republicans and Democrats came into even sharper relief. Democrats are disturbed by the growing strength of white nationalist groups, as well as by state legislatures’ increasing power to determine the outcome of presidential elections. Republicans are disturbed by mandated vaccination and mask-wearing but unbothered by the filibuster and positively cheerful about Trump’s attempts to overturn the result of the 2020 election. While they either don’t care or don’t believe that their party is making it harder to vote, they are quite worked up about Democrats committing so-called election fraud.
Interestingly, the Republican rank and file is split about what January 6, 2021, represents. Although most Republicans in our poll described the events of that day as patriotic, a hefty minority said what happened was an insurrection—a dissensus, it should be underscored, that isn’t reflected among Republican Party leadership, which has been overwhelmingly reluctant to condemn the incident. “I don’t know whether we should take a lot of comfort in knowing there are still 43 percent of Republicans who think that was wrong,” Molyneux reflected, “or despair that it’s only 43 percent.”
What, in any case, should be done to strengthen our democracy? Democrats are keen to do away with the Electoral College, increase the number of justices on the Supreme Court, and eliminate the filibuster; Republicans, not so much. They’d prefer to reduce absentee voting and limit early voting times, although what they’d most love to do is improve border security and restrict illegal immigration—a position that a high percentage of Democrats (61 percent) agrees with. A more heartening measure of common feeling can be found in the question of the Supreme Court: 59 percent of Republicans agree with 75 percent of Democrats that it would strengthen democracy to limit the number of years a justice can serve. Fixed terms, of course, would ensure that new justices are added more frequently and would give successive presidents a more comparable likelihood of appointing them. As Molyneux observed, the present system has magnified the fear the two sides have of each other, simply because the stakes are so high: “No one knows when the next vacancy might occur, and you have this arbitrary thing where some presidents get to nominate three justices and another president might not get to nominate any.”
Democrats’ relatively hard line about immigration is not the only result that suggests, for those to the left of center, that there is work to be done in educating the Democratic base: A majority of Democrats (59 percent) appear to have no problem with our present system of giving two senators to each state regardless of how populous it is—conditions that give a Wyoming resident considerably more voice than a Californian. Democrats’ comfort with the current situation, Molyneux argued, suggests that any project to move the United States closer to one person, one vote should look to other means of getting there—for example, offering statehood to Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., two proposals that inspire broader approval among Democrats.
Given the pessimism about our political system that afflicts half the population, you might expect that people would be entertaining drastic solutions. But when asked whether the United States should split into two countries, very few from either party expect or want any such breakage. For Molyneux, this was among the more encouraging results. “As much as Americans are mad at each other,” he said, “they’re not yet ready, the large majority of them, to literally take their marbles and go to a new home.” The question is not the only one that lends itself to optimistic interpretation. A slim majority of Republicans (58 percent) consider the increasing economic power of the very wealthy to be a problem (versus 81 percent of Democrats), and a full 77 percent are troubled by the influence of big money in elections—just five percentage points fewer than Democrats.
Is there political hope in these glimmers of common ground? That, of course, remains to be seen; possibility can’t be measured by a poll. The Democratic base may need some persuading as to where the threats—and the proper remedies—really lie. At the same time, a bit of optimism might be eked from the suggestion that rank-and-file Republicans hold less anti-democratic views than many of their elected representatives. At bottom, however, this survey underscores the profound polarization of the nation. Nearly half of all Republicans and Democrats see members of the other party as threatening political enemies. While Republicans are slightly more likely to take this strong view—47 percent versus 43 percent of Democrats—the battle is clearly pitched.
If the ideal is a world in which neither party feels democracy is under siege, these warlike postures represent a grim finding. But if we accept the reality that Republicans view Democrats as a mortal threat, it’s pretty unavoidably incumbent upon Democrats to reciprocate. Perhaps we can be cheered, then, by the implacability of our fellow Americans. Read on for a deeper picture of the views of our friends, our neighbors, our political opponents—the ordinary people in whose hands the fate of our nation ultimately rests.