You can’t always take what you read in opinion polls at face value. If, for example, a given portion of the population feels that the country is on the “wrong track,” some of them might think that what is direly needed is more sweeping progressive reform, while others may think things have already swung much too far left.
That caution is important when looking at polls about the state of American democracy as the nation marks the anniversary of the January 6 insurrection and former President Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election. An NPR/Ipsos poll released Monday, for example, found that nearly two-thirds of Americans—64 percent—agree that American democracy “is in crisis and at risk of failing.”
If you are a regular reader of The Atlantic, this result will seem both unsurprising and correct. After the 2020 election, in what I have called the paperwork coup, the incumbent president went to extreme measures to try to reverse the result, including filing frivolous lawsuits, calling up state officials and asking them to “find” enough votes for him to win, attempting to get the Justice Department to aid him, and finally pressuring Vice President Mike Pence to ignore the results. Then a mob attacked the Capitol as Congress met to certify the election, resulting in deaths, injuries, and damage—violating the treasured tradition of a peaceful transfer of power. These efforts were unsuccessful, but since then Trump has continued to push false claims about the election; he has a strong chance of winning the presidency back in 2024, and, as my colleague Barton Gellman reports, a Trump-supporting faction has laid the groundwork to subvert the U.S. election system even if the former president doesn’t win fairly.
This is clearly a crisis, and it’s a crisis for which the blame falls solidly on Trump and the majority of the Republican Party, which, tacitly or openly, grudgingly or eagerly, has supported him.
But read into the details of the NPR/Ipsos poll and it is Republicans, not Democrats, who feel a sense of crisis more acutely; 47 percent of GOP voters “strongly agree,” while only 29 percent of Democrats do. (Add in the “somewhat agree” column and the numbers get closer: 70 percent of Republicans and 67 percent of Democrats, but only 60 percent of independents.)
These Republicans are not appalled by their own party’s attempts to overturn the election—hardly. Instead, voters in the two parties are seeing two completely different crises. The serious one, as described above, is failing to penetrate even among the voters who should be most ready to hear it, who may have been lulled into a sense of complacency by Democrats’ 2020 victories. Meanwhile, Trump-friendly voters are expressing concern about a crisis that simply doesn’t exist. Two-thirds of Republicans say fraud helped Joe Biden win the election, which is false; fewer than half accept the result.
Listen to an interview with William J. Walker, sergeant-at-arms of the U.S. House of Representatives, on The Experiment.
These findings are not peculiar to one poll. Survey after survey shows the same result: Americans believe in a crisis of democracy, but they disagree on which one, and Republicans are more concerned than Democrats. A CNN poll in September found that 75 percent of Republicans believe American democracy is under attack, against just 46 percent of Democrats. (Few Democrats—7 percent—believed there was no danger; the balance agreed that American democracy was being tested but was not under attack.) In October, a stunning 89 percent of Republicans in an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist College poll said democracy was under threat, and 79 percent of Democrats agreed. A December Harvard Kennedy School poll found a similar split among voters ages 18 to 29: 45 percent of young Democrats believed democracy was in trouble or failed, while 70 percent of young Republicans did.
The polls give clear evidence for why Republicans feel so apocalyptic. In the Marist poll, for example, just 34 percent said elections were basically fair, even as 86 percent of Democrats believe the same. A partisan divide following a tightly contested election is normal. Political scientists long ago identified the “winner effect,” in which people who voted for the losing candidate also lose some faith in the results, while supporters of the winner gain it. The situation in which we find ourselves is different for three reasons. First, Republicans were already starting from a historically low threshold of faith in elections. Second, the net level of distrust in the system is dangerous to democratic legitimacy. And third, unlike in a standard election where winners are pleased and losers are merely unhappy, there actually was an attempt to overturn the election. Troublingly, Democratic voters don’t seem especially bothered by it.
The optimistic way to read these polls is that respondents don’t really believe the things they tell pollsters but instead understand what the “right” partisan answer is. The results of many polls in the past few years look like referenda on Trump himself: His backers answer any question in the pro-Trump way, creating odd effects. But that offers little comfort in this case. The entrenched belief that Trump was robbed of reelection has resuscitated a political career that ought to have been dead, making it more likely he returns to office in 2025, newly empowered to enact his authoritarian agenda. Moreover, the legitimacy of the election system, once lost, is difficult to rebuild. The effect is driving Republicans in polls to embrace previously taboo ideas, such as political violence. The January 6 insurrection makes sense only in a context where a group of Trump supporters already believed that democracy had failed.
The October Marist poll had one more surprise: Among adults nationwide, 41 percent felt the Republican Party was a bigger threat to American democracy, but 42 percent pointed to the Democratic Party. Democrats do bear some blame for the parlous state of democracy. Rather than pursue a realistic election-reform bill, they pushed a larger bill, with some poorly considered provisions, that they had no practical plan to pass. The party has arguably focused too much on symbolic wounds, including the violent but doomed insurrection, over more dangerous subversions of the system. Perhaps with a more disciplined message from elected officials, Democratic voters would better understand the danger, as measured by polls—though these are Democrats we’re talking about.