When we started our national poll on democracy last week, David Leonhardt’s recent front-page story in the New York Times about threats to democracy was on my mind. His article focused on two key issues: the Republican Party’s election-denial movement and undemocratic elements of the US elected government such as the Electoral College, Gerrymandering, and the Senate.
But when we got the results of our Times/Siena poll late last week, it quickly became clear that these weren’t the threats that were on the minds of voters.
While 71 percent of registered voters agreed that democracy was “threatened,” only about 17 percent of voters described the threat in a way that echoed debate in the mainstream media and among experts — with a focus on Republicans. , Donald J. Trump, political violence, election denial, authoritarianism, and so on.
Instead, most people described the threat to democracy in terms that would be very unfamiliar to anyone concerned about election undermining or the January 6 uprising — and I’m not just talking about stop-the-steal supporters who think that the last election already brought American democracy to an end.
The poll’s results help to understand how so many voters can say democracy is under threat, yet place “threats to democracy” low on the list of challenges the country faces.
When respondents were asked to voluntarily summarize one or two words to summarize the current threat to democracy, government corruption was the most frequently mentioned — more than Mr. Trump and the Republicans combined.
For some of these voters, the threat to democracy does not seem to be about the risk of a total collapse of democratic institutions or a failed transfer of power. Or they may not yet see the threat as an emergency or a crisis, such as on the brink of ongoing political violence or authoritarianism.
Instead, they most often point to a long-standing concern about the basic functioning of a democratic system: whether government works on behalf of the people.
Many respondents used exactly that kind of language. One said: “I don’t think they think about the people honestly.” Another said that politicians “forget normal people”. Corruption, greed, power and money were well-known themes.
Overall, 68 percent of registered voters said the government is “mainly working for the benefit of powerful elites” rather than “ordinary people.”
Another 8 percent of voters named polarization as the biggest threat to democracy. Like corruption, polarization poses a threat to democracy, but does not necessarily mean an impending crisis.
And perhaps most surprisingly, many voters offered an answer that was not at all easily categorized as a threat to democracy. For example, inflation was mentioned by 3 percent of respondents – about the same as the proportion who mentioned political extremists and violence. For perhaps a fifth of voters, the “threat to democracy” was little more than a repackaging of persistent issues of “open borders” and “race relations” or “capitalism” and “wickedness”.
The 17 percent of voters who quoted anything related to Mr. Trump and the election denial seemed to elevate the question of democracy the most: in all, 19 percent of those respondents said the state of democracy was the most important thing. problem facing the country – more than any other problem.
Out of everyone else: Only 4 percent named that concern the number 1 problem.
My colleagues have more about this story here.