Americans think democracy is in peril in the 2024 election – Recent surveys underscore a growing unease among Americans regarding the state of their democracy. A mere 28 percent of adults expressed satisfaction with the functioning of U.S. democracy, as per a December Gallup survey—significantly lower than the post-January 6 insurrection figure of 35 percent. This heightened anxiety is fueled by ongoing assertions by former President Donald Trump, who claims the 2020 election was “stolen.” In a Nov. 30 to Dec. 4 AP-NORC poll, 67 percent emphasized the immense importance of the 2024 election outcome for the nation’s democratic future. This sentiment is echoed by both Trump and President Joe Biden, anticipating a significant electoral showdown in November.
The pervasive mistrust in elections that fueled the January 6 insurrection, coupled with ongoing efforts by Trump and fellow Republicans to challenge the 2020 results as fraudulent, contributes to the prevailing apprehension. Susan Stokes, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, notes, “I see a lot of ways in which our democracy has already deteriorated,” suggesting a potential prolonged recovery.
These concerns are mirrored in multiple surveys. An August Morning Consult/Bipartisan Policy Center poll revealed that 82 percent of voters harbor worries about U.S. democracy. In a January YouGov/CBS News poll, half of voters prioritized a functioning democracy over a robust economy. The apprehension extends to fears of a Jan. 6 repeat, with two in three Americans expressing concern in a December Navigator poll, and 85 percent worrying about future political violence.
Despite shared worries about democracy, the specific concerns disclosed by Republicans and Democrats unveil profound partisan divisions on the perceived threats to democracy.
Partisan Concerns Highlighted in Navigator Poll
The Navigator poll illuminated distinct worries among Democrats, particularly regarding the potential recurrence of events akin to the Jan. 6 insurrection. A notable 87 percent of Democrats conveyed varying degrees of concern about such events happening again. Additionally, an overwhelming 94 percent of Democrats expressed apprehension about Republican members of Congress supporting or encouraging organizers of the Jan. 6 attack. Concerns extended to the perceived influence of “white supremacist factions” during the attack, with Democrats fearing their dominant role in shaping the direction of the Republican Party. This sentiment was echoed by over 70 percent of independents.
Both Democrats and independents shared the belief that the Republican Party is more susceptible to political violence, with a margin of 69 and 15 percentage points, respectively, compared to the Democratic Party. These findings underscore the deep-seated partisan divisions and differing perceptions of potential threats to democracy.
Concerns Mount Among Democrats Over Potential Second Trump Term
The apprehension among Democrats regarding the potential ramifications of a second Trump term on democracy is notably high. According to the AP-NORC poll, a substantial 87 percent of Democrats believe that electing Trump for a second term would undermine democracy. President Biden has emphasized this concern, framing the 2024 election as pivotal for preserving American democracy. In a speech marking the third anniversary of Jan. 6, Biden asserted that Trump poses a threat to democracy, emphasizing the stakes involved in the upcoming election.
Trump’s campaign rhetoric has likely intensified these worries. During an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News, Trump’s response to reassuring Americans about potential abuse of power if reelected raised eyebrows. While clarifying that he wouldn’t be a “dictator” except for specific policies, the remark stood out given Trump’s history of praising authoritarian leaders and expressing intentions to eliminate internal opposition. Reports have also outlined Trump’s plans to reshape the federal government in ways that could consolidate his influence, adding to concerns within the Democratic camp.
Concerns Mount Over Trump’s Candidacy Amid Legal Challenges
Donald Trump’s explicit rejection of election results is not the sole cause for concern surrounding his candidacy. The GOP front-runner is currently grappling with 91 charges across four criminal cases nationwide, including his involvement in the events of Jan. 6. Moreover, he has recently been mandated to pay an $83 million judgment in a civil defamation suit filed by writer E. Jean Carroll, while his business practices are under scrutiny in another ongoing civil case in New York. In a September YouGov/Yahoo News poll, a resounding 82 percent of Democrats deemed Trump unfit for the presidency, citing significant concerns about the criminal charges against him.
Experts specializing in authoritarianism and democracy share these apprehensions about the prospect of a second Trump presidency. The former president’s inclination toward a strongman political approach and a rhetoric of retribution is deemed perilous by many experts. Susan Stokes, a political science professor, highlights the dangers associated with such a style of politics, emphasizing parallels seen in other nations.
Partisan Divides Deepen Amid Concerns Over Democracy
The latest polls reveal stark partisan divides on critical issues, indicating a significant disagreement among Republicans and Democrats. Notably, Republicans express similar apprehensions about President Biden as Democrats do about former President Trump. In an AP-NORC poll, 82 percent of Republicans asserted that a Biden reelection would weaken democracy. Additionally, a substantial 93 percent of Republicans in a YouGov/Yahoo News poll deemed Biden unfit for the presidency, with age appearing to play a significant role in their concerns.
Republicans harbor specific worries about democracy, particularly concerning election integrity. This sentiment could potentially contribute to a recurrence of events similar to Jan. 6 if Trump were to face defeat in the upcoming elections. The Gallup poll highlights Republicans’ dissatisfaction with the current state of American democracy, with only 17 percent expressing satisfaction compared to 38 percent of Democrats. This dissatisfaction may stem from the outcome of the 2020 election, as well as the persistent denial of its results within the party, including among elected officials and candidates. More than two-thirds of Republicans consistently express doubt about the legitimacy of Biden’s victory.
Republicans Navigate Controversial Terrain Regarding Trump’s Legal Woes
Concerns over the criminal charges faced by Donald Trump reveal a nuanced perspective within the Republican base. The YouGov/Yahoo News poll indicates that 40 percent of Republicans consider these charges problematic for Trump’s fitness for office. However, a prevalent belief among Republicans is that these charges and challenges to Trump’s candidacy are perceived as unfair and politically motivated. This sentiment might even bolster support for the former president, as only 14 percent of Republicans believe Trump bears responsibility for the events of Jan. 6, according to a University of Maryland/Washington Post poll.
The 538/Ipsos poll from January further highlights the Republican perspective, with 84 percent of likely Republican primary voters viewing rulings against Trump in Maine and Colorado as politically motivated. A significant 47 percent of respondents believed that efforts to bar Trump from the ballot would enhance his chances in a general election against Biden. Even Trump’s primary opponent, Ron DeSantis, hinted in December that Trump’s initial indictment galvanized the party’s base in his defense.
Remarkably, Trump’s bold statements targeting Democrats have fostered heightened loyalty among Republicans. Instances such as Trump’s assertion that the “radical left thugs” should be eradicated reportedly made a plurality of likely Iowa caucusgoers more inclined to support him. This underscores the deepening partisan polarization, driven notably by negative partisanship, where preferences are shaped by opposition to the opposing party.
Republicans Acknowledge Trump’s Influence Amid Deep-Seated Apprehensions
Insights from political science and government expert Steven Levitsky at Harvard University shed light on a complex reality within the Republican camp. Levitsky notes that Republicans are more cognizant of the potential threat posed by Donald Trump than they publicly acknowledge. However, this awareness coexists with a willingness to embrace Trump’s influence due to a profound fear of, and opposition to, perceived alternative scenarios.
Levitsky suggests that this dynamic is susceptible to exploitation, a tactic often employed by authoritarian figures. By portraying the opposition as an existential threat, these leaders legitimize drastic actions such as manipulating elections, orchestrating coups, or implementing crackdowns. The delicate balance between acknowledging risks and aligning with a known figure underscores the intricate dynamics at play within the Republican party.
Trump’s Election Strategy: Shifting Blame and Fostering Doubt
The electoral approach of Donald Trump and the Republican Party has notably revolved around redirecting blame towards Democrats, particularly President Biden, characterizing them as a perceived existential threat to the nation. A consistent narrative depicts Biden as aged and ineffective, with former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley emphasizing concerns about national security linked to Biden’s age. Haley has advocated for mental competency tests for politicians above 75, incorporating this into her campaign pitch.
As political science expert Steven Levitsky outlines, an additional tactic involves framing the opposition as equally authoritarian. Trump has capitalized on this strategy, presenting the legal charges against him as evidence that Biden is “weaponizing government against his political opponents.” Trump goes further, pledging to pursue legal action against Biden if he returns to office.
Despite allegations of anti-democratic rhetoric and legal challenges, Trump’s trajectory toward securing the Republican nomination appears undeterred. Surveys indicate that concerns about Biden’s perceived corruption, age, and his son Hunter’s activities are nearly as prominent among voters as potential legal issues surrounding Trump. A September YouGov/Yahoo News poll revealed that 51 percent of voters considered Trump and his family corrupt, with 47 percent expressing similar sentiments about Biden and his family. When asked about comparative corruption, 41 percent favored Trump, while 38 percent leaned towards Biden, showcasing stark partisan divisions as expected.
Assessing Voter Sentiments Amidst Potential Scenarios for 2024 Election
In an October Survey USA poll reflecting a tight race between Trump and Biden, various hypothetical scenarios unveiled nuanced voter preferences. Biden garnered a 3-point lead when Trump faced a conviction without imprisonment, escalating to a 13-point lead if imprisonment ensued. However, voters leaned decisively towards Trump in alternate situations, particularly a 21-point advantage in the event of a serious medical issue for Biden. Interestingly, Trump secured a 1-point lead if Hunter Biden faced conviction without imprisonment, despite no evidence linking Biden to his son’s activities during the relevant investigation period.
Both presumed candidates are framing the 2024 election as a pivotal moment for democracy’s survival, each accusing the other of anti-democratic actions. This dynamic has instilled a sense of peril regarding the state of democracy among voters. Republican apprehensions largely stem from their front-runner casting doubt on democratic integrity. Meanwhile, Democrats express profound concern about the potential repercussions of such doubts, fearing a recurrence or escalation of the instability witnessed during the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Susan Stokes emphasizes the pivotal role of disseminating accurate information about democratic institutions and processes, spanning election systems to criminal prosecutions, such as those faced by Trump. She asserts that continually elucidating how these structures operate and their inherent value is crucial in revitalizing public trust in democracy.
However, amidst prevailing frustration and distrust, the forthcoming November election may witness significant ramifications. Steven Levitsky posits that relying solely on voters to evaluate these complex issues might be unrealistic, suggesting that the Republican Party could have curbed Trump’s influence more effectively. Levitsky contends that the most effective safeguard for democracy in 2024 would have been Senate Republicans voting to convict Trump during his impeachment trial.
Yet, with a substantial faction of Republicans asserting Trump’s innocence and harboring deep mistrust towards elections and government, the acceptance of election results and the potential for political upheaval hang in the balance. Levitsky speculates on scenarios where a close election, Trump alleging fraud, and ensuing conflict might contribute to a state of crisis, particularly in the event of another electoral defeat for Trump.
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