A Poll Commissioned by Bush and Biden Shows Americans Losing Confidence in Democracy

With Breanne Deppisch and Joanie Greve

THE BIG IDEA: Half of Americans think the United States is in “real danger of becoming a nondemocratic, authoritarian country.” A majority, 55 percent, see democracy as “weak” — and 68 percent believe it is “getting weaker.” Eight in 10 Americans say they are either “very” or “somewhat” concerned about the condition of democracy here.

These are among the sobering results of a major bipartisan pollpublished Tuesday that was commissioned by the George W. Bush Institute, the University of Pennsylvania’s Biden Center and Freedom House, which tracks the vitality of democracies around the world. The three groups have partnered to create the Democracy Project, with the goal of monitoring the health of the American system.

“We hope this work can be a step toward restoring faith in democracy and democratic institutions,” Bush said in a statement.

The concern about the condition of democracy inside the United States transcends the tribal divide between Republicans and Democrats, with majorities across races, genders, age groups, levels of education and income brackets expressing fear.

“Americans are deeply worried about the health of their democracy and want to make it stronger,” said Michael Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House. “There appears to be a crisis in confidence in the functioning of our democracy, and it is not a party-line issue.”

The report comes against the backdrop of a raging debate over civility and Donald Trump’s polarizing approach to the presidency.

Former vice president Joe Biden, who oversees the Biden Center, said the results show “we can’t take our freedoms for granted — we have to work for them, and we have to defend them.”

The good news is that Americans overwhelmingly still support the concept of democracy and believe it’s important to keep the system we’ve inherited. That’s in contrast to the years before World War II, when many people got caught under the spell of communism and fascism. Asked to rank the importance of living in a democracy on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being “absolutely important,” 60 percent picked 10 in the new poll. Overall, 84 percent picked a number between six and 10. Among Democrats, it was 92 percent. Among Republicans, it was 81 percent.

There was a partisan divide when people were asked to pick whether America is in “real danger of becoming a nondemocratic, authoritarian country” or “there is no real danger.” Overall, 50 percent said there’s a real danger and 43 percent said there’s not. But 57 percent of self-identified Democrats said the danger is real, while only 37 percent of Republicans did.

Racial minorities, women and young people who have missed out on the full bounty of American greatness also tend to perceive fewer benefits from democracy and are thus less convinced of the system’s value. Only 42 percent of nonwhite respondents said they are satisfied with “the way democracy is working in our country,” compared with 51 percent of white respondents. Spotlighting a generational gap in attitudes, only 39 percent of respondents under 35 picked 10 on the scale of one to 10 when asked to rate the importance of democracy.

-- Racial discrimination and money’s corrosive impact on politics are two major factors driving this crisis of confidence. Participants in the survey were presented a list of 11 issues and asked to pick the two that most concern them when it comes to democracy in America. Almost 3 in 10 picked “big money in politics” and “racism and discrimination,” a statistical tie for the top issue.

Overall, 8 in 10 Americans think “the influence of money in politics” is getting worse, rather than better.

Three in 4 Americans think that “the laws enacted by our national government these days mostly reflect what powerful special interests and their lobbyists want.” This includes 81 percent of Democrats and 70 percent of Republicans. Just 17 percent of Americans agreed with the alternative statement: “The laws enacted by our national government these days mostly reflect what the people want.”

Even when controlling for other factors, there is a direct link between people being concerned about the power of money in politics and their level of confidence in democracy.  

The survey was designed and conducted by North Star, a Republican firm, and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a Democratic firm. The nationwide telephone survey of 1,400 adults, conducted between April 28 and May 8, has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percent. The coalition also conducted 10 focus groups across five states with different segments of the public to figure out how to most effectively make the case for democracy.

Money in politics was a top concern that came up in each focus group. “Greed and power are so dangerous,” said one participant in Pittsburgh. “It’s so rampant right now. Whoever has the most money is going to be the most powerful.”

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