A new survey shows troubling signs of Americans’ commitment to democracy

A new survey from the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics shows that while there is general agreement among Americans of various political persuasions on several key policy matters, these issues are not what motivates many of them. Rather, for significant numbers of liberals and conservatives, their resentments toward/fears of the “other side” are becoming justification for holding increasingly anti-democratic attitudes and supporting alarming actions to preserve their side’s power. Among the troubling findings from the study:

  • Overwhelming majorities of Biden voters (80%) and Trump voters (84%) at least somewhat agree that elected officials from the opposing party “present a clear and present danger to American democracy.” And 51% and 57%, respectively, strongly agree with this.
  • Similarly, 75% of Biden voters and 78% of Trump voters at least somewhat agree that anyone who votes for the opposite party poses a “clear and present danger to the American way of life.”
  • A strong majority of Trump voters (76%) see no real difference between Democrats and socialists, and a majority of Biden voters (56%) at least somewhat agree that there is no real difference between Republicans and fascists. (And for some Republicans, the “socialist” label is apparently becoming an insufficient epithet against their Democratic counterparts.)
  • Significant levels of both Trump (44%) and Biden (46%) voters believe it could be better if presidents were less restrained by Congress and the courts so they could enact their preferred agenda.
  • Large majorities of Biden voters (78%) and Trump voters (73%) believe that media sources on the other side have become “so untruthful” that it justifies censoring them to stop the spread of “dangerous lies.”
  • One, final doozy: 41% of Biden voters and 52% of Trump voters at least somewhat agree that it’s time to split the country, favoring blue/red states seceding from the union.

Now, to state the obvious: I, of course, don’t think both sides are equally to blame for the numerous threats we have seen to democracy in recent years — the right, in my view, is far more culpable. But it doesn’t diminish the fact that both sides have become so tribal that they are increasingly willing to flout long-standing democratic norms (and ignore serious issues on their own side) to prevent the other side from taking power.

That said, whereas secession between red and blue states might have been feasible 150 years ago, it’s not today. Beyond the fact that not every state falls neatly along partisan lines and the political character of states often changes over time, our partisan divisions today fall mostly along urban-rural lines, making it essentially impossible for people with different politics to simply wall themselves off from each other. This means the “other side” is going nowhere and we have to learn to coexist.

I imagine most people are sick of the division and exhausted by having to think about all this on a near-daily basis, even with Trump now out of office. Unfortunately, a lot of these same people tend to also be the least active in politics (including primary elections) and public discourse, meaning the loudest, most partisan voices often dictate the terms of our debate and what the news covers. But they may be our best hope for pulling the country back from the brink.

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