Is American democracy currently under threat? President Donald Trump has broken from many norms followed by past presidents. This includes everything from personal tweets at all hours attacking his enemies; to keeping personal ownership of a large business empire, which allows domestic and foreign actors to financially reward him; to small things like not providing unifying messages after hurricanes and domestic shootings.
Some of these are stylistic changes. Others might be classified as constitutional hardball, violating traditions that aren’t written into law or the constitution.
For these reasons, the Trump presidency has caused some scholars and reporters to look more closely at whether an outsider like Trump is a symptom, a cause, or both of a decline in the health of American democracy. We share this concern. Is the public also losing its faith in American democracy as it has been traditionally practiced? In a new poll, we investigated this.
A new poll measuring the health of American democracy
To better understand the health of American democracy, we conducted the 2018 American Institutional Confidence Poll, sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Georgetown University’s Baker Center for Leadership & Governance and conducted in June and July 2018. This is a large sample poll (5,400 respondents), which asked a series of questions about support for American national institutions and for democratic norms and principles. (See here and here for more details on the survey.)
We were especially interested in two types of questions because we believe both are key to monitoring the health of democracy. First, we looked at whether people were satisfied overall with democracy in the United States. Second, we looked more specifically at whether people thought democracy was the best form of government and whether it was responsive to people like them.
Satisfaction with American democracy
Overall, we found that only 40 percent of Americans were satisfied with American democracy right now. (10 percent were “very satisfied” and 30 percent were “somewhat satisfied.”)
While overall levels of satisfaction were low, there was a major partisan divide, with 76 percent of Republicans satisfied with American democracy but only 44 percent of Democrats. This division is almost surely a response to the Trump presidency. It seems that during the Trump presidency, Democrats are not just dissatisfied with Trump, but with the entire direction of American democracy.
Perhaps surprisingly, as we show in our report, we find very few demographic differences in satisfaction with American democracy besides party identification. Asians, men, and those with no higher than a high school-level education are a bit more satisfied than others, but the latter two might be just further reflections of attitudes toward Trump.
We were especially interested in looking at differences by age. Perhaps younger voters were more disillusioned with how American democracy is going because the Trump presidency and the extreme polarization of recent years loom large in their minds. However, as shown in the figure below from our report, we find very small differences across age groups in satisfaction with democracy.
Support for Democratic Principles
What about support for democracy in principle, not just satisfaction with American democracy right now? To examine this question, we also included several items on the survey measuring different aspects of support for the concept of democracy in the abstract, which we also broke down by age.
This data tells a different story about the relationship between age and support for democracy than the question about satisfaction with American democracy. In some ways, the young appear to be less attached to democracy as a concept than older Americans are.
The young are less likely to say that democracy is “always preferable” to any other type of government, and less likely to agree that “democracy serves the people.” The young are more likely to say that “non-democracies can be preferable” in some circumstances and to believe that “democracy serves the elite.”
These questions were previously asked in international surveys to evaluate the health of democracy in countries where researchers feared it was fragile. Thus, it is worrisome that support for democracy in these measures is substantially less than universal, and that the lack of support is concentrated among the young.
However, in questions that are more specific to US government performance (and which have previously been asked in the United States), we do not see any worrying trends among the young.
The young are not substantially more likely to think that “public officials don’t care what [they] think” or to “never” “trust Washington to do what is right.” In fact, the young are about 10 percentage points less likely than those over 40 to think that public officials don’t care what they think, and between 7 and 12 percentage points less likely to say they never trust Washington (depending on which comparison group is used).
This is consistent with the results from the satisfaction with American democracy question. When people are asked specifically about American democracy and its performance, support is worryingly low, but the situation is not worse among the young.
However, when we asked about democracy in general, we saw overall high levels of support, but the dissent from this consensus was worryingly concentrated among the young.
A reason for alarm?
Overall, we found two reasons for concern with American attitudes toward democracy. First, satisfaction with democracy in the United States is not very high — overall, only about half of the country is satisfied with American democracy — and the variation here is largely driven by whether one’s own party is in power.
If this is simply the case that “satisfaction with democracy” is being read as “satisfaction with the Trump presidency” by respondents, then perhaps this finding is neither surprising nor worrisome. However, if it is instead the case that Americans no longer have confidence in democracy when their party is in opposition, this would be a worrisome development indeed.
Second, while a large majority of Americans think democracy is the best form of government, nontrivial portions of Americans disagree. They believe that democracy as a form of government tends to serve the elite, and there are times when nondemocratic systems are preferable.
But perhaps even more concerning is that the young are less supportive than older Americans of democracy as a concept. They are not less satisfied with American democracy right now, nor are they less likely to think it is responsive to their needs, but they are less likely to believe that democracy is superior to other forms of government and more likely to believe that it serves the elite.
Why is satisfaction with the American political system so low? And why is support for democracy lower among the young? We have a lot of hypotheses, but we can’t be certain based on these results.
Is it economic inequality and slow median income growth over decades? Is it political polarization? Is it immigration? Something else, or some combination of these? More people should direct their attention to answering these questions. Because if there is one thing history tells us, it is that when people are so dissatisfied with their political system that they look to extreme outsiders for rescue, it can end badly.
Sean Kates is a PhD candidate in the department of politics at New York University.
Jonathan M. Ladd is an associate professor in the McCourt School of Public Policy and the department of government at Georgetown University.
Joshua A. Tucker is a professor in the department of politics and an affiliated professor of Russian and Slavic studies and data science at New York University.