Democracy Hypocrisy

Examining America’s Fragile Democratic Convictions
Policy Paper
Democracy Hypocrisy: Examining America’s Fragile Democratic Convictions
Jan. 4, 2024

This paper was originally published by Democracy Fund on January 4, 2024.

Will Americans stand up for democracy even when it works against their party?

Seven years ago, two of the three authors of this report—Joe Goldman and Lee Drutman—began a research study to understand American support for democracy and the potential appeal of authoritarian alternatives. Since then, we have surveyed thousands of Americans using multiple survey instruments.

Over the course of this project, we have gone beyond an initial battery of questions and pursued multiple avenues to understand and explain what people really believe and why. To do so, we:

  • re-interviewed the same individuals over time to check for consistency in responses to original questions,
  • examined depth of support by asking respondents how strongly they felt about their answers and by testing alternative language to ensure that question wording is not being misunderstood,
  • used focus groups and interviews to develop scenarios that are responsive to the reasons people give for supporting democratic alternatives, and
  • compared views about abstract principles with reactions to real-world circumstances.

Our most recent survey in November 2022 offers us the chance to explore the most important uncertainty emerging from our earlier research. Namely, to what extent were responses to our previous questions an artifact of the Trump presidency? Are Republicans really more supportive of authoritarian actions than Democrats? Or, are Democrats just as willing to support abuses of power in a polarized environment when they control the executive branch?

Following the 2020 election, we can understand how views shifted when control of the White House changed hands—even if we haven’t yet emerged from an era in which Donald Trump is at the center of our politics. The results show that support for foundational principles of liberal democracy are discouragingly soft and inconsistent.

Key Findings

Below are key findings from the report.

  • While the vast majority of Americans claim to support democracy (more than 80 percent say democracy is a fairly or very good political system in surveys from 2017 to 2022), fewer than half consistently and uniformly support democratic norms across multiple surveys over the past seven years.
  • Support for democratic norms softens considerably when they conflict with partisanship. For example, a solid majority of Trump and Biden supporters who reject the idea of a “strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with Congress and elections” nonetheless believe their preferred U.S. president would be justified to take unilateral action without explicit constitutional authority under several different scenarios.
  • Only about 27 percent of Americans consistently and uniformly support democratic norms in a battery of questions across multiple survey waves, including 45 percent of Democrats, 13 percent of Republicans, and 18 percent of Independents. When adding responses to hypothetical scenarios about unilateral action by the president, the share of Americans who consistently support democratic norms over this time period drops to just 8 percent, including 10 percent of Democrats, 5 percent of Republicans, and 11 percent of Independents.
  • On the other hand, the portion of the public who are consistently authoritarian—Americans who consistently justify political violence or support alternatives to democracy over multiple survey waves—is also relatively small (8 percent). This leaves most Americans somewhere between consistent democratic and authoritarian leanings, a position often heavily shaped by partisanship.
  • When looking at the exact same respondents over time, Republicans have the highest levels of inconsistency. While 92 percent of Republicans supported congressional oversight during the Biden administration in 2022, only 65 percent supported oversight during the Trump administration in 2019 (a 27-point swing). While 85 percent are supportive of media scrutiny during the Biden administration, only 63 percent were supportive during the Trump administration (a 22-point swing). This contrasts with a 6 percentage point difference for Democrats in their views between the Biden and Trump administrations on these questions.
  • Among the 81 percent of Republicans who believed in September 2020 that it is important for the loser to acknowledge the winner of the election, 62 percent rejected Biden as the legitimate president after the election, 53 percent said it was appropriate for Trump to never concede the election, 87 percent thought it is appropriate for Trump to challenge the results of the election with lawsuits, and 43 percent approved of Republican legislators reassigning votes to Trump. Republicans who exhibit higher levels of affective polarization were the most resistant to accepting an electoral loss.
  • In contrast to an overwhelming and consistent rejection of political violence across four survey waves, the violent events of January 6, 2021, were viewed favorably by Republicans. Almost half of Republicans (46 percent) described these events as acts of patriotism and 72 percent disapproved of the House Select Committee that was formed to investigate them.
Related Topics
Identity and Polarization