Donald Trump’s candidacy – or more to the point, his substantial and sustained public support — has surprised almost every observer of American politics. Social scientists and pundits note that Trump appeals to populists, nativists, ethnocentrists, anti-intellectuals and authoritarians, not to mention angry and disaffected white males with little education.
But few have noticed another side of Trump’s supporters. A surprising number of Americans feel dismissive about such core features of democratic government as deliberation, compromise and decision-making by elected, accountable officials. They believe that governing is (or should be) simple, and best undertaken by a few smart, capable people who are not overtly self-interested and can solve challenging issues without boring discussions and unsatisfying compromises.
Because that’s just what Trump promises, his candidacy is attracting those who think someone should just walk in and get it done. His message is that our country’s problems are straightforward. All we need is to get “great people, really great people” to solve them. No muss, no fuss, no need to hear or take seriously opposing viewpoints. Trump’s straight-talking, unfiltered, shoot-from-the-hip style promises a leader who will take action – instead of working toward a consensus among competing interests. That sounds perfect to the millions of Americans who are just as impatient with standard democratic procedures.
Many voters don’t like democracy’s messiness
Many Americans don’t appreciate that democracy is unavoidably messy in a remarkably heterogeneous society, as we showed 15 years ago in our book “Stealth Democracy.” We based that book on a random-sample survey of 1,266 Americans administered by Gallup in 1998. We found that:
- 86 percent of respondents believed that “elected officials would help the country more if they would stop talking and just take action.”
- 60 percent agreed that “compromise is really just selling out on one’s principles.”
- 60 percent believed that “government would work best if it were run like a business.”
- 32 percent were convinced that the U.S. government would “run better if decisions were left up to successful business people.”
- Similarly, 31 percent believed it would run better if those decisions were instead left to “non-elected experts.”
Political scientists know that democratic governance by its nature demands debate and compromise and is not remotely like “a business.” But we learned 15 years ago that many Americans disagreed, and nearly a third of American adults believed government would run better without elected officials. The anti-politics candidate (and businessman) H. Ross Perot tapped into this sentiment and got nearly 20 million votes in 1992.
Nor has American support for democratic processes grown in the past 15 years. In early 2016, political scientists David Fortunato and Matthew Hibbing posed a few of the same items to a nationally representative sample. They found that 29 percent of Americans think it would be better to leave political decisions to non-elected experts; 26 percent think it would be better to leave political decisions to successful business people. That’s only a little less support than we found 15 years ago – and it’s about the same proportion of the electorate that likes Trump’s candidacy.
We surveyed Americans again in the fall of 2015, using Prolific Academic, a crowdsourcing platform similar to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. All 908 respondents were American citizens from across the United States and were paid for taking the survey. We asked whether people agreed that compromise is just selling out on principles; whether politicians should stop talking and just take action; and whether political decisions should be left up to business people or unelected experts.
We label those who agreed with these items as “stealth democrats,” a term we use not to refer to secret supporters of the Democratic Party, but rather people with only the loosest of commitments to core features of democratic governance. And once again, we found similar percentages of stealth democrats compared to our earlier survey: Fifteen years ago, 27 percent of people agreed with all of the items; six months ago, 24 percent did.
Those Americans like Trump
Are supporters of stealth democracy also attracted to Trump? In last fall’s survey, we asked respondents to report how warmly or coolly they felt toward several presidential candidates in the race at the time. Feeling thermometers range from 0 to 100, with 0 for cold or negative feelings toward the candidate and 100 for warm or positive feelings. We left out the question about whether to have successful business people (as many people view Trump) make political decisions – because that might have “primed” our respondents to rate Trump favorably. In the stealth democracy measure, someone with a zero doesn’t agree with any of our statements above; someone with a three agrees with all of them.
Below you can see the average feeling thermometer score for four of the candidates we asked about in the survey — first for those individuals who disagreed with all the stealth democracy positions, and then for those individuals who supported all three.
Feelings toward Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush were largely unaffected by attitudes toward democratic processes, and feelings toward Carly Fiorina were affected a little.
But here’s the big news: Stealth democrats felt fully 25 degrees warmer toward Trump than those who believe in debate, compromise and elected officials making public decisions. We assume that’s because the stealth democrats like his promises to make things happen.
Do Democrats and independents like Trump’s anti-politics approach? Our 2015 survey results offer a hint. The figure below breaks down attitudes toward democratic processes and feelings toward Trump within each party.
Here’s good news for Trump: stealth democrats who are Democrats and, even more so, independents like him much more than their fellow partisans who believe in democracy’s messiness. The emotional gap between the “messy democrats” (with a zero) and the “stealth democrats” (with a three) was seven degrees among Republicans, 13 degrees among Democrats and 24 degrees among independents.
But here’s the bad news for Trump: Far fewer Democrats and independents are stealth democrats. In fact, only 16 percent of Democrats and 19 percent of independents are — compared with 40 percent of Republicans.
As we try to understand Trump’s success, it’s worth noting that there’s more to the story than just uneducated, authoritarian, misogynist, angry, old racists. He also gets his support from the quarter of the American electorate who believe that governing is so easy that it shouldn’t be bogged down by discussion, compromise and understanding various points of view – or maybe even voters.
John R. Hibbing is the Foundation Regents professor of political science and psychology at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and co-author with Kevin B. Smith and John R. Alford of “Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences.”
Elizabeth Theiss-Morse is the Willa Cather professor of political science at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and author of “Who Counts as an American?“