The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republicans and Democrats both say they support democratic freedoms — but that the other side doesn’t

(Jacqueline Roggenbrodt/AP)
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Do Americans support basic democratic values? The major U.S. political parties have lately been questioning each other’s commitment to the core principles like freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Who’s right? We decided to check.

Here’s how we did our research.

We designed a survey to test how much Americans consent to democratic values and tolerance. Democratic values are the fundamental aspects of government that all Americans, in theory, should support. They are those beliefs that support the central parts of constitutional design, including freedom of speech and expression, freedom of the press, judicial independence, separation of powers and checks and balances. Tolerance for the opinions of others has traditionally been defined as the protection of rights and liberties for members of an individual’s “least-liked group.”

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The nationally representative survey of 1,000 American adults, supported by the Center for Public Opinion at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, was conducted from June 27 to July 6 by YouGov.

Most Americans support democratic values, but both Republicans and Democrats doubt the other party’s commitment to those values.

We find that overall consent, especially among partisans, is quite high, with a few caveats. But here are two notable findings: Democrats and Republicans aren’t confident about the others’ adherence to democratic values. And when we gave them examples, both groups were more likely to support freedom for their own side — and less likely to support it for the other side.

Consider the answers to six questions about minority expression of rights, majority voting, free speech for all, due process/legal protections, expression of unpopular opinions and media censorship.

We found widespread majority and bipartisan support for these six values. Partisans — whom we’re defining as those who identify with one party or the other, and those independents who say they lean toward one party or the other — more strongly support democratic values than those who are entirely political independent. But then, political independents also tend to be less politically informed and therefore more likely to say “don’t know” to survey questions.

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Democrats more strongly support two of these values — minority expression and majority-rule voting — than do Republicans, by 13 percent and 11 percent, respectively.

We also asked whether “Democrats” and “Republicans” would uphold core components of the democratic creed “no matter what” — or whether they were “unlikely to defend them if not in their interest.”

Large majorities of both groups see members of their own party as defenders of free speech, press, religion, assembly, separation of powers and due process rights — and simultaneously say the opposing party wouldn’t support democratic values if it would contradict their interests. For instance, on the question of freedom of the press, 80 percent of Democrats say their party will defend that principle “no matter what” — but only 28 percent say the same of Republicans. Meanwhile, 72 percent of Republicans say that others in their party will defend the freedom of the press “no matter what” — but only 28 percent of them say the same of Democrats.

So do Democrats and Republicans actually support those values equally for those they like and dislike?

We presented a control group with questions about four circumstances: 1) whether colleges should allow controversial speakers to speak on campus; 2) whether a sitting president should openly criticize members of the judicial branch; 3) whether a group that uses derogatory language at a rally should lose the right to protest; and 4) whether elected officials should be able to compel journalists to name their sources.

For another two groups, we varied the wording of each question in two ways. On allowing controversial speakers on college campuses, we asked either about controversial speakers like “conservative activist Ann Coulter” or “liberal activist Michael Moore.” On presidential criticism of the judicial branch, we gave an introduction that referred either to Donald Trump’s criticism of judges or Barack Obama’s criticism of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. On groups losing their right to protest, we referred to the group as either members of “Black Lives Matter” or “the Alt-Right.” And finally, on journalists’ ability to protect their sources, we asked this question in the context of whether it was the Trump administration or the Obama administration. (You can find our experiment wording and results here.)

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We discovered several interesting patterns in these experiments. First, even in the control group, these issues are already clearly politicized. About half of Democrats and Republicans think that there are legitimate reasons colleges might prohibit speeches on campus. On the other three issues, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to say a sitting president should not criticize judges; that there is an absolute right to freedom of assembly; and that journalists should be able to protect their sources. These differences likely reflect baked-in responses to current events.

In the other two groups, when presented with information cues, partisans react in predictable ways. Identifying Ann Coulter as the controversial speaker on college campuses increased Republicans’ support for her right to speak by 19 points, when compared to the control group; identifying Michael Moore as the speaker increased Democrats’ support by 10 points. For presidential criticism of the judicial branch, 74 percent of Democrats said such criticism is appropriate if told Obama was the president criticizing the Citizens United decision, while only 22 percent thought so if Trump were criticizing judges individually; only 30 percent of Republicans supported criticism of the judicial branch if the president mentioned was Obama, while 47 percent did if it was Trump.

Meanwhile, 10 percent more Democrats say they support freedom of assembly if the group identified is Black Lives Matter compared to the control, while 11 percent more Republicans say they support freedom of assembly if told the group is the alt-right. Finally, 16 percent more Democrats say they support journalists’ right to protect anonymous sources if told that Trump is pushing to find out sources, while 29 percent more Republicans support this right if told Obama is forcing journalists to reveal sources.

Supporters of both parties say they recognize the importance of democratic values. But both sides find it easier to support those values when it’s their side — and harder when it’s the other side — under threat.

Joshua J. Dyck is associate professor of political science and co-director of the Center for Public Opinion at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. 

Francis T. Talty is assistant dean in the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Science and co-director of the Center for Public Opinion at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.

Hannah Daly, Patrick Martin and Jasmine Polanco are seniors majoring in political science at University of Massachusetts, Lowell.