The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Americans think their democracy is falling short

Americans see their democracy afflicted by numerous maladies, and a new study finds a majority think fundamental change is needed to make the U.S. government work again, according to a study released Thursday.

The Pew Research Center probed Americans about the U.S. political system in unique depth, and results across many questions show a chasm between ideals and reality.

While 84 percent say it’s very important that the “rights and freedoms of all people are respected,” less than half say this trait describes the United States very well or somewhat well (47 percent). And 3 in 10 rate the political system positively for ensuring “elected officials face serious consequences for misconduct,” a trait that more than 8 in 10 say is very important.

[‘It’s just messed up’: Most think political divisions as bad as Vietnam era]

Across 23 traits of democracy tested in the Pew survey, majorities of Americans rate their country positively on eight.

The poll is not the first to document widespread pessimism about the country’s political system. Americans’ trust in the federal government has declined over several decades, and a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll last fall found 71 percent saying political divisions had “reached a dangerous new low point.” That survey also found 36 percent of Americans who are “not proud” of the way democracy works in the United States, twice the share who said this in 2014.

The Pew survey explores where people see U.S. democracy falling flat, but Americans are not entirely downbeat. More than half (58 percent) say democracy is working well in the United States overall, though few fewer than 2 in 10 say it is working “very well.” Barely 4 in 10 say the political system is above average when compared with those of other developed nations.

The survey also finds 61 percent saying significant changes are needed to the “fundamental design and structure of American government.” No specific proposals tested by the Pew survey garnered cross-party support, although majorities of both leaning Democrats (77 percent) and Republicans (54 percent) say new laws could be effective in reducing the role of money in politics.

Democrats and Republicans mirror each other's criticisms of how democracy is faring on several fronts. Fewer than 4 in 10 within each party say that “people agree on basic facts even if they disagree on politics,” and ratings are similarly low for government transparency and the level of respect in political debates. Just about 4 in 10 Democrats and Republicans alike say “voters are knowledgeable,” despite nearly 8 in 10 of each group who say this is very important in U.S. elections. The worst ratings for each group came on cross-party cooperation, with just about 2 in 10 saying Democrats and Republicans work together on issues.

But Republicans rate American democracy much more positively on other fronts. In the biggest partisan gap, 74 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners say the statement “everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed” describes the United States well, compared with half as many Democrats (37 percent). And while 60 percent of Republicans give say the “rights and freedoms of all people are respected” in the United States, that drops to 38 percent of Democrats who say the same.

Voter rights and fraud are another flash point of partisan disagreement. More than 8 in 10 Democrats and Republicans alike say it’s very important that “no eligible voters are prevented from voting.” But while 83 percent of Republicans say it is very important that “no ineligible voters are permitted to vote,” a much smaller 55 percent majority of Democrats say the same.

Asked how the U.S. election system performs, Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to say no eligible voters are prevented from voting (80 percent vs. 56 percent), but Republicans are far less confident than Democrats that “no ineligible voters are permitted to vote” (42 percent vs. 76 percent).

The Pew survey also found steep, if unsurprising, partisan divisions on whether President Trump has respect for the country’s democratic institutions and traditions. Overall, 45 percent say Trump has “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of respect for the country’s democratic system, while a 54 percent majority say he has “not too much” respect or “none at all.” More than three-quarters of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say Trump has at least a fair amount of respect for democratic institutions and traditions (77 percent), compared with 16 percent of Democrats who say the same.

The Pew Research Center study was based on two surveys. The main survey of 4,656 U.S. adults was conducted Jan. 29 to Feb. 13 through the firm’s American Trends Panel, an online survey panel recruited through random sampling of cellular and landline phones. Results for this survey carry a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.4 percentage points. A second survey was conducted March 7 to 14 among a sample of 1,466 adults reached on cellular and landline phones; the error margin for this sample is plus or minus three points.

Emily Guskin contributed to this report.