The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A new survey provides little comfort about democracy’s future

Supporters of President Donald Trump climb the west wall of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

A new survey from Bright Line Watch, an organization that monitors democratic practices, provides some interesting insights but little solace about Republicans’ commitment to democracy. They might say they support democratic principles (e.g., “All adult citizens enjoy the same legal and political rights”), but they fail to embrace the most fundamental democratic principle: acceptance of election results and the peaceful transfer of power.

The most basic disconnect from reality (and democratic values) remains the 2020 presidential winner. The survey reports, “94% of Democrats say [President] Biden is the rightful winner compared to just 26% of Republicans — a split that has also remained remarkably stable since Biden took office.” As a result, only 42 percent of Republicans have confidence in the outcome of elections compared to 80 percent of Democrats. That raises a question that was so prominent throughout the Senate runoffs in Georgia: Why vote if you think the whole thing is rigged?

The good news is that more detailed data shows not many Americans favor political violence as some previous surveys suggested. When the pollsters screened out “inattentive respondents” and provided definitions of various undemocratic behavior, they found “support is 9% for threats, 8% for harassment, 6% for non-violent felonies, 4% for violent felonies, 4% for violence if the other party wins the 2024 election, 4% for violence on January 6, and 5% for violence to restore Trump to the presidency.” The bad news is that still represents millions of people.

Even worse, the number of Republicans who buy into some form of violence is still alarmingly high. The survey reports, “Each of these levels of support is highest among Republicans who identify strongly with their party (18% for threats, 9% for 2024, 9% for January 6 violence, and 17% for violence to restore Trump compared to 12%, 2%, 6%, and 5%, respectively, among those who do not identify strongly).”

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The pollsters also asked political science experts about whether a range of events were “abnormal” for a democracy. The incidents of most concern centered on GOP conspiracy theories, election denial and anti-democratic sentiments:

[S]ix events were rated as highly abnormal and important in this most recent survey, including conservative lawyer John Eastman’s plan to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, the University of Florida preventing professors there from testifying in voting rights cases, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows promoting the “Italygate” conspiracy theory about the 2020 election results, and Arizona Republicans in the state legislature stripping powers from the state’s Democratic Secretary of State.

Experts are especially alarmed that some declared GOP candidates for the House and Senate, as well as 10 of 15 GOP candidates for secretary of state in five battleground states, do not accept the 2020 results. In short, “the party is increasingly embracing Donald Trump’s efforts to undermine the legitimacy of American elections and that partisans in charge of administering elections could threaten their integrity from within.”

The transformation of one major party into an illiberal, authoritarian movement is the greatest threat to democracy we face. It manifests itself in the “anti-fraud” measures (when there is no fraud) to restrict access to the ballot and to put partisans in charge of election administration; in the GOP’s decision to rally around House members who spout virulent racism and depict violence against Democrats; and in the real potential that the John Eastman memo becomes the 2024 post-election game plan for Republicans.

Unless and until all 50 Democratic senators realize that “bipartisanship” on voting and democracy reforms is impossible with a party infected with anti-democratic impulses, they will fail to install the guardrails needed to protect the country from these authoritarian forces.

Ironically, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) has risen to the occasion, at huge political cost to herself, to insist on revealing the truth about the Jan. 6 coup attempt and holding accountable those who plotted it. If that courage is not matched with a unified Democratic response sufficient to secure our democracy, her work will be for naught. Worse, we risk handing the power of government a party deluded by conspiracies and unwilling to abide by elections when they lose — supported by the frighteningly high percentage of Americans who have no qualms about use of political violence.