The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Americans are losing faith in democracy — and in each other

The American flag and a Trump campaign flag. (Carlos Osorio/Associated Press)

Nathaniel Persily is a professor at Stanford Law School. Jon Cohen is chief research officer for SurveyMonkey.

If there had been any doubt, it has now become clear that this election campaign is about more than the selection of a president: The values that support American democracy are deteriorating. Large numbers of Americans across party lines have lost faith in their democracy, and many will not accept the legitimacy of this election.

Those were the stark findings from a survey we performed from Oct. 6 through Oct. 8 of more than 3,000 registered voters, fully 40 percent of whom say: “I have lost faith in American democracy.” Six percent indicate they’ve never had faith in the system. Overall, barely more than half — just 52 percent — say, “I have faith in American democracy.” (Most respondents completed the survey before the Oct. 7 release of the video in which Donald Trump bragged about groping women, but the responses of those surveyed afterward were indistinguishable from those who answered the day before.)

This cynicism is widely shared across the electorate, but significant partisan differences emerge on this question, as on so many others. More than 6 in 10 voters backing Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton express faith in U.S. democracy, compared with just over 4 in 10 of those backing her Republican rival. Most of Trump’s supporters say they’ve lost confidence in the basic mechanism of governance in the United States.

One of the hallmarks of faith in democracy is a willingness of the defeated to accept the results of elections. Democracy, after all, is not about the selection of particular leaders, but the notion that citizens have the power to select them at all. It relies on the assumption that today’s electoral losers will live to fight another day, so that their faith in the system of democratic selection weathers temporary setbacks. But in this election, we find that a surprising share of the electorate is unwilling to accept the legitimacy of the election of their non-preferred candidate.

When asked in this SurveyMonkey Election Tracking poll if they would accept the result should their candidate lose in November, just 31 percent say they definitely would see the outcome as legitimate. Nearly as many (28 percent) say it is either “unlikely” that they would accept the result or that they definitely would not. Again, Trump’s supporters were more apt to say they would question the legitimacy of a Clinton victory than vice versa, but sizable shares on both sides, representing tens of millions of Americans, indicate they would not accept the legitimacy of the next president of the United States.

It would be easy to chalk up this erosion of democratic values to the extraordinarily dispiriting presidential campaign we are witnessing. But the problems go much deeper than current events or even attitudes about government. The bonds of social trust that serve as the support structure for our democracy are deteriorating.

Americans' lack of trust in government is representative of declining confidence in institutions across the board. For 40 years, Gallup has measured levels of confidence in an array of institutions, such as the media, organized religion, public schools, banks, unions and big business. Congress may regularly receive the lowest rating, as only 9 percent expressed a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in it in the most recent survey, which was released in June. But most institutions — within and outside government — are at or near historic lows.

And yet the problem is even worse. Americans do not trust each other either.

In our survey, we found that only 31 percent say that “most people can be trusted,” whereas fully 67 percent say “you need to be very careful in dealing with people.” Of even greater concern, it’s the youngest voters who are most wary of others: Seventy-nine percent of those 18 to 24 say people should be careful of others, compared with just more than half (52 percent) of those 65 and older.

This question on social trust has been asked around the world for decades. These response rates place the United States toward the lower end among other advanced democracies. That said, the recent rise of illiberal political parties in Europe demonstrates that the loss of democratic faith in the United States may be part of a worldwide trend.

Just to be clear, even though faith in democracy may be waning, things have been worse (during the Civil War, for example), and we are not close to where infamous European regimes were when they traded democracy for dictatorship. In fact, our poll shows that almost all Americans continue to support the basic constitutional feature of separation of powers, for example, and oppose rule by a single leader.

But while we are a long way from reaching Weimar Republic levels of alienation and distress, Americans are nonetheless pessimistic about the likelihood that our divisions can be bridged. A whopping 80 percent of voters say that the United States is more divided today than ever before, and most of those believe these divisions are likely to continue far into the future.

For all the talk about this election being the most important in our lifetimes, it is critical that political leaders understand that the election itself will not heal the divisions the campaign has revealed. It may be fashionable to think of this election as a referendum on a “style of politics” or “vision of government.” But referendums produce concrete results by proving which position more voters support. When a large share of the population is unwilling to grant legitimacy to the process of even asking the question, we should not be surprised when they refuse to accept the answer.

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