Between 2007 and 2015, the United States’ political self-confidence took a hit. In January 2007, polling data from the Pew Research Center shows, more than half the country expressed a good deal of confidence in the wisdom of the American people when it came to making political decisions. Most Americans, that is, thought Americans did a good job in sussing out political issues.
By October 2015, those views flipped. Then — and repeatedly since — Americans have been more skeptical, with at least half of respondents to the same question saying they had “not very much” confidence in Americans on that front.
That decline occurred among both Democrats and Republicans. For whatever reason, over that eight-year period, Americans were suddenly a lot more skeptical of what Americans were doing in their elections. (The wording of the question seems to suggest that we’re talking mostly about electoral politics here.)
The particularly interesting part of the Pew data, though, is what happened with Republican views on the subject.
In March 2016, only about a third of both Republicans and Democrats had at least a good deal of confidence in the American public’s political wisdom. By March 2018, though, Republican confidence in that wisdom soared. More than half of Republicans one year ago said they had at least a good deal of confidence in the nation’s political wisdom.
One likely cause seems pretty obvious: the election of President Trump. Republicans skeptical about the decisions Americans were making got a lot more confident after Trump was sworn in. (That more Americans voted for Trump’s Democratic opponent than for him doesn’t seem to have dampened that sentiment.)
Over the course of 2018, Trump promised that this Republican trend would continue, dismissing the idea of a building “blue wave” in the upcoming midterm election and instead promising a “red wave,” another unexpected Republican rout. The wave that arrived last November, though, was distinctly blue. And in Pew’s polling in March, Republican confidence in the electorate suddenly dropped back down. (Democratic confidence, on the other hand, ticked back up over the past year.)
The switch between 2007 and 2015 tracks with another change in American politics: a sharp increase in partisan hostility. In 1994, 21 percent of Republicans viewed Democrats very unfavorably. That number started increasing in about 2000 and by 2016 hit 58 percent. Democrats followed a similar pattern in their views of Republicans, climbing from 17 percent to 55 percent over that period. If you view the other party very unfavorably, victories by that party will increasingly be seen as evidence of an electorate that’s making mistakes.
That’s immediately obvious in those Republican numbers. But the Pew data also shows that Democrats are even more skeptical than their political opponents.
It’s undoubtedly bad for the country that only 4 in 10 Americans have a reasonably favorable view of the nation’s ability to make political decisions. Which is to say: democracy.