But these efforts are unlikely to succeed unless enough Americans are willing to support (or at least tolerate) democracy-degrading actions that give their side an advantage. Here’s what social science can tell us about Americans’ commitment to democracy.
Public opinion about democracy matters
Although democratic stability depends on a lot more than public opinion, efforts to dismantle democratic institutions in a country like the United States are unlikely to go far unless a significant segment of the public approves. Political scientist Christopher Claassen has found that, since the 1990s, “public support does indeed help democracy survive,” and that this is especially true in established democracies like the United States.
Many people simultaneously support ‘democracy’ and authoritarian actions
However, public opinion researchers have long understood that while most citizens around the world say they support “democracy” in the abstract, many also support specific anti-democratic actions, such as shutting down speech they loathe or weakening constraints on executive power. This includes many Americans. In surveys conducted over the past 25 years, for instance, almost all Americans have said that it is important to them to live in a democracy and that democracy is a good system of government, but 25 to 35 percent have said that having a “strong leader” who does not have to bother with elections and a national legislature would be a good way to run the country.
Indeed, willingness to support authoritarian arrangements such as rule by a “strong leader” or the army seems to increase in response to economic and social crises, such as the pandemic’s economic consequences or the social turmoil that followed George Floyd’s death under a police officer’s knee. Many Americans’ abstract approval of democracy probably wouldn’t stop them from supporting authoritarian actions amid a crisis, especially if their own political side would gain from these actions.
Right-wing cultural views often go together with support for authoritarian governance
Which citizens within Western democracies are most open to authoritarian actions? Historically, authoritarian regimes have emerged from both the right and the left. But in a forthcoming paper in Perspectives on Politics, one of us — with Yphtach Lelkes, Bert Bakker and Eliyahu Spivack — reports evidence from 14 Western democracies that cultural conservatives are more open to authoritarian governance than their culturally liberal counterparts. Using a measure of traditional vs. liberal stances on religious, social and moral matters, we found that conservative cultural attitudes were a stronger predictor of anti-democratic sentiment than any other background characteristic, even more so than not having a college education, being politically unengaged and being young.
It’s not clear why. Certain kinds of attributes (like personality traits or thinking styles) might be linked to both cultural conservatism and anti-democratic sentiment. Or culturally conservative views might make people more amenable to authoritarian government. Whatever the reason, these two kinds of attitudes resonate with one another.
Within English-speaking democracies, left-wing economic views matter as well
But cultural conservatism is not the only type of attitude linked with support for authoritarian actions. Within the English-speaking democracies such as the United States, we found that cultural conservatives with left-leaning economic views — those who believed in redistributing wealth and economic egalitarianism — were most amenable to authoritarian governance. That echoes similar findings by political scientists Lee Drutman, Larry Diamond and Joe Goldman.
Researchers sometimes call this combination of views the “protection-based” belief system, because it includes attitudes that protect both traditional cultural norms and economic security. This set of views often appeals to people who have strong needs for security and certainty and who are disengaged or alienated from the ordinary political process — in other words, the right-wing populists who make up a sizable component of Trump’s political base. This group is probably the most likely to support authoritarian actions that advantage their side.
What does this tell us about the health of U.S. democracy? It is important to note that the citizens most open to authoritarian governance often tend not to be politically involved — and to therefore have less influence on politics. Younger people are also more likely to hold anti-democratic attitudes — but they’re notoriously disinclined to vote. In other words, those who are most likely to support authoritarian interventions are also the least likely to make their voices heard — thus leaving the field relatively open for democratically committed citizens.
What's more, Americans overall disapprove of Trump’s handling of the protests, and Pentagon leaders have been unusually outspoken about not using the military against U.S. citizens. These reactions might discourage openly authoritarian actions like using the military to tamper with an election or to remain in power after an electoral loss.
So would a large enough section of Americans support Trump if he took anti-democratic actions to stay in power? We can hope Americans will not have to find out.
Ariel Malka is associate professor of psychology at Yeshiva University.