The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Americans who see democracy most at risk? Republicans.

Trump supporters gather near the Washington Monument in advance of their rally on Jan. 6. (John Minchillo/AP)
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There are two narratives about what happened in the months surrounding the 2020 presidential election.

One posits that the election was stolen through rampant fraud propagated by Democrats and their allies, leading to the unfair and illegal election of Joe Biden.

The other suggests that unfounded claims of rampant fraud have metastasized within the Republican Party as rationales for enacting new restrictions on voting and for giving partisan officials more leeway in challenging or overturning election results.

One of those narratives is accurate. The other is apparently winning.

Polling released on Wednesday from Grinnell College suggests that most Americans believe democracy in the United States to be under major threat. More than three-quarters see democracy as being under at least a minor threat. But when broken down by party, the divides are more stark: More than two-thirds of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents think that democracy faces a major threat compared to only about a third of Democrats.

It’s very safe to assume that the threat being perceived here varies by party. Republicans have consistently told pollsters that they think Biden’s presidency is illegitimate, with most embracing at least some form of the argument that the election was tainted by significant fraud. (It wasn’t.) In April, CNN polling found that half of Republicans believed not only that Biden didn’t win but that there was solid evidence to prove it. This was not then the case and it is not the case now.

But if you believe that the election was stolen, it’s natural to assume that democracy is under threat. After all, democracy is centered on the idea that people can elect their leaders; if that idea is undermined or eliminated, there’s no democracy anyway.

The problem, of course, is where this leads. These false assertions about fraud have created political space for proposals to “fix” the problem, either by clamping down on voting access (out of the unfounded belief that more access leads to fraud) or by empowering officials to reject election results they find suspicious. That effort, too, poses a threat to democracy — but it’s actually rooted in proposed legislation and near-incessant political rhetoric.

There is shared partisan consensus on the need to preserve American democracy, according to the Grinnell poll. Only a small percentage of Americans think that it’s only somewhat or not at all important for the country to rely on a democratic system.

The challenge, though, is what that democracy looks like. There are many examples of ostensibly democratic systems around the world in which the free expression of popular will is tamped down or reshaped by intentionally introduced constraints. People in Russia vote, too, but it is not the democratic ideal to which we should aspire.

The obvious irony is that the party most concerned about American democracy is also the party most focused on redefining it. That’s not a coincidence any more than it is a coincidence that Donald Trump has spent more than a year raising questions about the reliability of voting in his effort to retain or regain power. Trump, too, frequently argues that democracy’s future is fragile, and most Americans agree.

But it’s not fragile for the reasons he claims.