The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats aren’t convincing non-Democrats that Republicans are threatening democracy

The Army Golden Knights Parachute Team lands near the White House during President Donald Trump's Salute to America event on July 4, 2020. (Oliver Contreras for The Washington Post)

Most Americans agree that our democracy faces a serious threat. You probably read that sentence in the way that you read other first sentences in other stories about new polling, absorbing it as context for what comes next. But it’s worth pausing on that sentence alone: Most Americans — 8 in 10 in a new poll from Marist University conducted for NPR and PBS NewsHour — say that democracy faces a serious threat.

More than 3 out of every 4 Americans. And, as other polling has shown, it’s a sentiment held more commonly by Republicans than by Democrats.

In the abstract, this might seem a bit odd. After all, there was an effort earlier this year to retain power for a Republican president that threatened to undermine the results of 2020′s freely contested presidential election.

But, of course, that’s a large part of it: Republicans generally don’t say that the 2020 election was fair. Asked by Marist whether former president Donald Trump’s ongoing false assertions about the election results are mostly a function of his frustration over the outcome or mostly because there was in fact fraud that shifted the election’s outcome, three-quarters of Republicans say the latter.

Republicans are also more likely to see fraud as a threat to fair elections than they are to see voter suppression (that is, efforts to keep certain groups from voting) in that way. More than half of Republicans identify either fraud or “vote tampering” by Democrats as the biggest threat to fair elections.

It’s important to point out that there is no evidence of rampant fraud in American elections. There are unquestionably isolated incidents of fraud, individual people arrested for casting votes illegally. There is no evidence of that occurring on any significant scale. There is also no evidence of “vote tampering,” though allegations of that sort have for months been conflated with things such as efforts to turn out Democratic voters. It is also not clear that voter suppression has affected the results of elections, though there have been legislative efforts to limit vote access. (Those efforts have generally been framed as responses to that purported fraud.)

A majority of Republicans did indicate that failing to concede an election was harmful to democracy on net. Trump, of course, didn’t concede after 2020, and only a flat majority of those who say they voted for him say that his failure to concede was harmful. A quarter say that failing to concede does more good than harm.

Weave all of this together, and the picture that results is a bifurcated sense of the threat America faces. That’s reflected in another question asked by Marist: Which party poses the bigger threat to democracy in the United States? Democrats say Republicans, and Republicans say Democrats. Independents blame both parties equally.

Independent researchers, for what it’s worth, see the Republican Party as having grown far more illiberal over time, meaning that the party has embraced policies and rhetoric that undermine the free and fair elections that are a hallmark of liberal democracy. That was obviously manifested in the months after the election and the events of Jan. 6. New polling from PRRI reinforces that Republicans are also much more likely to embrace the idea of political violence in defense of the country.

But for Americans overall, views are as partisan as everything else.