The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The right sees democracy at more risk, thanks largely to ‘fraud’ claims

Within his party, Donald Trump is winning the fight with the House Jan. 6 committee.

Police with guns drawn watch as rioters try to break into the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Rep. Liz Cheney, conservative daughter of a central pillar of the Republican establishment, offered a warning during an interview that aired Sunday.

“People must pay attention. People must watch, and they must understand how easily our democratic system can unravel if we don’t defend it,” Cheney (R-Wyo.) said on “CBS Sunday Morning.” She was referring to the upcoming hearings from the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol. The effort by former president Donald Trump and his allies to undermine the 2020 election, she said, was “an ongoing threat” that she found “chilling.”

Cheney was articulating a position we’ve heard often since the 2020 election: that there exists a threat to American democracy from Trump’s insistences about the election having been tainted by fraud or otherwise “rigged” against him. That there are people willing to set aside the results of elections in favor of their preferred outcomes who are actively working to make doing so easier. It is the goal of the committee Cheney vice-chairs to make that eminently defensible position better understood.

But the fight is almost certainly already lost. Over the past year, partisan views of the risk to American democracy have not moved, while support for Cheney’s position from members of her party has softened. In the debate over what poses the biggest threat to American democracy — rampant fraud of the sort theorized for self-serving reasons by Trump or attempts to undercut the election process — Republicans are far more concerned about the former.

And in fact, they are more likely to express concern about democracy in general as a result. In other words, not only has Trump’s argument carried the day with his party, his false fraud claims have managed to spark more concern about democracy than has the months-long examination of the very real attempt to steal the 2020 election on his behalf.

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It’s not unusual that there should be a partisan divide over an investigation, of course (much less anything else). The investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III was viewed through a sharply partisan lens, with Republicans becoming less likely to view Trump’s actions negatively as the investigation moved forward.

Something similar is at play with the investigation into the Jan. 6 riot — which is really a broader investigation into the ways in which Trump sought to retain power after losing in 2020. Early on, Republicans expressed discomfort with the attack. Months of efforts to reshape that opinion, though, had an effect, including the refusal of House Republican leaders to acquiesce to a broadly bipartisan investigation of what happened.

Polling from YouGov found that the percentage of Republicans who viewed the attack at the Capitol as a threat to democracy fell from 24 percent in 2021 to 18 percent this year. Importantly, Republicans were twice as likely to go from saying in 2021 that it was a threat to saying this year that it wasn’t than they were to have moved from saying it wasn’t a threat last year to saying it was this year. Ten percent of respondents moved from threat to non-threat; only 5 percent moved from non-threat to threat — despite everything we’ve learned and despite the investigations by the House committee.

Last October, polling from Grinnell College conducted by Selzer & Co. found that Republicans were 86 points more likely to say that American democracy was under threat than they were to say it wasn’t. That’s a spread 30 points larger than among Democrats or independents.

Other polling at the time, such as from NPR and PBS NewsHour conducted by Marist, found a similar (if less broad) partisan gap.

In that same poll, Marist asked about fundamental concerns about the democratic process. For example, they asked how much Americans felt that elections were fair. A majority of Republicans said they had not much or no trust in the fairness of elections — this, nearly a year after the 2020 contest and well after it was obvious that no rampant fraud had occurred.

Republicans, though, told Quinnipiac University that they saw Trump’s post-election efforts to question the legitimacy of elections not as undermining democracy but — as Trump himself insisted — as an effort to protect the system.

It cannot be stated enough that Trump’s claims about fraud are entirely baseless and that his vaguer arguments about the election having been stacked against him are little better. But he has been effective at creating a demand economy for claims about how he lost a second term through deviousness, and allies have rushed to meet that demand.

By the beginning of this year, that meant that Americans overall told CNN and its pollsters from SSRS that they had only a little confidence in elections to reflect the will of the people. This question can be interpreted in a lot of ways; those who believe electoral systems are exclusionary for certain voting groups, for example, might agree that elections don’t reflect the will of the people. But that nearly three-quarters of Republicans held that view suggests that much of the concern stems from accusations about election tampering.

In that same poll, Republicans were 32 points more likely to describe democracy as being under attack. Democrats and independents were slightly more likely to say either that democracy was being tested or is in no danger.

Even that, though, is bad news for Cheney and the Jan. 6 committee. A year into the investigation of the Capitol riot and Democrats didn’t have the same sense of urgency as party leaders.

Shortly after the first anniversary of the attack, a Fox News poll found that independents were about split on which party would do a better job protecting democracy, giving a nonsignificant edge to the GOP. That partisans preferred their own parties is not really remarkable. That independents saw it as a toss-up, though, suggests how ingrained the fraud-vs.-stealing rhetorical divide is.

For the first anniversary of the attack, Quinnipiac asked how Americans viewed the investigation itself. Again, independents were about as likely to say that the events at the Capitol should never be forgotten as they were to say it was “time to move on” from the subject.

The House committee hopes that its upcoming hearings will lay out a convincing case for how democracy is threatened by Trump’s efforts to retain power. Here, again, we can point to recent history as a reason for skepticism: When Trump faced impeachment over his efforts to force Ukraine to announce an investigation into Joe Biden, weeks of hearings had little effect on partisan views.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that, at least within his party, Trump’s already won this fight.

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