The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

There is not a bipartisan urgency among voters for preserving democracy

Members of the National Guard and the D.C. police keep a small group of demonstrators away from the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Donald Trump’s post-election effort to retain power — an effort that is still motoring along, despite President Biden having been in office for 20 months — was as explicit a rejection of a democratic election as this country has seen. Trump denied (denies) that he lost and engaged in a multi-tentacled effort to retain power despite being rejected by voters. He stoked a demand for skepticism of electoral outcomes that built on long-standing doubts about election systems, demand that has carried over into the midterm election.

It’s not surprising then that a quarter of the country identified “preserving democracy” as their strongest motivation for casting a ballot in November, according to new polling from the 19th and SurveyMonkey. What may be surprising, though, is how squarely centered that concern is on the left. Once you consider who thinks the American system is working as is, though, that divide seems more understandable.

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The pollsters offered respondents a few options to select from when identifying a primary motivation to vote. “Preserving democracy” and “jobs and the economy” accounted for about half of the responses overall. But while 3 in 10 Republicans and independents identified the economy as their main motivation, Democrats were half as likely to. (In this poll, “Democrats” and “Republicans” include independents who tend to vote with either of those parties.) A third of Democrats chose democracy, compared with a fifth of Republicans and 1 in 9 independents.

There’s some obvious complexity here. That a fifth of Republicans identify “preserving democracy” as a central goal probably reflects precisely the argument Trump has been making: that the democratic process is tainted by rampant fraud. (It isn’t.) What’s more, part of the “preserving democracy” response from Democrats is a function of manifesting opposition to what Trump is doing. That Democrats are three times more likely to identify “preserving democracy” as their primary motivation than abortion is noteworthy on its own, of course, and suggests an earnest concern about the issue.

But then consider that Democrats are also more likely to see the results of democracy working well for them. The 19th poll asked explicitly about how people viewed both democracy and the economic system, with most Americans saying that these systems aren’t working well. Democrats, though, say they are.

That views of democracy and the economic system move in correlation (as indicated by how close each dot is to the diagonal line below) suggests that respondents are reacting less to specific consideration of either system and, instead, to a general sense of how things are going. Democrats — whose party controls Congress and the White House — think that things are going pretty well. Republicans don’t.

In another question, the pollsters questioned how people viewed the work of Congress over the previous year. Three-quarters of Democrats said either that Congress had helped them personally or that there had been no effect. Three-quarters of Republicans said that Congress’s work had hurt them.

Again, it’s tricky to extricate partisanship here. Do Republicans actually have a concrete sense of being harmed by Congress? Or do they largely not like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)?

New polling from Fox News, released Wednesday, adds an interesting component to consider. Most Americans think that government should be doing more to help Americans than it is. That includes more than a third of Republicans, members of a party that traditionally objects to government intervention.

Note that the group that sees democracy working well also thinks Congress has not hurt them over the past year and that government should be doing even more. That’s a lot of confidence in the system, certainly, even if it is conflated with partisan support for political leadership.

If democracy is working well for you, it stands to reason that you’d seek to preserve it as a priority. If things aren’t going well for you, it similarly stands to reason that ensuring the system keeps working as it has been isn’t going to be at the top of your to-do list.

But all of this sidesteps an important consideration: What if democracy actually is under threat? What if the rejection of election results that Trump encouraged spreads? What if preserving the system in the most literal sense is actually something that voters might be asked to do? In that case, entanglement with partisanship is more than simply a consideration.

In that case, it’s a serious problem.