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How Americans Feel About Their Democracy
Is America’s democracy in trouble? That provocative question might draw eager nods from one side of our divided political spectrum and scoffs from the other.
In fact, new public opinion research commissioned by the George W. Bush Institute, together with Freedom House and the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, suggests that while there’s no need to panic, there is reason for concern.
The partners behind the Democracy Project set out to understand how Americans are feeling about the health of our democratic institutions and to examine opinions on U.S. support for democracy and human rights programs abroad.
What we found is that although Americans overwhelmingly agree that living in a democracy is important to them, they have grave misgivings about the state of our democracy today.
What we found is that although Americans overwhelmingly agree that living in a democracy is important to them, they have grave misgivings about the state of our democracy today. And while there are partisan differences in intensity, there is broad agreement that our system isn’t working as well as the Founders intended or Americans desire.
Eighty-four percent of respondents agreed that it was important to live in a democracy, essentially unchanged since the widely cited 2011 World Values Survey. But digging deeper, we found significantly softer levels of support among several key groups, including younger Americans and nonwhites. These groups, of course, will form the majority in the United States in the near future.
A majority (55 percent) of those we surveyed said “American democracy was weak” and an alarming 68 percent said it was getting weaker. Confidence in key democratic institutions was low across the board, in line with other recent polls. And while they might perhaps disagree about who’s to blame, better than 8 in 10 Americans believe that the tone of politics has gotten worse. Seven in ten feel that partisan and polarization have gotten worse.
These trends didn’t appear overnight and they can’t be reversed overnight.
While many clearly perceive a coarsening of our public dialogue in recent years, it’s no stretch to think of examples over the last few decades of how partisan disagreement has torn at the fabric of America’s democracy. Highly-contentious debates over nominations to the Supreme Court. The impeachment of a president. A weeks-long battle over the 2000 presidential election. False claims about a president’s place of birth and religious beliefs. Indeed, since Watergate, there have been strikingly few moments of national unity.
Americans have grown tired of the political sparring, which seems to come at the expense of solving some of our most important economic and social problems. And despite their frustrations, they have not given up on democracy. Six in 10 respondents in our research indicated that public engagement in civic and political issues was getting better.
Race emerged as a major fault line throughout the research. Whites and nonwhites see many issues through very different lenses. When we asked if equal rights and protections for minorities were getting better or getting worse, whites said they were getting better by a 50 – 41 percent margin. However, nonwhites said they were getting worse by 63 – 31 percent margin. In focus group research that preceded the poll, we heard nonwhites express their frustrations about marginalization and unfairness.
Our survey indicated that people are enthusiastic about change. Large majorities support improving civic education and creating incentives for young people to engage in public service.
A foundation to build upon
Our survey indicated that people are enthusiastic about change. Large majorities support improving civic education and creating incentives for young people to engage in public service. The Americans we polled supported the notion that democracy can be lost and don’t want to see that happen.
The survey tested how best to talk to Americans about these issues. Nearly 90 percent responded favorably to a message that stressed the need for all Americans to act as responsible citizens, by voting, volunteering, taking time to stay informed, and standing up for what’s right, so the freedoms and rights we cherish don’t get whittled away. That’s a powerful foundation to build upon.
For those who believe that America has an important role to play in advancing democracy and human rights internationally, the research has some heartening news. We found that a majority of those we polled support American leadership on these issues.
More than 80 percent agreed with the notion of democracy and human rights support through diplomacy, training, and development assistance. Seventy-eight percent believed that funding for these efforts should be either maintained at current levels or increased, versus 18 percent who believed they should be decreased. In a time when Russia and China are actively advocating an alternative worldview and onetime liberal democracies like Hungary and Turkey are backsliding, there is strong support for a robust American effort to push back.
How do we begin to restore faith in our democracy? As President George W. Bush said in remarks last year, “One of our worst national problems is a deficit of confidence. But the cause of freedom justifies all our faith and effort. It still inspires men and women in the darkest corners of the world, and it will inspire a rising generation. The American spirit does not say, ‘We shall manage,’ or ‘We shall make the best of it.’ It says, ‘We shall overcome.’”
Lindsay Lloyd is the Bradford M. Freeman Director of the Human Freedom Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute, where he manages original research and programmatic efforts to advance freedom and democracy in the world. This includes the work of the Freedom in North Korea project, which raises awareness of human rights violations in North Korea, proposes new policy solutions, and engages leaders to help improve the lives of the North Korean people; the Freedom and Democracy project, which seeks to support U.S. leadership in the world and reenergize our democracy at home; and the Liberty and Leadership Program, which works to equip emerging young leaders in Burma with the skills and knowledge they need to help guide their country’s democratic transition. Lindsay also oversees the Institute’s North Korea Freedom Scholarship, which provides financial and other support for North Korean refugees and their children to pursue higher education.
Prior to joining the Bush Institute, Lindsay served for 16 years at the International Republican Institute (IRI), most recently as senior advisor for policy. Previously, he was IRI’s regional director for Europe and co-director of the regional program for Central and Eastern Europe, which was based in Slovakia. At IRI, Lindsay worked with candidates, elected officials, political parties, and civil society activists to develop lasting democratic institutions.
Before joining IRI, Lindsay worked for several members and the leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives, as political director for a political action committee, and for Jack Kemp’s 1988 presidential campaign. He graduated from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.Full Bio
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