As the world faces a rising wave of illiberal populism, one aspect of this phenomenon that remains poorly understood is—ironically—what “the people” really think. Election results tell us whom the voters choose, and exit polls may begin to tell us why. Political journalists interview voters to try to understand what their votes are saying. But an important question remains: Are people merely punishing incumbent parties and politicians, or are they losing faith in democracy itself?
The short answer is a mixed one. Citizens in established democracies still overwhelmingly prefer democracy as the best form of government. But significant portions of the public in many advanced democracies are open to authoritarian alternatives. In recent years, at least a fifth of the public in many advanced democracies like the idea of having “a strong leader who does not have to bother with Congress and elections.” In the United States, a quarter of adults endorse that option, and 18 percent say that “having the army rule” would be a good or very good idea. In all, three in ten Americans embrace at least one of these two authoritarian options.
These were some of the findings from a July 2017 survey of 5,000 Americans released on Tuesday by the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group. The survey report, Follow the Leader, co-authored by New America Senior Fellow Lee Drutman, Democracy Fund President Joe Goldman, and myself, highlights some encouraging trends but also some deeply troubling ones.
First the good news: Things are not as bad as they could be, or as they were a few years ago. Through four rounds of surveys, running from 1995 to 2011, the World Values Survey observed a steady increase in the percentage of Americans backing the option of “a strong leader who does not have to bother with Congress and elections.” That sentiment rose from 24 percent of the public in 1995 to 29 percent in 1999, 32 percent in 2006, and 34 percent in 2011. Now it’s back down to exactly where it was in 1995—24 percent. That proportion is about the same as what a 2017 Pew Research Center survey found in the United Kingdom and Israel, and lower than in Japan (31 percent). But it is a lot higher than what Pew found in several other peer democracies, like Canada (17 percent), France (12 percent) and Germany (6 percent). More troubling has been the trend in support for “army rule.” That has steadily risen, from 8 percent in 1995 to 18 percent in our Voter Study Group survey last year. That is not only much higher than in Canada (10 percent) and Germany (4 percent), but also higher than in democracies that depend existentially on the army—namely Israel (10 percent) and South Korea (8 percent).
There is more encouraging news. The American public still backs democracy overwhelmingly as the best form of government. 86 percent say it’s a good or very good system. 82 percent say it’s very important to live in a democracy (by giving democracy at least an “8” on a 10-point scale of importance). And 78 percent say democracy is always “preferable to any other kind of government.” Moreover, in contrast to some analyses based on older data, we do not find that younger Americans are becoming more authoritarian or more likely than their older peers to embrace undemocratic options. In fact, those under 30 are the least likely age group to support a “strong leader” (“only” 20 percent do so). At the same time, however, younger voters (here including those between 30 and 44 years of age) are less likely to say that democracy is always preferable. Three in ten of these younger voters demur in this regard, compared to a fifth of those ages 45 to 64, and 15 percent of seniors.
Our findings closely track those of the Pew Research Center’s global survey on democracy, conducted in 2017 just a few months before our own. In that survey, 86 percent of Americans endorsed the idea of representative democracy (“where representatives elected by citizens decide what becomes law.”) That was about the same as in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Israel, only a little behind Germany (90 percent), and better than most others. Americans are not as disillusioned with their democracy as one might think, given our level of polarization and dysfunction. We found about six in ten Americans were at least somewhat satisfied with the way democracy is working in the United States. That is higher than what Pew found (46 percent), but satisfaction is a more volatile measure that moves with the state of politics and the economy. Aside from Canada and Germany, where 70 percent or more were satisfied with the way democracy functions, the American proportion compares well with other advanced democracies.
So what is there to worry about? We found several disturbing trends lurking beneath the surface. First, support for democracy is not as robust as we should hope for. We surveyed five measures of democratic commitment, asking respondents about their support for democracy, a strong leader, and army rule; the importance they attached to democracy on a 10-point scale; and whether they agreed that democracy is always preferable. As we note in the report, “Only a slim majority of Americans (54 percent) consistently express a pro-democratic position across all of our measures.” In fact, 28 percent of Americans give a nondemocratic response on at least two of our five items.
Second, and even more troubling, is the way that public ambivalence and hostility to democracy are interacting with the current highly polarized political context. We have had waves of illiberal sentiment in America before. In the absence of scientific survey data, we don’t know what proportions of the public doubted the efficacy of democracy or were willing to support an authoritarian strong leader in the 1930s, or during the anti-communist hysteria mobilized by Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1950s. Probably, the numbers then would have dwarfed those of today. But what we did not have back then was a President whose own commitment to democracy was fundamentally in doubt. Donald Trump represents something new and very dangerous in American democracy, and that danger is reflected in the deeper patterns of our data.
Among those Americans who supported a candidate in the presidential primaries, Trump supporters are substantially more supportive of a “strong leader” (32 percent) than are supporters of any other candidate from either major party (all of whom favored that option at levels of 20 percent or less). Voters for Trump in the general election are nearly twice as likely as Clinton voters to endorse this authoritarian option (29 to 16 percent). And those voters who switched from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016 leaned the most authoritarian of all—45 percent of them support a “strong leader.”
Drill down further and we see more fully how authoritarian attitudes are interacting with partisan and ideological polarization. Reversing the partisan pattern from previous surveys, Republicans are now much more likely to endorse a “strong leader” than Democrats (by 31 to 21 percent). The gap between cultural conservatives and cultural liberals is even wider (20 percentage points). And the one in six Americans who embrace a racial, or arguably, racist, view of American identity—that being of European heritage is important to being an American—are four times as likely to favor a “strong leader” as those who think European heritage is “not important at all. “ (They are also much more likely to question democracy). A similar pattern holds with regard to people who favor increased surveillance of mosques or targeting Muslims at airport screenings. They are three times as likely to favor a “strong leader” as those who strongly oppose this form of religious profiling. These are the subterranean constituencies that Donald Trump continues to mobilize and signal to when he harps on hot-button culture war issues, declines to unequivocally condemn white supremacist mobilization, or dismisses an African-American congressional critic, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, as a “low IQ individual.”
This juxtaposition of the trends and the times should prompt serious concern. We note in our report five trends that make this moment different. First, it is not just Donald Trump who is testing or trashing democratic norms. A wave of illiberal, demagogic populism is sweeping across many advanced industrial democracies, targeting immigrants as well as racial and religious minorities. Our data suggest a close affinity between politicians who play the race and immigration cards and citizens, anxious about social and economic change, who opt to “follow the leader.” The dynamic is probably deeply iterative. A growing proportion of voters feel threatened by changes they feel unable to control—increasing immigration and cultural pluralism, deepening income inequality and insecurity, de-industrialization, and other challenges to national sovereignty posed by globalization. These represent the second trend. Illiberal populist leaders claim that they are merely responding to these anxieties, but they are also irresponsibly stoking them.
The third factor is more unique to the United States, with its entrenched two-party system. Our two parties are more ideologically sorted and distant from one another than they have been in a century, and they are also about as closely competitive with one another as they have ever been. This, we argue in our report, is an important factor eroding respect for democratic norms and driving an increasingly hyper-partisan and zero-sum style of politics. When party affiliation becomes “something akin to tribal identity,” the odds get stacked against political compromise and it becomes exceedingly hard for moderate elements to confront extremists and democratic norm-breakers in their ranks. As the last 14 months have shown, it is especially hard for Republicans in Congress to do so when the flame-throwing norm-buster is the leader of their party, the President.
Into this toxic mix flow the fourth and fifth factors that define the context. With every passing day—and virtually every new election, most recently in Italy—we see the corrosive effects of social media in facilitating the viral diffusion of hateful, extremist content and fake news. This is a medium made for demagogic populists, and they are exploiting it brilliantly. But they are also getting assistance—and this is the fifth factor—from foreign actors like Russia, who want to feed racial, religious, cultural, ideological, and partisan polarization. As James Comey said in congressional testimony last year about the Russian government’s information warfare, they intervened with purpose and precision in the 2016 U.S. campaign, and they are coming back at us again in 2018.
The key reason to worry about our findings, then, is not that levels of democratic defection are alarmingly high, but rather that levels of democratic commitment appear fragile and hitched to political alignments at precisely the time when our democratic politics are stressed and under assault. If a major crisis were to give Donald Trump a pretext to violate democratic norms in a much more audacious way, there is reason to believe that a large portion of his constituency would “follow the leader.”