Democracy in America – A Gap Between Goals and Views

The democratic principle, that the voice of the people must be heard in any decision affecting them, has a strong appeal. But it is a difficult principle to implement because it requires the citizenry to be fully engaged in political affairs and willing to challenge entrenched interests. To achieve this, the citizens must feel confident that they have a chance to change the course of government, which means understanding the workings and limits of democracy.

Unfortunately, there is a major mismatch between the American public’s goals for democracy and their views of how well it works. On 23 specific measures of democracy, the political system and elections, Americans say their country is doing only slightly or not at all well. And on a majority of these measures, the public is convinced that their own party or the opposing one is not upholding democracy.

These gaps reflect profound concerns about the integrity of governing institutions and the capacity for their members to govern effectively. Two of the most common concerns are the strategic manipulation of elections and executive overreach. In the former case, tactics like gerrymandering and other electoral fraud distort representation in the legislature, while in the latter, a president unchecked by a robust civil service can eliminate vital checks and balances and consolidate power in unaccountable agencies.

Despite these concerns, many Americans remain strongly committed to democracy and want to make it work better. More than half say it is very important to them that the rights and freedoms of all people are respected. But it is also critical that those who work to promote democracy be careful to avoid a “mobilization style” that pushes America closer to such a dystopic future. That is, advocacy efforts that rely on broad appeals to popular values risk exacerbating antidemocratic attitudes and potentially fostering political violence.

One possible way to address this gap is by developing a new approach to civic engagement. A strategy of bringing together Americans with diverse backgrounds, ideologies and perspectives to work on common goals could build trust and strengthen the foundations of democracy. This kind of programming, which has been successful in the past in the face of ideological polarization in Congress, could help bridge partisan divides and produce real progress on key democratic issues.

But, a word of caution: Affective polarization—that is, Americans’ dislike of members of the other political party—can be as powerful a driver of political behavior as ideological polarization. Efforts to reduce this problem should be targeted specifically at those with a deep emotional attachment to democracy, and include rigorous research alongside programs that track their effects over the long term. Only then can Americans start to restore confidence in the legitimacy of their governing institutions, and build a democracy that truly meets the hopes and aspirations of all. The country cannot afford a return to the dark days of 2020. Nor can it allow another day to pass without addressing an onslaught of democratic challenges.