No, President Biden, American democracy isn’t 'at stake'

President Biden has given a preview of his 2024 campaign message — and unsurprisingly, it’s a refrain of 2020: American democracy is “at stake.” Former President Trump, he says, and the apoplectic politics that he fuels, are taking the United States to the brink. 

With Trump stoking much of the same anger that provoked the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, many understandably fear a reprise of 2020’s election challenges — or worse. Political polarization, eroding trust in institutions and threats of rising violence are chief culprits ostensibly tearing America apart.

But how accurate are these worries? 

While there’s plenty of reason to be concerned, informed research and analysis often cut against the more provocative claims. Here are three reasons why, despite the blistering attacks it’s endured, American democracy might be less vulnerable than you think.

  1. Polarization is bad, but not that bad. Partisan polarization is the problem we’re most often told lies at the root of America’s democracy crisis. There’s no doubt that the chasms between “red” and “blue” America are substantial. What’s also unmistakable: Washington itself has become more divided. The causes are varied, including legislative redistricting, low turnout primaries that cater to the bases, a surge in out-of-state money and abrupt power swings in Congress that eschew incentives to compromise. Perhaps surprisingly, however, given the typical narrative we’re used to hearing? There’s no clear consensus that polarization within the electorate itself has acutely spiked in recent years. Some experts point to mounting partisan divisions in the U.S. Yet many others argue the opposite — that hyper-polarization is confined more to elites and the “political class” (politicians, journalists, donors and party activists) than the masses. What does seem evident is that political parties have become more ideologically monolithic. However, the percentage of Americans who self-identify as being in the political center has changed little dating back to the 1970s. Additionally, issue by issue, there’s considerable evidence that most voters express relatively moderate opinions, even on ostensibly hot-button policies like abortion, guns, the environment and healthcare. All of this suggests that most Americans probably aren’t the foam-at-the-mouth partisans they’re often made out to be. It’s true that ideological extremism only requires a critical mass of adherents to inflict damage. However, to suggest that this portends far-reaching adoption of such views is probably too pessimistic.
  2. Democratic institutions are resilient. 2020 placed outsized pressure on the nation’s electoral and judicial systems. Yet institutions bent but didn’t break. Joe Biden moved into the White House. Trump’s accusations of election rigging ended up where they should have: winding their way through the courts, where most were summarily, and correctly, dismissed. That reassuring, if not inevitable, result admittedly hinged on key public servants, including former Vice President Mike Pence, behaving honorably at pivotal moments. But if anything, institutions seem even less likely to snap if tested again. Consider: In 2022, Congress passed the bipartisan Electoral Count Reform Act, which would make it more difficult for another effort like Trump’s to succeed in overturning an election. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Moore vs. Harper set an important precedent in refuting the “independent state legislature theory,” which proposed that states have almost no restrictions on regulating elections. From a technical standpoint, there’s good evidence that the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has made substantial progress in collaborating with state and local officials to improve the integrity of electoral infrastructure. Another piece of encouraging news: For all the valid concerns over election denialism, the majority of Americans still have faith in the nation’s voting procedures. None of this means that America’s complex latticework of checks and balances is perfect, or that past performance is predictive of the future. But it does suggest that democracy’s antibodies have responded. The fact that so many executors of Trump’s 2020 scheme to overturn the election — including fake electors and Jan. 6 rioters — now face prison time or indictments only bolsters the case that America’s institutions are acting as they should.
  3. Support for political violence is overestimated. In the wake of Jan. 6, concerns spiked about the specter of looming political violence. Multiple polls, for example, showed that upwards of 30 percent of Americans believed that resorting to political violence was justified. Well-trodden headlines in the news reflected this alarm: “Is civil war coming to America?” (New York Times).  A Washington Post book review raised the notion of a “looming civil war.” NPR asked readers to: “Imagine another American civil war, but this time in every state.” The “if it bleeds, it ledes” mantra is cliche — but it’s also right. The media tends to exaggerate problems, including threats of violence. The reality? Data show that less than 1 percent of violent hate crimes in America are politically motivated. Even more, new research indicates that existing surveys may substantially overstate support for taking up arms for political ends. According to one influential study, for example, after accounting for sampling errors and the fact that voters are much less likely to support specific acts of violence (e.g., murder or assault), a more realistic proportion of Americans who are open to political violence is around 3 percent. Of course, depictions of polarization can be self-reinforcing. Consuming news about partisan conflict can activate voters to think about divisions rife within the country, breeding civic distrust. Still, that tends to be a phenomenon among already amped-up partisans, or among elites unlikely to resort to destructive methods to vent their grievances.

Ultimately, Joe Biden is right that American politics are under strain. Trump’s cries of a “witch hunt,” against the backdrop of what may be another contested election, promise to be a combustible mix in 2024. Yet while challenges abound, there’s reason to doubt that American democracy is fundamentally “at stake”

Thomas Gift is an associate professor and director of the Center on U.S. Politics at University College London.  

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