How democratic is the US according to Denisonians?

By Paul A. Djupe

By most accounts, the United States is facing its most severe test in my lifetime and arguably since 1876. The sum of those tests is the impeachment trial of the former President Donald Trump for inciting the January 6 Insurrection. So it’s a good time to take stock, to see how Denisonians evaluate American democracy – do students agree that democracy is on the ropes?

I’m drawing on survey data from October 2020, just before the presidential election, in which about 550 students responded to 127’s survey request. Just think what you were missing in this evaluation: the “Stop the Steal” campaign, the presidential calls to state officials to reverse the vote counts, the failure to facilitate the handover of the federal government, the Insurrection, and now the impeachment trial. That’s a lot. But it’s not as if conditions in October were much better when Trump was laying the groundwork for what was to come after the election by railing against absentee voting and claiming widespread fraud.

How democratic is the US? That’s precisely what we asked on a 0-100 scale (least to most). The sample mean score was a 51, not terribly inspiring for the world’s longest running democratic state. But views of democracy depend fairly heavily on partisanship as the figure below shows. Strong Democrats see US democracy as underwater (a 45, on average), while Republicans average about 20 points higher – in the low 60s. In my estimation, that’s still a very low score.

How do Denison students compare to adults nationally? I had a survey in the field in October surveying adults nationally and I asked the very same question to them. The following graph shows the comparison across the age spectrum of adults. Denison Republicans are at the same place as young adults nationally – rating American democracy at about 60. Denison independents and Democrats are far more pessimistic about democracy in the states, though. Older Democrats and independents give US democracy lower scores, but never reach the average score that Denison Democrats and independents do. Why so pessimistic?

Their views about Donald Trump’s intentions are strongly divided by partisanship. It’s no surprise to see that Democrats believe that Trump aspired to be an authoritarian leader, while Republicans mostly did not (though clearly some were on the fence – see the figure below). For Democrats, that aspiration had already tainted the American system of government, which was believed to have become more authoritarian. More Republicans than not disagreed, though again many were on the fence.

We could chalk this up to partisan animosity, except that this is not an uncommon pattern in democracies backsliding toward authoritarianism. Democratically-elected leaders often lead their countries toward authoritarianism with backers firmly believing that their systems are still in fact democratic (see How Democracies Die). So it is interesting to note that an organization that rates the level of democracy in countries across the world (Polity IV) has steadily downgraded the United States since the 2016 elections from close to a full democracy to a borderline score. So, it is not just a partisan view, but one made by academics following a set of coding rules set in advance.

Since Trump did leave office on January 20 (I definitely had some doubts, as did independents and Democrats), more worrying are the responses about the electoral system (bottom row of the figure above). As we’ve heard from the House Impeachment Managers this week, Trump began beating the drums of electoral fraud well in advance of the November elections – 6 months before in fact. And he kept it up through election day and beyond to the Insurrection on January 6. Perhaps his worst legacy is sowing distrust of the electoral system itself. While Republicans have confidence in the electoral system, everyone else does not and there was substantial doubt among effectively everyone about whether the votes would be counted fairly.

This reflects on how Denisonians see the US itself – their pride in the nation has been wounded. The final figure shows that those Democrats and independents who see the US as undemocratic are also quite embarrassed about “the way democracy works in the US.” However, the perceived level of democracy practiced in the US has no bearing on how Republicans feel – they remain proud regardless. Pride is often used as a cudgel in elections and MAGA is only the most recent incarnation of this strategy. Efforts your parents would know are Ronald Reagan’s phrases “morning in America” and the US as a “shining city on a hill.” Those who didn’t buy it suffered the “no true Scotsman” treatment.

It’s remarkable to think that these are the beliefs and attitudes of students BEFORE the election, before everything happened. I like to think that some of these beliefs are in place because “we freaking warned you” (according to a political scientist), but Denisonians keep up with the news and every step the prior Administration made was well documented. The big question remains, though. We’ll do another survey this spring because we just have to find out if faith in the system has rebounded since October.

Paul A. Djupe is a local cyclist who coincidentally has taught social science research methods and political science at Denison for millenia. He started a few years ago in a bid to subsidize collective action. He’s on Twitter and you should be too, along with your president.

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