Nathaniel Persily and Jon Cohen write: If there had been any doubt, it has now become clear that this election campaign is about more than the selection of a president: The values that support American democracy are deteriorating. Large numbers of Americans across party lines have lost faith in their democracy, and many will not accept the legitimacy of this election.
Those were the stark findings from a survey we performed from Oct. 6 through Oct. 8 of more than 3,000 registered voters, fully 40 percent of whom say: “I have lost faith in American democracy.” Six percent indicate they’ve never had faith in the system. Overall, barely more than half — just 52 percent — say, “I have faith in American democracy.” (Most respondents completed the survey before the Oct. 7 release of the video in which Donald Trump bragged about groping women, but the responses of those surveyed afterward were indistinguishable from those who answered the day before.)
This cynicism is widely shared across the electorate, but significant partisan differences emerge on this question, as on so many others. More than 6 in 10 voters backing Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton express faith in U.S. democracy, compared with just over 4 in 10 of those backing her Republican rival. Most of Trump’s supporters say they’ve lost confidence in the basic mechanism of governance in the United States.
One of the hallmarks of faith in democracy is a willingness of the defeated to accept the results of elections. Democracy, after all, is not about the selection of particular leaders, but the notion that citizens have the power to select them at all. It relies on the assumption that today’s electoral losers will live to fight another day, so that their faith in the system of democratic selection weathers temporary setbacks. But in this election, we find that a surprising share of the electorate is unwilling to accept the legitimacy of the election of their non-preferred candidate. [Continue reading…]
By “this erosion of democratic values” the authors actually seem to mean something like ‘loss of naive faith that the system is what it claims to be’. This allows them to lump together the realistic assessments of those who want to improve adherence to democratic norms and the paranoid fantasies of those seeking to abandon them. If you want to guard the herd, you should at least be able to distinguish a wolf from a sheep dog.
A critical piece of context missing from this piece of analysis is the fact that among the tens of millions of people who say they won’t accept the legitimacy of the next president are millions who don’t accept the legitimacy of the current president. Trump’s perfunctory and disingenuous ending of the birther “debate” surely had no effect on the bigotry of those who have long questioned Obama’s legitimacy.
Moreover, if there was such a thing as “truth in polling” it would provide the opportunity for respondents to reply, it depends what you mean. How do you define U.S. democracy? And for the 80 percent of voters who say the U.S. is more divided than ever, shouldn’t they be given a second chance to respond after being reminded about the Civil War?
To my eye, the most disturbing finding here is on the erosion of trust — not just trust in ill-defined democratic values but simply trust in other people.
Democracy is more than a system of government. It rests on core beliefs about human equality — some sense that our common interests outweigh our conflicting interests. But the more we mistrust others, the harder it becomes to sustain a strong sense that we do indeed share common interests.