News & Politics

Americans Aren't as Attached to Democracy as You Might Think

New polling suggests we can't rely on our fellow citizens to stand up for the rule of law.

Photo Credit: arindambanerjee / Shutterstock

There is much to celebrate in the court decision against President Trump’s immigration ban. It was a stirring victory for the rule of law and reaffirmation of the independence of the judiciary. Yet America faces a serious problem which that decision did not address: the erosion of public faith in the rule of law and democratic governance.

While we have been focused on partisan divides over government policy and personnel, an almost invisible erosion of the foundations of our political system has been taking place. Public support for the rule of law and democracy can no longer be taken for granted.

In 2017, the rule of law and democracy itself are under attack by President Trump and his administration. This is as much a symptom as a cause of our current crisis. Public Policy Polling has released the startling results of a national survey taken this week. Those results show significant fissures in the public’s embrace of the rule of law and democracy. 

Only 53% of those surveyed said that they “trust judges more than President Trump to make the right decisions for the United States.” In this cross-section of Americans, 38% said they trusted Donald Trump more than our country’s judges. 9% were undecided. Support for the rule of law seemed higher when respondents were asked whether they thought that President Trump should “be able to overturn decisions by judges” when he disagrees with those decisions. Here only 25% agreed, with 11% saying they were unsure. Here are the potential sinister motives behind Donald Trump's voter fraud lie

But, the result changed when the data were narrowed to those who identified themselves as Trump supporters: 51% agreed that Trump should be able to overturn court decisions. 33% disagreed. 16% were not sure.

It is tempting to attribute this difference between Trump supporters and others simply to the fact that the president’s supporters prefer a more authoritarian style of government, prioritize social order, like strong rulers, and worry about maintaining control in a world they perceive to be filled with threats and on the verge of chaos. 

As the PPP’s survey reveals, Trump is appealing to a remarkably receptive audience in his attempts to rule by decree – and many are no longer attached to the rule of law and/or democracy. Other studies confirm these findings. One such study found a dramatic decline in the percentage of people who say it is “essential” to live in a democracy. 

When asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 10 how “essential” it is for them “to live in a democracy,” 72% of Americans born before World War II check “10,” the highest value. But, the millennial generation (those born since 1980) “has grown much more indifferent.” Less than 1 in 3 hold a similar belief about the importance of democracy.

And, the New York Times reports that while 43% of older Americans thought it would be illegitimate for the military to take power if civilian government was incompetent, only 19% of millennials agreed.

While millennials may be politically liberal in their policy preferences, they have come of age in a time of political paralysis in democratic institutions, declining civility in democratic dialogue, and dramatically increased anxiety about economic security.

 

These findings suggest that we can no longer take for granted that our fellow citizens will stand up for the rule of law and democracy. That’s why, while President Trump’s behavior has riveted the media and the public, our eyes should not only be focused on him but on this larger – and troubling - trend.

If the rule of law and democracy are to survive in America we will need to address the decline in the public’s understanding of, and support for both. While we celebrate the Ninth Circuit’s decision on Trump’s ban, we also must initiate a national conversation about democracy and the rule of law. Civics education, long derided, needs to be revived.

Schools, civic groups, and the media must to go back to fundamentals and explain what basic American political values entail and why they are desirable. Defenders of democracy and the rule of law must take their case to the American people and remind them of the Founders’ admonition that: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

We need to remember that our freedom from an arbitrary or intrusive government depends on the rule of law and a functioning democracy. We need to rehabilitate both – before this crisis of faith worsens.

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