Survey Finds Republican Voters' Views On Democratic "Fragility" May Contribute to Rise in Radicalism Within Party-Increased Support of Anti-Democratic Attitudes/Policies.
Data Suggests Dark Days Ahead For American Democracy.
The closing months of the 2020 election and the fiasco that followed leaves no doubt as to the precarious status of American democracy as it comes out of Donald Trump’s presidency. Despite idiosyncratic elements, Trump’s win in 2016 and the four years that followed have greatly accelerated the problem of hyperpartisanship and polarization.
The issue and affective polarization that starting spreading through America’s political institutions in the 1990s and within the American public starting in the late 2000s was so modest at first as to provoke robust debates as to whether regular Americans were really polarized at all. Since then though, mass polarization has risen sharply, starting in earnest in 2009 when two things happened simultaneously, the election of America’s first Black president (who was also a Democrat) Barack Obama and the first economic collapse of the 2000s.
By the 2010s it was clear that voters had sorted themselves ideologically into the two parties- with liberals moving into the Democratic Party and conservatives into the Republican Party. This “sorting” process that was likely a critical mechanism driving polarization as it decreased ideological heterogeneity within each party and created “echo chambers” that became self-reinforcing.
As the two party’s white voter coalitions shifted, with college-educated white voters moving Left and non-college educated whites Right, the regional and geographic strongholds of the parties shifted too (in what is really a symbiotic process).
Once an urban party with a significant presence in the Northeast and urban areas of California (and as such, having moderate and even liberal members within its coalition) the Republican Party became a party rooted squarely in the South, and as such, comprised of conservative whites. Once a rural party with a significant conservative white component, the Democratic Party’s support of civil rights fractured the party as it had existed under its “New Deal Coalition"- an alliance between conservatives in the South and liberals elsewhere that had allowed the party to maintain congressional majorities largely uninterrupted for decades.
As the 1950s turned into the 1960s, tensions over desegregation grew too heightened, fracturing this political alliance. Facing pressure from the Civil Rights movement, Northern liberals became unwilling to tolerate their southern peers support for segregation and began pushing civil rights legislation which became increasingly more enforcement-heavy. This culminated in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which ended segregation in “public accommodations” in the South followed the next year by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Via strong enforcement mechanisms the VRA brought southern states’ electoral systems under direct supervision of federal entities and finally brought mass voter enfranchisement to Black voters in southern states.
The alliance between liberal Democrats and liberal Republicans to pass these two bills infuriated southern Democrats, turning the slow drip of the Dixiecrat Revolution into a mass exodus from the Democratic Party which over the course of succeeding decades was combined with northern migration of Republicans into the South. Combined, realignment, generational replacement, and migration transformed the South from a Democratic Party stronghold, into a brief period of two-party competition, and then into a Republican stronghold. However, it is critical to understand that from the Democratic Party of the 1940s to the Republican Party of 2021, the voters making up the South’s dominant party structure remain the same- conservative white voters.
The loss of its southern wing allowed the Democratic Party to gain ground in increasingly urban and suburban areas, which were comprised not only of racial minorities, but also of college-educated, liberal whites. For decades, Republicans had attracted a majority of college-educated white voters, but as the party’s power base transformed into southern conservatives and as such, a much more robust embrace of social conservativism, college-educated whites began to drift to the Left. Via elimination of private sector unions, Republicans were able to pull away white voters in traditional Democratic strongholds in rural areas of the Midwest.
This process accelerated significantly in the polarized era, starting first when “Palinism” first entered America’s lexicon. It picked up steam as the party began its 2015 embrace of Donald Trump, not only due to the nationalistic and populist nature of his rhetoric and his outlandish and boorish behavior, but also his anti-intellectualism- a feature increasingly defining the modern Republican Party.
However, its important to note that although some of this is driven by the realignment of existing voters, largely Independents, it is primarily driven by generational replacement. Where Boomer and Gen X white college grads identified with the Republican Party, their children and grandchildren were more likely to identify with the Democrats. Many of these younger voters were stagnant in the 2016 cycle, or voted Third Party, but showed up in force in elections after 2016-playing a significant role in Democratic Party gains during Trump’s tenure and in Biden’s 2020 win.
Elections in the modern, polarized era- under each party’s current coalition and covered in today’s digital, highly partisan and sensationalized environment have led America into a series of elections over the past decade and the current one in which the electorate is fighting over two, distinct visions of America: one of her past and one of her future. The dizzying pace of demographic, cultural, social, and technological change over the past two decades have combined with enduring economic pressures to created ideal conditions for people who seek to profit, economically or politically, from the politics of fear and division. When you have convinced your own party’s voters that the opposition party’s members are subhuman- keen to destroy your country and “your way of life” money flows, clicks get clicked, and tolerance for anti-democratic measures to obtain and hold onto power increase.
It is important for readers to understand this broader context that defines today’s political turbulence, which has grown so disruptive it now threatens the very stability of American democracy itself. Mechanisms that have contributed to hyperpartisanship such as partisan gerrymandering, which decreased significantly the number of “competitive” House districts while simultaneously increasing the number of districts with such extreme advantages for one party that members serving in them are electorally incentized towards extremism and away from bipartisanship and moderation, have affected the behaviors of their broader party coalitions. Between federal and state gerrymanders and partisan media, there are few incentives towards reasonableness.
As House members became more extreme, themselves pushed to become so by the proliferation of partisan media, especially in the digital era, their Senate peers struggled to stay aligned with increasingly strident party orthodoxies. This was especially true within the Republican Party because of characteristics unique to their party which have caused hyperpartisanship and extremism to present asymmetrically- becoming much more pronounced on the Republican side. Asymmetrical polarization is one of the most consistent findings in studies on polarization.
It seems important to restate, in the starkest terms possible, that America is coming out of an election cycle in which its sitting president, ultimately supported by a broad number of his partisan peers in the congress and in the senate, came dangerously close to executing an illegal coup. Trump’s coup was attempted along multiple pathways- none of which were vigorously denounced and disavowed by his own partisans. Its an extraordinary sentence to write, let alone to consider in its full context- had Trump and the Republican Party’s efforts in the House succeeded, American democracy as it had existed for her 234 years would have ended. Yet, it is the party that attempted this coup who feels the election was illegitimate and who are aggressively rolling back access to the ballot box.
Despite this, the rest of the nation seems incapable of truly coming to terms with the severity of these events and realities, which are of course embedded in the likewise extraordinary context of a badly mishandled global pandemic that has now killed half a million Americans. The pandemic set in during the fourth year of a presidency that saw regular violations of norms, ethics, and even laws on what seemed to be a daily basis. Yet, despite this, then-President Trump’s near universal support among Republicans held perfectly firm, never sagging below the 90% favorability mark aside from a brief dip after Jan. 6th that now seems to have reset. The rest of the country waited in vain for a “Nixon Moment” that never came, even after the president inspired (at the least) an armed insurrection on Article II in an effort to avoid having Joe Biden’s election certified.
Lost in the national narrative is this basic fact- such events should not, could not happen in a healthy, functional democracy. In a healthy democracy, approval of a leader is contingent on performance, at least to an extent. The inelasticity of Trump’s approval data can only be produced when the democratic accountability function of a democracy has failed, especially given the objective extremity of Trump’s conduct in office. That so many objectively corrupt and/or incompetent events occurred between 2015 and 2020 and culminated in the way they did (a coup attempt) with virtually no affect on Republican voter assessments, American democracy is facing a five alarm fire.
With the collapse of old power paradigms challenging democratic stability here, and abroad, and with foreign adversaries and domestic entities seeking to manipulate western freedoms to compound these tensions, now more than ever Americans concerned with preserving democracy and maintaining the “American Experiment” must stand vanguard against the forces of authoritarianism and corruption which seek to undermine our democracy.
If those who seek to undermine democracy can be identified, we must be unafraid to name them. We cannot let the need to be “non-partisan” allow us to slip into the abyss. Freedom-loving Americans of every stripe must lock arms and prepare to work diligently to preserve our democracy.
This survey, generously paid for my donations large and small, is an effort to assist in that effort.
Summary of Survey Results
This survey of Georgia voters exploring the topic of “democratic crisis” and tolerance for radical views finds that 84% of Georgia voters say American democracy is either “struggling” or “fragile.” However, even after the January 6th Capitol riot, efforts by Donald Trump & the GOP to disrupt the transfer of power, and other erosions of democratic norms during the Trump Era, it is Republicans (58%) who are significantly more likely to report that American democracy is “fragile” rather than Democrats (37%) and Independents (45%).
This disproportionate view of a “fragile” American democracy among Republicans may be contributing to radicalism within the Republican Party. The survey also reveals a concerning disconnect in the ability of Republicans to recognize specific erosions of democratic stability experienced in the U.S. Indeed, responses to specific survey questions meant to measure attitudes toward democratic stability reveal significant evidence that vast majorities of Republicans disproportionately hold views that undermine democratic stability. Ironically, this suggests Republicans’ views about democratic “fragility” may be contributing to a party-wide tolerance for anti-democratic actions.
Despite recounts, audits, and court challenges verifying the accuracy, reliability, and integrity of the 2020 election nationwide and in Georgia, just 53% of Georgians “agree” that Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 presidential election. This low percent is driven by massive party divides. While 92% of Democrats and 61% of Independents agree that Biden won legitimately, just 12% of Republicans agree.
Similarly, just 51% of Georgia voters agree that the event at the Capitol on January 6th was “an armed insurrection." Although 81% of Democrats and 59% of Independents agree, just 19% of Republicans see the Capitol riot in this lens. When prompted with a follow-up question asking if knowing that Vice President Mike Pence was targeted by some rioters for assassination made it more likely to view the riots as an “armed insurrection” 40% of all respondents report it does. However, the party divide ensures with 61% of Democrats, 43% of Independents, and 19% of Republicans indicating it makes them “more likely” to view it as an “armed insurrection.”
Voters were asked whether they supported the removal of Georgia congresswomen Marjorie Taylor Greene’s committee assignments due to her views on conspiracy theories such as Q’Anon. 46% supported the move compared to 34% who opposed it. 76% of Democrats and 51% of Independents supported the move compared to just 15% of Georgia Republicans. A strong majority of Georgia Republicans, 61%, opposed Greene’s removal indicating significant tolerance of extremist views within the Republican Party’s voter coalition in Georgia. Like other questions about less well-known political figures, 21% of respondents deferred answering the question.
Georgians were asked whether they supported the use of metal detectors at the entrances of the House and Senate floors to enforce the firearms bans for those areas since January 6th- an issue that has become a flashpoint for some Republican lawmakers. 65% of Georgia voters support the use of the metal detectors including 43% of Republicans. 87% of Democrats and 71% of Independents support this policy.
Given the proliferation of laws meant to restrict “ease of access” to voting in states controlled by Republicans across the country and specifically in Georgia in the wake of the 2020 cycle and Trump’s “Big Lie,” the survey explores Georgians’ receptivity to the manipulation of voting access to improve the electoral conditions for one’s own party. Overall, just 10% of Georgians are willing to explicitly agree with a statement asking if they support “limiting access to voting for some people if it helps the party you support win more elections.” 72% of respondents indicate they oppose such efforts with 71% of Democrats and 65% of Republicans opposed (as compared to 84% of Independents). Robust lack of support for limiting access to voting to benefit one’s party in principle by Republican identifier contrasted to the specific efforts to limit access to voting being considered by Republican legislatures is an interesting finding that encourages additional research. As with other controversial questions, nearly 20% of respondents deferred answering this question, with little variation by party.
The data also reveal significant education polarization regarding tolerance for democratic norms and the ability to recognize democratic “erosion,” with sharp divides in “democratic tolerance” between college educated (or greater) voters and those with only high school educations. Exposure to post-high school education correlates with increasing support for democratic norms and higher likelihood of recognizing recent democratic erosions.
See the full results of the Georgia Survey on Extremism Here (You will need to fully download the file to see it in its proper layout)
Survey was conducted by Public Policy Polling (PPP) on behalf of political scientist Rachel Bitecofer commissioned as a private survey product. The reported margin of error for the full survey is +-2.8, n=1,220. Please note, MOE’s for “crosstab” data generally runs about double that of the overall survey MOE and n here is robust enough to make crosstab data statistically meaningful where differences exceed crosstab margin of error. Differences in subgroups within crosstab margin of error may be a result of error. The survey and analysis was conducted in its entirety by Public Policy Polling- visit their website for additional information regarding their methodology. Survey is weighted along race, gender, age, and education and reflected in the demographic section of the survey report, available in its entirety at the link above.
I would like to thank the generous donors to this “crowdfunded” research study. Without your financial support, great and small, this study would not have been possible. Thank you for contributing to improving our knowledge on the critical issues examined by this study.