“Americans understand that democracy is in dire peril. That doesn’t mean they believe in it, or give a damn.”
It is often said that the American people are increasingly polarized on politics. That’s true enough, but it fundamentally reflects how the political elites, opinion leaders, and a small percentage of highly politically engaged individuals drive mass behavior.
Surrendering even part of the government to a faction that is at best uninterested in and at worst hostile to democracy does not bode well for the system. Moreover, in nearly every state, Republicans who deny the results of the 2020 election are running not just for Congress but also for top state offices with authority over elections, including governor and secretary of state.
A recent New York Times headline offers a perfect prospective epitaph for America’s ailing democracy and its potential imminent demise: “Voters See Democracy in Peril, but Saving It Isn’t a Priority.”
The details are grim. Voters “overwhelmingly believe American democracy is under threat, but seem remarkably apathetic about that danger,” with relatively few calling it “the nation’s most pressing problem,” according to a new poll conducted for the Times by Siena College. More than one-third of independent voters in the poll “said they were open to supporting candidates who reject the legitimacy of the 2020 election,” because economic concerns were more urgent. While 71 percent of voters agreed that “democracy was at risk,” only 7 percent said that was the country’s most important problem.
The Times’ analysis conformed to a depressing current of conventional wisdom, concluding that “for many Americans, this year’s midterm elections will be largely defined by rising inflation and other economic woes,” reflecting a deeply rooted “cynicism” about government. This particular portrait reinforces what political scientists and other experts have long known about voting and other political behavior in this country.
Overall, however, it’s hard to think of a worse metric for judging a president and his party than a price determined mainly by events abroad and technical production issues here at home, a price that isn’t even high compared with, say, a decade ago. Yet gas prices may sway a crucial election, a fact that is both ludicrous and terrifying.
In total, the recent New York Times poll just offers further evidence that the American people may claim to be concerned about “democracy,” but are fundamentally unclear as to the cause of the crisis and have no idea what to do about it. It’s actually worse than that, in that many Americans don’t even pretend to care about democracy and are more concerned about lower prices for gas and groceries — and have no problem trading away their rights and freedoms for the promise of ending inflation.
In a similarly dark vein, a new CBS News poll finds that 63 percent of likely Democratic voters believe that a functioning democracy is more important than a strong economy, but that those numbers are more than reversed among Republicans, 70 percent of whom rank a “strong economy” (whatever that means) above a functioning democracy.
There is an even more cynical explanation: As a group, America’s elites do not particularly want a well-informed and highly engaged public. Such a public might pose an effective challenge to the outsized power of those elites, and by doing so expose how far they have imposed their narrow set of interests on public policy. (salon)