The GOP commitment to democracy
The ongoing attempt by GOP legislators in 43 states to curtail access to voting is the latest in a series of actions by Republican elites that seem designed to undermine our democratic system of government. These actions raise perhaps the most pressing question about the current state of American politics — is the Republican Party fully committed to American democracy? That’s an important question because democracy is unlikely to persist unless right-leaning parties support it.
We conducted a survey of registered voters in Pennsylvania, a battleground that represents the major divisions in our national politics, to assess Republicans’ commitment to democracy. We asked respondents about their support for certain principles of democracy as well as for their assessment of how American democracy is working in practice.
Republicans, it turns out, are roughly as supportive as Democrats of the democratic principles we measured. On a ten-point scale, where ten represents strong agreement with democratic principles and five represents agreeing “somewhat” with those principles, the average score for Republicans was nearly seven, which is not notably different than the seven and a half score for Democrats.
This is true for the factions within the Republican Party, too. About two in five Pennsylvania Republicans identify as Trump Republicans (43 percent) and about the same proportion identify as traditional Republicans (39 percent). There are no differences between the two sets of Republicans in terms of their overall support for democratic principles.
But there are noticeable differences in these factions’ support for specific principles. For instance, one in seven (14 percent) Trump Republicans “strongly agreed” that a leader may sometimes have to break the rules to get things done compared to only one in 25 (4 percent) traditional Republicans who believe that strongly. And while about half (49 percent) of traditional Republicans agree that there should be no barriers to voting in the United States, only one in four (29 percent) Trump Republicans agree. Indeed, more than half (55 percent) of Trump Republicans “strongly disagreed” with that statement, compared to only a third (34 percent) of traditional Republicans.
There are other indicators that Trump Republicans are less supportive of democracy than traditional Republicans, too. When asked about the members of Congress who voted against certification of Pennsylvania’s presidential election results, two in three (64 percent) Trump Republicans said they approved while only two in five (40 percent) traditional Republicans did. Trump Republicans are also more likely than traditional Republicans to embrace Christian nationalist beliefs and are less likely to acknowledge racism.
But what really seems to distinguish Trump Republicans is their dismal view of the way American democracy is working. The average Republican score on the democracy-in-practice scale (1.8) was well below the average Democrat’s score (3.1). But the average score of 1.1 for Trump Republicans even falls below the traditional Republicans’ score of 2.4.
What this says to us is that it isn’t Republicans, per se, who are unsupportive of democracy. Anti-democratic sentiment, and support for undemocratic behavior by elected officials, resides primarily in the Trump wing of the Republican Party. Though they express general support for democratic principles, their hesitancy to embrace foundational tenets of democracy, notably political equality, coupled with their deep dissatisfaction with the way American politics is currently working suggests that what they really want is democracy for those who are like them but not for those who aren’t.
This sectarian “democracy” is unlikely to be satisfactory to anyone, including those in the Trump wing of the GOP. Limiting the ability of any group of Americans to participate in our system of government will further impede the proper functioning of that system. And efforts like increasing barriers to voting aren’t likely to help Republicans win elections in the first place.
At the moment, the future of American democracy doesn’t depend on a choice between Republicans and Democrats. It depends, instead, on which of the two Republican Party factions prevails in the current battle over voting rights. Republicans can follow the Trump faction down the path toward authoritarianism or they can stay the democratic course. The decision they make will affect all Americans, and the results of our survey indicate that the outcome is far from settled.
Stephen K. Medvic is The Honorable and Mrs. John C. Kunkel Professor of Government at Franklin & Marshall College and Berwood A. Yost is Director of the Center for Opinion Research at Franklin & Marshall College.
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