Many Americans going to the polls are not happy with our democracy

Many Americans going to the polls are not happy with our democracy
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Americans head to the polls in 2018, slated to vote on every seat in the House of Representatives, a third of the Senate, 36 state gubernatorial posts, and more than 6,000 seats in 87 state legislative chambers. This biennial electoral rite is a long-respected expression of the devotion of Americans to democracy.

Or is it? Just 46 percent of Americans say they are satisfied with the way democracy is working today in the United States, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey. Naysayers voice the more fervent views, as roughly twice as many American adults say they are not satisfied at all with democracy as say they are very satisfied.

Moreover, while the American public is committed to representative democracy, dissatisfaction with how it is working may be one reason a majority of Americans back holding referendums on major national issues, which would certainly be a dramatic shift in how the nation is governed. Party affiliation colors how Americans assess the state of their democracy. A majority of Republicans are pleased with the way the democratic system is working, but only around a third of Democrats agree.


This dissatisfaction may be about “my guy being in charge” rather than ideological differences. In a number of nations surveyed this past spring, including the United States, supporters of the ruling party tended to have more upbeat views about the condition of democracy in their country, compared with backers of parties that were out of power.

By original design the United States has a system of government where representatives elected by citizens decide what becomes law. The effect of a representative democracy is “to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country,” wrote James Madison in the Federalist Papers.

Today, 86 percent of Americans agree a representative democratic system is a good way to govern their country. But a majority of adults also believe that ordinary Americans would do a better job than elected officials solving national problems. This may help explain why a majority of Americans also voice the view that a democratic system where citizens, not elected officials, vote directly on major national issues to decide what becomes law would be a good way to run the United States.

Governing by plebiscite is already fairly common in the United States. A number of states allow for citizen initiated referendums and many permit public votes on legislatively initiated state constitutional amendments and statutes. In some states such ballot initiatives can be quite numerous.

Between 1996 and 2016, Californians voted on an average of 18 propositions in each even numbered year election. What started in the Golden State in the early 20th century as a progressive reform has become a means for various interest groups to enact laws, from capping property taxes to regulating the pornography industry.


Direct democracy is quite popular among young Americans, with more than 70 percent of those ages 30 to 49, women and Democrats support it. Notably, it is also women and Democrats who are particularly disgruntled with the way democracy is working in the United States. Despite their dissatisfaction with the current state of American democracy, other forms of governance, where citizens enjoy even less of a direct voice, do not enjoy significant support among adults.

Possibly a reflection of their distrust of elites, just four in 10 Americans say a governing system in which experts, not elected officials, make decisions would be good. Such support for a technocracy falls well below the global median. Notably, 46 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 support this, compared to 36 percent of those ages 50 and older.

There is even less support, at 22 percent, for a governing system in which a strong leader can make decisions without interference from the courts or legislature. Support for an autocratic government is slightly higher among Americans with a high school education or less at 28 percent, compared to those with more education at 13 percent. More notably, Republicans are twice as likely as Democrats to say an unencumbered strong leader would be a good way to run the country.

Finally, at only 17 percent, there is weak public enthusiasm for military rule. Americans with a high school education or less, at 24 percent, are more than three times as likely as those with more than a secondary school education, at 7 percent, to see merit in the military running the government. While most people in both major political parties oppose military rule, 23 percent of Republicans are attracted to this model, compared to 14 percent of Democrats.

As the elections play out in 2018, keep in mind that many Americans are dissatisfied with the state of democracy in their country. But their frustration seems to be leading many of them to opt for more, not less democracy, with significant support for citizens bypassing elected representatives and directly deciding policy matters. Whether that is a realistic alternative to the current system of government can be debated, but the sentiment is real and the consequences could be profound.

Bruce Stokes is director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center, where he assesses public views. He is also a nonresident fellow at the German Marshall Fund and an associate fellow with Chatham House.