Democracy is on life support, and voters know it.
It isn’t just about the inflated, angry rhetoric or the videos depicting grotesque violence directed from one Member of Congress to another. It isn’t just about the violent attack on the Capitol and the organized attempt at insurrection on Jan. 6. Or even the rise in violent incidents over the past few years, as horrendous as all this has been.
It is about the deep-seated alienation of Americans and the willingness of our citizens to accept taking up arms as the solution. A recent poll from the Frank Church Institute at Boise State University raises the alarms, especially in the Mountain West. Attitudes are changing.ADVERTISEMENT
The poll by Morning Consult covers citizens in five states: Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Nevada. It has an overall sample size of 1,899 (about 400 per state) and was designed to look at rural areas in particular. The pollsters discovered that 74 percent of these citizens often or sometimes felt alienated from the federal government and 54 percent from their local government. Even three in five believe that “the federal government works to benefit other groups of people but not people like me.”
Some of this is not new, but what is new is that a vocal and increasing minority believe that violence may be the answer to their concern for, and distrust of, our democracy.
Republicans and Democrats show their fear in similarly large numbers: a total of 85 percent are “very concerned or somewhat concerned about the health of democracy.”
A CNN national poll recently indicated that 56 percent of Americans believe “democracy is under attack,” 75 percent of Republicans and 46 percent of Democrats; 93 percent believe that democracy is either under attack or being tested.
When you couple this with the polarization and very different perspectives on the 2020 election, we are on a very dangerous road. ADVERTISEMENT
While voters in the Mountain West believe 51 percent to 38 percent that Biden was legitimately elected, the breakout of Republicans and Democrats tells a different story. A full 87 percent of Democrats say he was elected while only 26 percent of Republicans do. Nearly 50 percent of Republicans say that Biden was definitely not elected legitimately, and 71 percent believe the election was “rigged.”
It is little surprise — given the rhetoric and continuous drumbeat from Donald Trump and many Republican supporters — that these numbers are that high. Despite the rulings by all the courts, the recounts, the vast majority of press reports calling the election fair and legitimate, the lie persists. But the point is that many still believe it, just as they believed that Barack Obama was not born in the United States or that Comet Ping Pong Pizza in Washington, D.C., was the scene of child trafficking run by Hillary Clinton, a conspiracy theory which resulted in a man with an assault rifle arriving to shoot people at the restaurant.
Even though 55 percent of citizens in the Mountain States say that violence at the Capitol was “definitely not justified” and 58 percent believe that “political violence is not justified in a democracy, the better solution is the ballot box,” a remaining 20 percent (including 25 percent of Republicans) believe that “political violence is justified in a democracy when you believe things have gotten so bad that the government is not acting in the best interests of the people.” And a full 22 percent were “not sure” whether violence is justified or not.
Here is the bottom line: Things have not gotten better since the election or the inauguration, they have gotten worse.
When we have one in four or one in five Americans who support violent behavior and taking up arms, that is a nation on the brink, a country in real danger.ADVERTISEMENT
Add to that the behavior of some of our elected officials, the former president and those closest to him, as well as the fact that few national leaders on the Republican side make any attempt to tamp down the tendency toward violence, and the trend is heading in the wrong direction. In the Mountain States, 61 percent of the people surveyed believe that it is very or somewhat likely that we will see violence similar to what we saw at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
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The bright light from this poll is that most people surveyed want America to turn back from the abyss. By a margin of nearly four-to-one — 66 percent to 17 percent — they want “an elected official to find compromise and common ground between political parties” not one “who stands their ground and pushes their political party’s own agenda.” They want leaders to get the job done, to solve the problems that confront our nation, to work to make Americans’ lives better. They want progress, not bickering, and they want leaders who can — and will — work across the aisle. They want common ground, not stand your ground.
Now is the time for those of all political parties and persuasions to reject the politics of extremism and violence and set our nation back on a course toward civility and a democracy that works.
Peter Fenn is a long-time Democratic political strategist who served on the Senate Intelligence Committee, was a top aide to Sen. Frank Church and was the first director of Democrats for the 80s, founded by Pamela Harriman. He also co-founded the Center for Responsive Politics/Open Secrets. He serves on the board of the Frank Church Institute. Follow him on Twitter @peterhfenn.