Calls to “save democracy” won’t work if there is little agreement on what democracy is

Article by Nicholas T. Davis, Kirby Goidel and Keith Gaddie: “One of the most consistent findings in academic research is the existence of something called the principle-implementation gap. People can agree that an idea is perfectly reasonable but will largely reject any meaningful action designed to achieve it. It happens with government spending. People want government to create public goods such as law enforcement, healthcare, and national defense, but oppose new (or additional) taxes. It happens with climate change. The public largely accepts the idea that human-caused climate change is occurring but is unwilling to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels. And it happens with racial equality. People decry racism, but they reject policies that reduce inequality. It also happens, it turns out, with democracy. People claim to love democracy, but willingly sacrifice democratic norms in pursuit of partisan political ends.

A recent New York Times/Siena Poll illustrates this point. Most Americans (71 percent) said they believed American democracy was endangered, but there was little agreement on the nature of the threat or the appropriate corrective action. In response to an open-end question, the most frequently identified threat (mentioned by only 14 percent of respondents) was corruption, not the undermining of democratic norms or the rule of law by former President Donald Trump and the almost 300 Republican candidates running for public office in this year’s midterm elections who deny the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election.

Despite much weeping and gnashing of teeth about the “crisis of democracy,” a singular, widely shared understand of democracy is not on the ballot. Or, if it is on the ballot, it appears to be losing.

Why don’t right-wing populist threats against democracy inspire, mobilize, or persuade a public that professes to believe in democracy?

Our new book, Democracy’s Meanings: How the Public Thinks About Democracy and Why It Matters, suggests at least two reasons. First, according to open-ended responses, citizens mostly view democracy through the lens of “freedom” and “elections.” The United States is having an election this fall. It may be less free and less fair in some places than others, but, overall, the electoral apparatus in the United States hasn’t cracked apart – at least in the minds of ordinary voters who don’t pay much attention to the news or care much about the intricacies of electoral law….(More)”.