Democracy Fund Voter Study Group report questions conventional wisdom that democracy is in decline, but finds concerning trends as authoritarian support consolidates among Trump supporters
Washington, D.C. – March 13, 2018
Americans’ support for an authoritarian leader declined for the first time in two decades, according to a new report from the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group. "Follow the Leader: Exploring American Support for Democracy and Authoritarianism,” nevertheless finds worrying developments among the 29% of Americans who say that an authoritarian alternative to democracy would be favorable.
The new report by Lee Drutman (New America), Larry Diamond (Hoover Institution), and Joe Goldman (Democracy Fund) is part of a unique, multi-year study from the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, a research collaboration of leading analysts and scholars from across the political spectrum examining the evolving views of American voters.
“The good news is that the sky is not falling – Americans are not abandoning democracy,” said Democracy Fund President Joe Goldman. “But in the midst of historic levels of polarization and new pressures on our constitutional checks and balances, the reality that more than a quarter of the American public seems open to turning away from democracy should worry anyone who cares about a healthy, responsive political system.”
Key findings from the report include:
The overwhelming majority of Americans support democracy and most of those who express negative views about it are opposed to authoritarian alternatives. In fact, the report finds no relationship between dissatisfaction with democracy and support for an authoritarian system in which a strong leader doesn’t have to bother with Congress or elections.
Nearly a quarter of Americans say that a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with Congress or elections would be “fairly” or “very good,” and 18 percent say that army rule would be “fairly” or “very good.”
Support for a strong leader declined to 1995 levels after a two-decade increase. During these two decades, Democrats expressed greater support for a strong leader, but this reversed in 2017 as Republicans became far more likely to say that having a “strong leader” is a good system.
Thirty-two percent of Trump primary voters support a “strong leader” who doesn’t have to bother with Congress or elections. Support for this option is especially high (45 percent) among those who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and then voted for Donald Trump in 2016.
The highest levels of support for authoritarian leadership come from those who are disaffected, disengaged from politics, deeply distrustful of experts, culturally conservative, and have negative views towards racial minorities.
“While the overwhelming majority of Americans support democracy, there is a reason to be concerned, as support for democracy in the U.S. and rejection of authoritarian options is weaker than in many of our peer democracies around the world,” said Larry Diamond, senior fellow, Hoover Institution. “We need to renew our understanding of and commitment to democracy and the values that undergird it — pluralism, mutual respect and tolerance, flexibility, a willingness to compromise, and critical thinking. We cannot take democracy for granted.”
“This report highlights a problem with our current two-party system,” said Lee Drutman, senior fellow at New America. “If some Americans feel a political party does not represent them, they are left with only one other option. If that party becomes a party of racial resentment and authoritarian leadership, many individuals will update their beliefs to fit with their partisan identity. Otherwise, they can drop out of the political system altogether, which will presumably lead to more doubts about democracy.”
The full “Follow the Leader” report can be found here.
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