WASHINGTON — Only a fragment of Americans believe democracy is thriving in the U.S., even as broad majorities agree that representative government is one of the country’s bedrock principles, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Just 16 percent of Americans said democracy is working well or extremely well, a pessimism that spans the political spectrum. Nearly half of Americans, 45 percent, think democracy isn’t functioning properly, while another 38 percent said it’s working only somewhat well.
The core elements of democratic government, including free and fair elections and the peaceful transfer of power, were put to a dire test by the baseless claims of election fraud advanced by former President Donald Trump. Those assertions of fraud were a root cause of the deadly violence at the U.S. Capitol last month, which damaged the country’s reputation as a model for democracy.
Trump will face an unprecedented second impeachment trial in the Senate this week for his role in sparking the violence. About half of Americans said the Senate should convict the Republican former president.
“At every turn, it’s gotten worse and worse,” said Curtis Musser, a 55-year-old Republican-leaning independent in Clermont, Florida, who didn’t vote for Trump. “You could see it brewing even before the election. And everything just kept spiraling downward from there.”
The poll’s findings are broadly consistent with how Americans graded democracy before the election. But there are signs that Trump’s attacks on the democratic process, including his repeated and discredited argument that the election was “stolen” because of voter irregularities, resonated with Republicans.
In October, about two-thirds of those who identify with the GOP, 68 percent, said democracy was working at least somewhat well. That figure plummeted to 36 percent in January. Democratic views whipsawed in the opposite direction, with 70 percent reporting democracy working at least somewhat well compared with 37 percent in the fall.
Overall, about two-thirds of Americans said Joe Biden was legitimately elected president, but only a third of Republicans hold that view.
That debate is now playing out in Congress, with a clear split among Republican leaders like Sen. Mitch McConnell, Rep. Liz Cheney and others who have rejected Trump’s claims and validated Biden’s victory. Still, more than 140 House Republicans refused to accept Biden’s victory, a sign of the far right’s grip on the party.
GOP officials in several battleground states that Biden carried, including Arizona and Georgia, have said the election was fair. Trump’s claims were roundly rejected in the courts, including by judges appointed by Trump, and by his former attorney general, William Barr.
Fred Carrigan, a 58-year-old industrial heating mechanic in Portland, Indiana, said he doesn’t believe Trump’s argument that the election was stolen. But he also views the push to impeach and convict Trump as an affront to democracy. A conviction would give senators the option to ban Trump from seeking office again.
“Trump didn’t do himself any favors by telling them to go march. But he didn’t tell them to vandalize the Capitol,” Carrigan said. “I don’t think it’s impeachable. Impeaching him is petty. They are a bunch of children trying to prove who is right, when it doesn’t matter in the big picture.”
“All this shows is it’s just going to get worse,” he said.
Biden, a Democrat, has pledged to use the power of the presidency to promote democratic ideals.
In one of the first tests of that commitment, he was quick to condemn military leaders who staged a coup last week in Myanmar, threatening sanctions and blasting a “direct assault on the country’s transition to democracy and rule of law.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, meanwhile, has said the Biden administration is “deeply concerned” by Russia’s jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
An overwhelming majority of Americans, 70 percent, said they believe Biden respects democratic institutions at least a fair amount. But there is a stark political split with about 96 percent of Democrats saying Biden respects such institutions, compared with about 42 percent of Republicans.
Those are still much higher marks than Trump earned: 62 percent said the former president has little or no respect for democratic traditions or institutions. That view is held by 93 percent of Democrats and, notably, 27 percent of Republicans.
Linda Reynolds, a 64-year-old retired paper sales representative in Torrance, California, was a lifelong Republican until Trump captured the party’s presidential nomination in 2016. With Biden in the White House, she’s feeling better about whether the U.S. will again embrace democracy.
“We obviously have a lot of problems,” she said. “But in the big picture, reason seems to have prevailed, hopefully in the eyes of the world.”
While Americans are downbeat on the current state of democracy, they are unified that such a form of government is still the desired approach. Eighty percent said a democratically elected government is very or extremely important to the nation’s identity.
Support persisted or was even higher for other central tenets of the nation’s democratic government. Eighty-eight percent said a fair judicial system and the rule of law are very or extremely important, and 85 percent held similar feelings about individual liberties and freedoms as defined by the Constitution.
Those tenets of democracy are considered important by large majorities of Republicans and Democrats.
Despite dour views of how the U.S. is being governed today, the poll finds heightened optimism about the country’s future. Nearly half, 49 percent, said things are headed in the right direction, compared with 37 percent in December and 25 percent in October. Optimism hit a low, 20 percent, last summer. Much of the surge in optimism came among Democrats, who are confident in Biden and his ability to govern and manage crises facing the country.
“We remain a great country and do a lot of good things,” Reynolds said.
The AP-NORC poll of 1,055 adults was conducted Jan. 28-Feb. 1 using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.
Story by Steven Sloan and Thomas Beaumont. Associated Press writers Hannah Fingerhut and Emily Swanson contributed to this report.