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(2/2) America at War... with the World and Itself
In my column a week ago, I summarized the polarizing trend in the public’s response to recent events at home and abroad. And I concluded that the national mood is one of profound pessimism and that the tribal energy among bluezone and redzone supporters has grown so desperate and Manichaean that it could easily break the nation apart.
Did I paint too dark a picture of where America finds itself right now? I don't think so, if recent polling is any indicator of how people are feeling. This is where I want to go in Part 2. Let me offer a sense of where we stand by drawing on several recent opinion surveys (from Pew Research, PRRI, and the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program, among others).
First, on national pessimism. When I reported, in my recent book, Pew's assessment of Americans’ confidence in their nation’s long-term future as of 2019 and 2020, I thought it couldn’t get any worse. I was wrong. It has gotten worse.
OK, now for more detail. When people say they have less confidence in America’s future, we may want to know—confidence in what, exactly? Well, let’s take a look at the following four questions. I would say the outlook is gloomy indeed.
Below are the responses to an alternative set of right track-wrong track questions asked by the PRRI. Note that the PRRI has asked the question about the 1950s eleven times since 2011. This is the highest “mostly changed for the worse” response rate it has ever registered. Especially striking to my eyes: 48% of Black Protestants agree that American culture and way of life has changed for the worse since the Eisenhower years. Keep this in mind: The 1950s ended three years before MLK Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and four years before the Civil Rights Act put an end to the era of Jim Crow.
Pew has recently been fielding a similar question, asking Americans to compare life in America today to the way it was “50 years ago for people like you.” (So in this case we’re comparing circa 2020 to circa 1970.) From 2016 through 2021, Pew’s most pessimistic reading came in 2016, when 43% said worse and 35% said better. In Pew’s latest reading, taken in the spring of 2023, 58% said worse and only 23% said better.
As for the PRRI’s “best days” question, this elicits a surprisingly clear generational rift (though PRRI doesn’t crosstab these results by age). If you’re old enough to recall the Reagan-era slogan, “America’s best days are still ahead,” you may have been blindsided by 38-year-old Vivek Ramaswamy’s frosty with-all-due-respect comeback to 64-year-old Mike Pence during the first GOP candidate debate: “It’s not morning in America. We live in a dark moment. We have to confront the fact that we’re in an internal sort of cold, cultural civil war.”
Any expectations that Ramaswamy's “cold civil war” could turn hot? The UC Davis research team has an answer to that question. In the spring of 2022, according to VPRP, just over 50% of US adults agreed at least somewhat that “in the next few years, there will be a civil war in the United States.”
So much for pessimism. Let’s move on the demonization of the Other. This first PRRI chart speaks for itself.
Simply put, somewhere between 8 and 9 out of every ten Republicans or Democrats believes that the other party has been “taken over” by the political equivalent of zombies. This suggests, to partisans on each side, that losing an election may be a loss from which the nation (and their side) never recovers. In its 2020 pre-election survey, Pew had an inventive way of asking this question: Will victory by the other party lead to “lasting harm” for the country? Roughly 9 in 10 Republicans and Democrats answered yes.
Here are a couple of other ways to parse the same effect.
Notice, in the first PRRI chart, that the two sides of each double column add up to over 100%, which means that more Americans of any party think both Trump and Biden are threats to “American democracy and way of life” than think neither is. In the second chart, the vast majority in each party fear that victory for the Other will result in a “broken” democracy. For many, a broken democracy implies a nation in which there may never again be a free election. Hence the fear and trembling among partisans on both sides—and references by Trump and Biden supporters of yet another do-or-die moment in the 2024 election.
Permit me in this context to quote again (see Chapter 8 of my recent book) from historian Carl Becker’s essay “The Dilemma of Modern Democracy,” written in the winter of 1940. Becker was summarizing a few of the darker political lessons that the West had learned from the demise of democracy, and its replacement by dictatorship, in so many European nations during the 1930s. (The fall of France, crippled by internal dissension between fascists and socialists even before the appearance of Hitler’s panzers, was only months away.) Anyway, here is the crux of his message, stated with dry irony:
Democratic government, being government by discussion and majority vote, works best when there is nothing of profound importance, to discuss, when the rival party programs involve the superficial aspects rather than the fundamental structure of the social system, and when the minority can meet defeat at the polls in good temper, since it need not regard the decision as either a permanent or a fatal surrender of its vital interests. When these happy conditions no longer obtain, the democratic way of life is always in danger.
What was true among many of the world’s leading powers in the 1930s, I submit, is true again in the 2020s—namely, that “these happy conditions no longer obtain.”
Demonization in a world without trust gives birth to conspiracy thinking. So here, let’s take a look at Americans’ belief in the mother of all conspiracy theories, QAnon, as measured by PRRI. Respondents are asked if they believe in QAnon's three basic tenets: (1) that the government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation; (2) that there is a storm coming soon that will sweep away the elites in power and restore the rightful leaders; and (3) because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.
What's notable here is not so much the total level of belief in 2023 (23%), but the striking rise since 2021 (from 14%) and the exceptionally fast rise among Independents, Democrats, and Black Protestants. One of the most surprising findings in the PRRI report is how many Americans rank “human trafficking” as a critical national issue. It’s number four at 48%, just behind inflation (62%), crime (50%), and health care (49%). It’s substantially ahead of immigration (40%), climate change (38%), abortion (36%), or LGBTQ rights (14%). Hispanics (65%) and Blacks (59%) are especially likely to rank human trafficking as a critical issue.
Now let’s move on to our final question. How willing would Americans be to engage in violence or choose a rule-breaking leader in order to “set things right”?
Let’s first look at political violence.
What’s most revealing about this PRRI survey is the trend over time in the disposition toward violence: from 15% in 2021 to 23% in 2023 in the share who agree that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence.” The absolute level, however, is lower than in many other surveys, probably due to the loaded phrase “true American patriots” which tends to turn off partisans on the left. A more neutrally worded question asked by the Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement (“Do you think it is ever justified for citizens to take violent action against the government?”) generated a higher number in 2021: 34% said “justified.” This number too has steadily risen, from 23% in 2015 and from only 9% back in 1995.
Again, trend rather than level should command our attention in such surveys. Upon reflection, we may consider 34% to be a remarkably low share of respondents who concede that violence is ever justified: How in the world do most Americans think their republic was created? Have the vast majority turned their backs on John Locke and Thomas Jefferson? It’s more illuminating, instead, to focus on whether, over time, more or fewer ordinary Americans consider violence to be a thinkable or realistic option given foreseeable events. In recent years, the trend is towards more.
Now let’s look at Americans’ willingness to embrace a rule-breaking leader.
According to PRRI, 38% of Americans agree. That extends across quite a range, from 48% (among Republicans) to 29% (among Democrats). Similar questions, asked by other researchers in recent years, have also found striking shares of Americans ready to cut corners and dispense with procedures.
Shortly before the 2020 election, for example, the UVA Center for Politics asked voters whether “it would be better for America if whoever is President could take needed actions without being constrained by Congress or the courts.” 45% at least somewhat agreed, and 21% agreed strongly. In this response, significantly, Biden voters were as likely to agree as Trump voters. The center also asked if “our country needs a powerful leader in order to destroy the radical and immoral currents prevailing in society today.” 62% of Biden voters agreed (26% strongly); 82% of Trump voters agreed (43% strongly).
In May 2022, the UC Davis researchers asked whether “having a strong leader for America is more important than having a democracy.” 42% agreed (19% strongly). They also asked whether, “if elected leaders will not protect American democracy, the people must do it themselves, even if it requires talking violent actions.” 48% agreed (19% strongly).
In June 2022, YouGov asked whether “America would be better or worse off with more powerful political leaders who could enact policies with less involvement from the other branches of government.” In response to this rather abstract question, asked at a moment when the Biden administration was proposing large spending bills to Congress, only 16% of voters said “better off”; 47% said “worse off.” But this time, Democrats agreed by a significantly larger margin than Republicans. Voters under 30 were twice as likely to say “better off,” and half as likely to say “worse off,” as were voters over 65.
Unfortunately, neither PRRI nor any other survey group has asked their question repeatedly in different years. So on these questions about the acceptability of authoritarian leadership, we have no good metric of the trend over time. Yet we do possess several measures of Americans’ belief in the importance of democracy over time. And these point in a negative direction: Over the last three decades, a steadily smaller share of Americans believe that democracy works—or would care deeply if, for example, democracy were scrapped in an emergency. What’s more, this trend is driven almost entirely by generational change. Voters today under forty are much more likely to say that democracy is “not essential” than voters over sixty today or than voters under forty twenty years ago.
The generational constellation is turning. And as it does, so turns the social mood, triggering the dire happenings we witness and the anxiety and paranoia we feel around us. All too often we fixate on single events—the attack on the Capitol after the election of 2020, the chaotic exodus from Afghanistan in 2021, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the quadruple indictment of a former president in 2023—and we imagine that these events may be setting the nation on a new course. The reality is the other way around: The nation has already steered itself onto a new course, and these events are merely the result.
Personally, I am a short-term pessimist and a long-term optimist. I believe America is due to confront challenges over the next decade that are likely to test the very survival of our nation. Yet I also believe America possesses, in its cultural roots and social institutions, a deep resiliency that will enable our nation to prevail and flourish.
I will leave you with that thankful thought for this coming holiday.
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