The American Flag and the Preamble to the United States...

The American Flag and the Preamble to the United States Constitution are seen here. Credit: Getty Images/Liliboas

ALBANY — The question, buried at the bottom of a routine poll, was startling: Do you think the United States will continue to be a democratic republic eight years from now?

The response was jarring: 22% of New York voters said the existence of the American democratic republic wasn’t very likely or not likely at all. Another 38% said a continued American democracy is only "somewhat likely."

"It’s hard to believe that a decade ago nearly 1 in 4 New Yorkers would say American democracy was not likely to exist a decade later," said Steven Greenberg, pollster for the Siena College Research Institute, which conducted the poll in January. He called it a "rather glum assessment of the nation’s future."

But perhaps what’s most surprising is that those watching American democracy most closely aren’t surprised at all.

"The survey shows that American voters know U.S. democracy is in trouble," said Richard L. Hasen, professor of law and political science at the University of California at Irvine. "We are polarized not only on substantive issues, but on our electoral process and democracy itself."

The Siena poll showed the concern cuts across all groups statewide, including Democrats and liberals, some of whom fear a rise in fascism, to Republicans and conservatives, many of whom fear the country will become socialist.

The poll shows 17% of Democrats and 32% of Republicans believe it’s not very likely or not likely at all that the United States will be a democratic republic in 2030. The polling shows about 2 in 10 New York voters in each age group share that pessimism with little difference between those living in New York City, its suburbs or upstate.

"There’s a national conversation about this," said Gerald Benjamin, retired distinguished professor of political science at SUNY New Paltz. "There is speculation about dividing into two or more countries."

He said today’s division is unlike those in the past: It isn’t about arguable policy or ideological differences based on a shared set of facts such as those America worked through in the turbulent 1960s. He said today the rift is because of "normative threats," or threats to the legitimacy of government and the basic order and elements of the democracy, such as a lack of respect for science, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court and the news media.

"It doesn’t mean things have to proceed in the direction they are going, but I’ve … never seen this before, and I’ve been around awhile," said Benjamin, 76.

Examples of this breakdown of norms are legion: Failure to rally against a common threat in COVID-19, which deepened political divides; partisan followings for cable TV news channels; the unprecedented two-time impeachment of former President Donald Trump; the use of government resources to investigate political adversaries; the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol; the refusal of a large minority of Americans to accept the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, and the first time there wasn’t a cooperative transfer of presidential power.

"It’s a crisis," said Benjamin. "And some are happily going through life anyway … but some, like me, are terrified."

A 2020 survey by Bright Line Watch, a group of political scientists studying democracy in America, found 23% of respondents condone violence in response to the opposing party’s electoral win. The numbers rise to 40% if the other party struck first.

"It’s a fascinating question," said Susan Del Percio, a national political commentator from New York, about the Siena poll issue. "I do find it very interesting that people are very uncertain about the direction of the country and many believe we will not look like a democratic republic in 2030.

"If you asked me a year ago, I would have said we would have to come together at some point," Del Percio said. "But I see no sense of that … If COVID, a virus that’s apolitical, that killed over 800,000 Americans, can’t unite us in some shape or form, I don’t know what will."

Del Percio noted, however, that just what a democratic republic looks like "may mean different things to different people."

Richard Benedetto, a journalism professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and a former White House correspondent, agrees. He said conservatives might see a government they support as a democratic republic, even if political scientists would term it fascist. Similarly, liberals might see a government they support as a democratic republic, even if political scientists would term it socialist.

"We’re in a very strange time right now," Benedetto said. "We are going through so many upheavals, whether health or social, there are people who are very uneasy … people don’t think they can plan five years down the road.

"The media doesn’t help," he said. "You read the headlines online and it’s mayhem and some people are just turning off from it and others are becoming more and more upset. I think people desperately need a calming down, and they aren’t able to find it. It’s sad."

However, "I don’t think democracy is imperiled," said Benedetto, a Utica native who had worked as a reporter throughout New York State. "I think we are going through a rough patch right now. But when push comes to shove, I think people want a democratic representative government … what’s the alternative?"

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