Earlier this week, the Electoral College certified Joe Biden as the winner of the presidential election. Roughly 61% of Americans accept the final count; 34% reject it. That is consistent with plummeting levels of faith in democracy. Trust in the U.S. electoral system among Republicans has plummeted from 61% before the election to 36% today.
Many Democrats assume that President Donald Trump is assaulting American democracy — and that a large swath of our country follows him in abandoning democratic principles.
But many of Trump’s supporters view him as defending democracy. They see his misinformation campaigns, including sowing doubt about election results, not as an assault on democratic norms but an attempt to protect the U.S. Constitution.
We can no longer reach consensus on what democracy looks like.
For instance, the First Amendment grants the "right of the people peaceably to assemble," a democratic tool long used by dissenting and disenfranchised groups to gain rights and recognition. But today, 82% of Democrats believe the right to peacefully protest is important, and just over half of Republicans agree, down from 64% in 2018.
Even when we don’t disagree on which rights and norms are vital to democracy, we disagree on which are endangered. More than two-thirds of Republicans believe social media sites censor conservative perspectives — and thus infringe on free speech. Meanwhile, 73% of Democrats approve efforts by social media sites to eliminate false information on their platforms in support of fact in public discourse.
Democracy was once the bedrock principle on which the two parties could reliably agree. Even as they fought over competing visions for the country, they were united in support for our system of government. In 1995, more than 75% of Americans reported they were satisfied with democracy. This year, a majority of them report being dissatisfied.
Our democracy is in a critical state. But if we can’t agree on what democracy entails, how can we agree on what needs to be fixed? To build a resilient democracy, we must understand the forces animating our differences and develop ways to bridge them.
Over the past four years, historians, political scientists, lawyers and even psychologists have tackled the formidable question of how we reached this moment of crisis. And while there are many culprits, politicians have contributed heavily to our dangerous tribalism.
Perhaps the most alarming trend is revealed in the Ipsos Social Cohesion Index, which tracks attitudes on trust in other people and the political process, national identity, helping others and respecting laws. Out of 27 countries, the United States ranked 15th, with 41% of Americans scoring as "weak" in their sense of social cohesion vs. just 17% as "solid." On a societal level, we are more divided than we’ve been since the Gilded Age.
What we need today is a campaign to ensure the future of our democracy. A major research effort that explains why one American’s freedom is another American’s sedition, and rebuilds cohesion around democratic norms. To bridge our stark divide requires the collective wisdom of scholars and political practitioners as well as research.
Democratic and Republican campaign consultants have battled each other to win elections. Now they need to work together on a campaign to save democracy. Unlike adversarial political campaigns, this one will have unity as its only mission.
But most important, to save democracy, we’ll have to get voters to agree on what it is.
Steve Israel is the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. He is a former Democratic congressman from Huntington (2001-2017). Doug Kriner is the institute’s faculty director and professor of American Institutions at Cornell University.