Americans support democratic norms, elected officials don’t

Despite the growing concerns about the state of democracy in the United States, a new study has found that the vast majority of Americans, including both Democrats and Republicans, strongly oppose anti-democratic actions and partisan violence.

The study, conducted by the Polarization Research Lab, surveyed over 45,000 Americans to measure their support for violations against democratic norms, political violence, and partisan animosity. The results, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveal a surprising level of unity among the public.

“Democracy is under threat in America, but these data show we are not on the brink of a citizen-supported push toward authoritarianism,” says the lab’s director and study senior author Sean Westwood, an associate professor of government at Dartmouth.

The findings show that only 17.2% of Democrats and 21.6% of Republicans support one or more of the four democratic norm violations examined in the study. For example, support for reducing polling stations in areas dominated by the other party was 8.8% for Republicans and 9.2% for Democrats.

“When it comes to anti-democratic behavior, there is a misperception that citizens of one political party are more likely to violate democratic norms than the other but that’s just not the case,” says lead author Derek Holliday, a postdoctoral fellow at the Polarization Research Lab.

The study also reveals decreasing levels of support for political violence, with actual support for acts like assault, arson, and murder ranging from 1.7% to 3%, despite the belief that members of the other political party are more likely to support such actions.

“Public opposition to anti-democratic actions and political violence was not only overwhelming, but also remarkably stable throughout the year,” says co-author Yphtach Lelkes, Polarization Research Lab co-director and associate professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

While the findings offer a glimmer of hope for the future of American democracy, the researchers warn that the threat remains, as a near majority of elected Republicans indicated they would be comfortable violating democratic norms.

“Support for norm violations doesn’t appear to form a divide between everyday Democrats and Republicans, but it is instead a divide between ordinary Americans who support democracy and elected officials who are pushing back against democratic governance,” says Westwood.

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