Two-thirds of Americans believe democracy in the United States is under threat, according to the latest PBS Newshour/NPR/Marist poll.
Ahead of the first Fourth of July since an attack on the Capitol, fueled by baseless claims of voter fraud, and as several GOP-led states work now to enact stricter voting rules, majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents express worry about the health of democracy.
At the same time, more people also believe the country is heading in the right direction than at any other time in the last 12 years, according to the poll, though that number — 47 percent — is still a minority.
Views on the direction of the country reflect a sharp partisan split, with far greater optimism coming from Democrats: 87 percent of Democrats believe it’s going in the right direction, but 87 percent of Republicans say the opposite. Overall, 47 percent of adults surveyed saw positive movement — a level not seen since October 2009 – compared to 49 percent who said they did not. That number is also up 20 points from January.
In President Joe Biden’s first months in office, he has made an effort to champion democratic and governmental institutions that his predecessor President Donald Trump openly attacked or criticized, such as the U.S. electoral system and NATO.
Despite assurances from top officials and experts that the election was one of the most secure in history, challenges to Biden’s victory set off a debate about voting rights in the U.S., and Republican lawmakers in state legislatures across the country have pushed for the passage of laws that Democrats argue will restrict access at the polls, particularly for voters of color.
The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld voting restrictions in Arizona that a federal appeals court previously found disproportionately affected Black, Hispanic and Native American voters, prompting Biden to release a statement that he was “deeply disappointed,” by the decision. The high court said limits around who can return early ballots for another person, as well as counting ballots in the wrong precinct, were justified by the state’s interest in election integrity and were not discriminatory by race.
Americans’ reasons for fearing the erosion of democracy likely differ along party lines, said Lara Brown, an associate professor and the director of the Graduate School of Political Management at the George Washington University. The poll did not ask about the reasons behind the feeling democracy was at risk — but it’s unsurprising when considering a full view of the last year, said Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University, which brought not only major debate over voting rights, but also record levels of new and different voices in American politics and polarization in Congress, as well as concerns over the economy, COVID, and the aftermath of the insurrection.
For Republicans, 83 percent of whom responded that democracy is under threat, Brown said these fears may be an extension of the economic and racial anxieties that have driven much of the conversation on the right in the last several elections, as well as a reflection of the widespread belief among members of the party in the aftermath of the 2020 election that results were illegitimate.
“You have a base in the Republican party that’s been riled up around all of these cultural issues, and then you put on top of that these lies and conspiracies that only stoke a paranoia that the country is being lost,” Brown said.
She added that the right’s response to the “big lie” — that the election was stolen from Trump, spurring the Jan. 6 attack at the Capitol — by seeking to restrict voter access is likely also what’s driving Democrats’ beliefs that democracy is under threat as well.
“Democrats are very concerned about the Republicans’ perceived desire to attempt to win by any means, whether… legitimate or not,” Brown said.
Majority of Americans support ID laws, but are split on voting access
In this latest poll, a majority of respondents – 56 percent – said they were more concerned with making sure that everyone who wants to vote can do so, versus 41 percent who were more concerned with making sure no one votes who is not eligible to do so. A higher share of Democrats (85 percent) expressed concerns about making voting accessible, as well as people aged 18 to 39 (70 percent) and people of color (64 percent).
But 79 percent of Americans also said they thought voters should be required to present government-issued photo identification. Some voting rights advocates argue that can impede access to the polls, particularly for low-income voters and those of color, as well as the elderly and people with disabilities.
While a number of state legislatures have signed expanded voting provisions, 17 states have enacted 28 new laws that restrict access to the vote, according to a June count by the Brennan Center, many of which target mail-in voting, as well as some that could make it harder to vote in-person by imposing harsher ID requirements or limiting the availability of polling places.
“I think we are seeing an unprecedented effort at voter suppression in the modern era that we haven’t really seen since the Jim Crow era,” said Eliza Sweren-Becker, a top voting rights attorney and counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy program. She estimates that roughly 400 bills that would restrict voting access have been introduced in state legislatures including Florida, Georgia, and Iowa in recent months.
Lara Brown said despite the evident support among the majority of the population for increased voter access, Americans are not always aware of the ways in which requirements such as photo identification can be used to disenfranchise voters in the U.S.
“This is where the history of disenfranchisement, and the knowledge about how certain groups have been systematically discriminated against when it comes to voting, is not top of mind to most Americans if you ask them about this,” she said.
“We see here that a majority of Americans support free access to the right to vote, and that is very consistent with our democratic principles,” Sweren-Becker said of the poll results. But of the support for government identification requirements, she added, “I think the devil is in the details, and not all voter ID laws are created equally.” She said she wouldn’t expect most Americans to support voter requirements if it was made clear that it would have the effect of discriminating against certain members of the electorate.
How Americans grade Biden
While attempting to enact one of the most ambitious policy agendas in recent years, Biden has managed to stay out of the spotlight, said presidential historian Jeffrey Engel, particularly compared to his predecessor. When historians document the first six months of Biden’s presidency, Engel joked that they would struggle to find interesting quotes, given that “he has been remarkably good at being boring.”
Whether or not it’s due to the president’s knack for staying away from public controversy, 21 percent of Americans said they thought the overall tone and level of civility between Democrats and Republicans in Washington had improved since he was elected president. On the one hand, that’s about half the number — 41 percent — who said it had gotten worse. However, throughout Trump’s presidency, a majority of Americans consistently responded that tone and civility between the two parties in Washington had gotten worse, with nearly three-quarters answering this way in November 2018.
“I do think the president’s deliberate tone and compassionate demeanor absolutely are changing the way people perceive politics,” Brown said.
The public perception of America’s global reputation has shifted as well. Fifty percent of adults surveyed responded that they thought the U.S. role on the world stage had been strengthened by Biden’s decisions as president, while 43 percent responded that its role had been weakened. In contrast, during the summer of Trump’s first year of his presidency, 33 percent of respondents said America’s role had been strengthened, whereas 62 percent said it had been weakened.
Biden’s approval ratings have dipped slightly since April, with 50 percent of Americans responding they approved of the job he’s doing as president in this most recent poll, 43 percent who disapprove and 7 percent responding that they were unsure. Brown said this is likely due to concerns about inflation and high gas prices. A NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll released Thursday found that inflation was Americans’ top economic concern, followed by wages.
The president has consistently received high marks on his handling of the coronavirus pandemic in polls, including the most recent: 64 percent said they approved of his approach to the pandemic. Half of Americans said they approved of his handling of the economy, but on foreign policy and immigration, his ratings were lower.
Brown said that until an infrastructure package is actually passed by Congress, public opinion of the Biden administration is likely to be more driven by the administration’s response to the pandemic – and its direct effect on the lives of everyday Americans – than anything else.
“Most Americans right now really are not focused on politics,” Brown stressed. “Most Americans want their summer.”
PBS NewsHour, NPR and Marist Poll conducted a survey June 22-29 that polled 1,115 U.S. adults (margin of error of 3.7 percentage points), 905 registered voters (margin of error of 4.2 percentage points).
Laura Santhanam contributed reporting.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify Sweren-Becker’s quote about free access to the right to vote.