Americans Are Widely Pessimistic About Democracy

Only about 1 in 10 U.S. adults give high ratings to the way democracy is working in the United States or how well it represents the interests of most Americans, according to a poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Majorities of adults say U.S. laws and policies do a poor job of representing what most Americans want on issues ranging from the economy and government spending to gun policy, immigration and abortion. The poll shows 53 percent believe Congress is doing a bad job of upholding democratic values, compared with just 16 percent who say it is doing a good job.

The findings illustrate widespread political alienation in a polarized country that limped out of the pandemic and into a recovery haunted by inflation and fears of a recession. In interviews, respondents worried less about the machinery of democracy—voting laws and the tabulation of ballots—and more about the outputs.

Overall, about half the country—49 percent—say democracy is not working well in the United States, compared with 10 percent who say it is working very or extremely well and 40 percent only somewhat well. About half also said each of the political parties is doing a bad job of upholding democracy. This includes 47 percent who say that about Democrats and even more—56 percent—about Republicans.

“I don’t think either of them is doing a good job just because of the state of the economy—inflation is killing us,” said Michael Brown, a 45-year-old worker’s compensation adjuster and father of two in Bristol, Connecticut. “Right now I’m making as much as I ever have, and I’m struggling as much as I ever have.”

A self-described moderate Republican, Mr. Brown has seen the United States falling short of its democratic promise ever since learning in high school that the Electoral College allows someone to become president while not winning the majority of national votes. But he is especially disappointed with Congress now, seeing its obsessions as not reflective of the people’s will.

Mr. Brown said he sees politicians fighting over things that have nothing to do with average voters.

The poll shows 53 percent of Americans say views of “people like you” are not represented well by the government, with 35 percent saying they are represented somewhat well and 12 percent very or extremely well. About 6 in 10 Republicans and independents feel like the government is not representing people like them well, compared with about 4 in 10 Democrats.

Karalyn Kiessling, a researcher at the University of Michigan who participated in the poll, sees troubling signs all around her. A Democrat, she recently moved to a conservative area outside the liberal campus hub of Ann Arbor. Her Republican family members no longer identify with the party and are limiting their political engagement.

Ms. Kiessling researches the intersection of public health and politics and sees many other ways to participate in a democracy in addition to voting—from being active in a political party to speaking at a local government meeting. But she fears increased partisan nastiness is scaring people away from these crucial outlets.

“I think people are less willing to get involved because it’s become more contentious,” Ms. Kiessling, 29, said.

That leads to alienation at the national level, she said—something she certainly feels when she sees what comes out of Washington. “When you have a base that’s a minority of what general Americans think, but they’re the loudest voices in the room, that’s who politicians listen to,” Ms. Kiessling said.

Polarization has transformed some states into single-party dominions, further alienating people like Mark Short, a Republican who lives in Dana Point, California.

“In California, I kind of feel that I throw my vote away every time, and this is just what you get,” said Mr. Short, 63, a retired businessman.

The poll shows that the vast majority of Americans—71 percent—think what most Americans want should be highly important when laws and policies are made, but only 48 percent think that is actually true in practice.

And views are even more negative when it comes to specific issues: About two-thirds of adults say policies on immigration, government spending, abortion policy and gun policy are not representative of most Americans’ views, and nearly as many say the same about the economy as well as gender identity and LGBTQ+ issues. More than half also say policies poorly reflect what Americans want on health care and the environment.