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While Most Americans Prefer Democracy, More Than One in Four Express Sympathy for Authoritarianism

By Democracy Fund / 2018 March 13th

​Voter Study Group report questions conventional wisdom that democracy is in decline, but finds concerning trends as authoritarian support consolidates among Trump supporters

Washington, DC — Americans’ support for an authoritarian leader declined for the first time in two decades, according to a new report from the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group. “Follow the Leader: Exploring American Support for Democracy and Authoritarianism,” nevertheless finds worrying developments among the 29% of Americans who say that an authoritarian alternative to democracy would be favorable.

The new report by Lee Drutman (New America), Larry Diamond (Hoover Institution), and Joe Goldman (Democracy Fund) is part of a unique, multi-year study from the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, a research collaboration of leading analysts and scholars from across the political spectrum examining the evolving views of American voters.

“The good news is that the sky is not falling — Americans are not abandoning democracy,” said Democracy Fund President Joe Goldman. “But in the midst of historic levels of polarization and new pressures on our constitutional checks and balances, the reality that more than a quarter of the American public seems open to turning away from democracy should worry anyone who cares about a healthy, responsive political system.”

Key findings from the report include:

  • The overwhelming majority of Americans support democracy and most of those who express negative views about it are opposed to authoritarian alternatives. In fact, the report finds no relationship between dissatisfaction with democracy and support for an authoritarian system in which a strong leader doesn’t have to bother with Congress or elections.
  • Nearly a quarter of Americans say that a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with Congress or elections would be “fairly” or “very good,” and 18 percent say that army rule would be “fairly” or “very good.”
  • Support for a strong leader declined to 1995 levels after a two-decade increase. During these two decades, Democrats expressed greater support for a strong leader, but this reversed in 2017 as Republicans became far more likely to say that having a “strong leader” is a good system.
  • Thirty-two percent of Trump primary voters support a “strong leader” who doesn’t have to bother with Congress or elections. Support for this option is especially high (45 percent) among those who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and then voted for Donald Trump in 2016.
  • The highest levels of support for authoritarian leadership come from those who are disaffected, disengaged from politics, deeply distrustful of experts, culturally conservative, and have negative views towards racial minorities.

“While the overwhelming majority of Americans support democracy, there is a reason to be concerned, as support for democracy in the U.S. and rejection of authoritarian options is weaker than in many of our peer democracies around the world,” said Larry Diamond, senior fellow, Hoover Institution. “We need to renew our understanding of and commitment to democracy and the values that undergird it-pluralism, mutual respect and tolerance, flexibility, a willingness to compromise, and critical thinking. We cannot take democracy for granted.”

“This report highlights a problem with our current two-party system,” said Lee Drutman, senior fellow at New America. “If some Americans feel a political party does not represent them, they are left with only one other option. If that party becomes a party of racial resentment and authoritarian leadership, many individuals will update their beliefs to fit with their partisan identity. Otherwise, they can drop out of the political system altogether, which will presumably lead to more doubts about democracy.”

The full “Follow the Leader” report can be found at www.voterstudygroup.org, along with other research from the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group.

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About the Voter Study Group
In the coming months, the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group will be releasing a number of in-depth reports and data sets exploring public opinion on trade, immigration, democracy, and millennials, among other topics. Most recently, the group of experts commissioned the July 2017 VOTER Survey (Views of the Electorate Research Survey) of 5,000 adults who had participated in similar surveys in 2016, 2011, and 2012. The Voter Study Group will put a third survey into the field in March 2018.

Please sign up for email alerts here. The 2016 and 2017 VOTER Surveys and reports were made possible by a grant from Democracy Fund to the Ethics and Public Policy Center to conduct new research about changing trends among the American electorate.

VOTER Survey Methodology Summary
In partnership with the survey firm YouGov, the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group commissioned the 2017 VOTER Survey (Views of the Electorate Research Survey) of 5,000 adults who had participated in similar surveys in 2011, 2012 and 2016. A complete 2017 survey methodology is available here.

About Democracy Fund
Democracy Fund is a bipartisan foundation created by eBay founder and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar to help ensure that our political system can withstand new challenges and deliver on its promise to the American people. Since 2011, Democracy Fund has invested more than $70 million in support of a healthy democracy, including modern elections, effective governance, and a vibrant public square.

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