Americans have doubted before. They doubted Dwight Eisenhower’s work ethic and Richard Nixon’s ethics, Jimmy Carter’s toughness and Bill Clinton’s personal comportment. They doubted the American adventures in Korea and Vietnam, the economic policies of Ronald Reagan and the health care policies of Barack Obama.
But never in modern times have they doubted the fundamental pinions of American democracy. Never, until now.
In the wake of the near impeachment of Mr. Nixon amid the Watergate crisis, the consensus was that American democracy held. In the wake of the two impeachments of Donald Trump, the consensus is that American democracy shook. And the result is a country that is deeply shaken.
Political professionals and political scientists know that poll results come and go; they know to view them as mere glimpses of a large, continentwide country that is forever changing, adjusting to circumstances, wavering with the winds, mutating with moods. One day, abortion dominates public attention, the next day, it’s inflation.
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But one poll result this week rocked the United States. It came from an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey that found that only an astonishing 9 per cent of adults believe democracy is working “extremely” or “very well,” while 52 per cent say it’s not working well.
That means, according to this poll, that three out of five Americans have doubts about the country’s foundational value.
Throughout many postwar crises – conflicts in Asia and Iraq, a hostage standoff in Iran, energy price and supply fluctuations, disputes about race and the role of government in Americans’ lives – there remained bedrock confidence in the country’s institutions.
During the 1960s – especially 1968, with students protesting, the generations at war over lifestyle issues, and the assassinations of senator Robert Kennedy and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. – there were worries that the United States was, in the term that often was employed, “a sick society.” There have been repeated flares of worry that the country’s materialism and its often-simplistic and sometimes-degrading popular artistic life were unworthy of a great civilization.
But throughout those periods, Americans didn’t doubt their democratic system of government.
Americans doubted whether the country lived up to its democratic ideals rather than wondering whether their institutions and customs were, at best, dated or, at worst, rancid or racist. The earlier doubts centred on the country’s failure to meet the aspirations of the Declaration of Independence, which spoke of all being created equal, or its failure to meet the objectives of the Constitution, which created a government of separation of powers, checks and balances, and an elegant equipoise of power and rights.
Today, Americans doubt the structure of their government, not merely whether one president or one set of lawmakers is up to the task of governing. When Dr. King led marches through the South and amid Washington’s monuments and wrote his searing Letter from a Birmingham Jail, he did not question the Declaration or the Constitution but merely asked the country, in poignant and unforgettable language, to meet the challenge of redeeming the promise of both.
Today, the Constitution itself is being questioned. Why should Wyoming, with a population roughly the size of London, Ont., have the same representation in the Senate as California, with a population larger than all of Canada? Why should the president be chosen by the Electoral College when in 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016, the loser had more popular votes than the winner? Is the “three-fifths provision” of the Constitution, which counted slaves as less than a full human for purposes of allocating seats in the House of Representatives, proof of the Founders’ racism?
There are historical reasons for these peculiarities, but they are the province of Grade 11 history lessons rather than of popular understanding.
When there were worries that Mr. Nixon traduced the Constitution, no one thought he tried to remain in office against the public’s will as expressed in an election; indeed, he didn’t challenge the 1960 election, when there were doubts about the victory of John F. Kennedy. Four decades later, Al Gore gracefully acknowledged the election of George W. Bush in a close, disputed contest. Both in 1960 and in 2000, the losing candidate bowed to stability. In 2020, the losing candidate created instability.
In 1973, according to the Gallup Poll, public confidence in Congress was at 42 per cent. Four times since 2014, the figure has dropped into single digits, resting this year at 7 per cent. Congress always has been a reliable target; Mark Twain (1835-1910) once said “There is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.” Until recently, contempt for Congress was aimed at its members of Congress, not at the institution itself.
The AP poll found that 47 per cent of the public said it had “a great deal” or “quite a bit” of confidence that the votes in this year’s midterms would be counted accurately. Three quarters of Democrats felt that way, perhaps because their 2020 candidate prevailed. Nearly half of Republicans feel the opposite, perhaps because their candidate lost.
But there are bright spots, particularly because of high numbers of early balloting in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Georgia. Americans may doubt, but in a few weeks, we will know whether doubters vote, and what they vote for.