American Democracy Isn't Doing So Hot

Almost half of Americans say U.S. democracy isn't functioning very well.
Trump supporters near the U.S Capitol, on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Trump supporters near the U.S Capitol, on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Surprise, surprise: Americans are losing faith in democracy, according to a new Associated Press-NORC poll.

After a year of complete political dysfunction—capped by a defeated president inciting rioters at the U.S. Capitol—the poll predictably found that Americans are increasingly depressed about the functioning of American democracy. At the same time, Americans appear much more optimistic about the direction the country is headed in now than they were last year. 


The poll, conducted between Jan. 28 and Feb. 1, found almost half of Americans, 45 percent, say that American democracy isn’t functioning well and 38 percent say it’s only functioning somewhat well, while just 16 percent of respondents said it was working well or extremely well. 

Democrats are more likely to say democracy is working well, but it’s still fairly bleak. Fewer than a quarter of Republicans said democracy is working somewhat well and just one-in-10 said it’s working “extremely well,” while nearly half of Democrats say it’s working “somewhat well” and another 26 percent said it’s working “extremely well.” 

The partisan split is predictable considering the nightmare we just collectively experienced. President Joe Biden won the popular vote by millions and received the same number of electoral votes that former President Donald Trump won in 2016, but Trump refused to concede for months and convincing his base that the election was “stolen” from him by local and state elections officials, by people voting illegally, voting machine companies, and foreign governments. When these claims didn’t hold weight in court, Trump then encouraged his supporters to “fight like hell” against Congressional certification of Biden’s win on Jan. 6 in D.C.

That day, pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol and temporarily halted the certification of electoral college votes. Five people died that day and two Capitol police officers taken their own lives in the weeks since, and nearly 200 people have been charged in connection with the riots, according to a database compiled by USA Today. Trump has since been impeached by the House of Representatives for a second time; his Senate impeachment trial begins this week. 


The AP findings aren’t isolated. 

In the immediate aftermath of the riot, 71 percent of people said they thought American democracy was threatened, as opposed to just 29 percent who thought it was secure, a CBS News survey found. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2020 Democracy Index released last week rated the U.S. as a “flawed” democracy again, as it has each year since 2016.

Americans have no shortage of reasons to be disheartened about democracy right now. For a country that likes to think of itself as “exceptional,” America’s response to COVID-19 has been worse than abysmal. More than 27 million Americans have contracted the disease and 463,000 people have died as a result, by far the highest numbers in the world, with a vaccine rollout that’s severely lagging behind expectations. So far 42 million shots have been given in the U.S., fewer than half of the 100 million Trump promised by the end of 2020, and early data indicates the racial disparity in COVID-19 cases has now translated into who’s getting the vaccine


The joblessness crisis caused by the pandemic has been compounded by dysfunction in Congress, which dragged its feet on a second COVID-19 relief package for months after allowing unemployment assistance expire. More than eight-in-10 food banks around the country reported serving more people in 2020, according to Feeding America

And the nation’s failures to address systemic racism years after the inception of the Black Lives Matter movement came to a head last year following the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville. There were widespread protests in every major American city, as well as a forceful and sometimes violent reaction from local police and the Trump administration.

2020 didn’t just cause damage to American democracy; it suffered a blow to the idea of America as a functional state itself. 

Though most Americans don’t have a very good feeling about democracy, the AP poll found that there’s some optimism. Some 70 percent of respondents say President Joe Biden respects democratic institutions and norms as opposed to 37 percent who said the same of Trump. Almost half of Americans—49 percent—said they believe the country is headed in the right direction, nearly double the number who said the same four months ago.

“We obviously have a lot of problems,” Linda Reynolds, a 64-year-old former Republican  from southern California, told the AP. “But in the big picture, reason seems to have prevailed, hopefully in the eyes of the world.”