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Everyone Agrees Democracy Is in Danger. No One Agrees Why.

It’s democracy vs. gas prices.
by Rich Thau
October 28, 2022
Everyone Agrees Democracy Is in Danger. No One Agrees Why.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about gas prices in the South Court Auditorium at the White House campus on June 22, 2022 in Washington, DC. Biden called on Congress to temporarily suspend the federal gas tax. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Take a guess: Among voters who say American democracy is under threat, do more people believe that Donald Trump, or Joe Biden, or the mainstream media pose a major threat?

You’ll be forgiven for not knowing—according to a recently released New York Times/Siena survey—that 59 percent of respondents in that category believe it’s the mainstream media that poses a “major threat.” That compares with 45 percent who say Trump is a major threat, and 38 percent who say Biden is.

Other perceived culprits include:

  • 28 percent say Democrats pose a major threat
  • 33 percent say Republicans pose a major threat
  • 27 percent say the Supreme Court poses a major threat
  • 33 percent say the federal government poses a major threat
  • And 27 percent say the Electoral College while 20 percent say electronic voting machines and 33 percent say voting by mail pose major threats

In short, a whole lot of Americans—71 percent in total—think that our democracy itself is in peril, but there’s no consensus as to the source of the danger.

Imagine back in 1941, on the eve of Pearl Harbor, if roughly equal percentages of Americans had been as worried about at attack from Britain as they were an attack from Imperial Japan.

I conducted focus groups on October 12 with 13 Trump-to-Biden voters across Pennsylvania. Seven of them agreed that the democratic form of government in America is in peril.

Bob, 44, from Lansdale, Pennsylvania, worried, “Is a large segment of our population going to accept elections from here on out? It’s a big concern.”

Christina, 36, from Seven Fields, Pennsylvania echoed Bob: “I agree the massive protest and rejection of the election results shows that something’s broken.”

I asked the group if any of them had heard conversations, or read anything online, about the possibility of a second civil war. Nine of them raised their hands.

What had John, 54 and from Philadelphia, encountered, exactly?

“If I don’t get my way, the guns are coming out and there’s gonna be problems,” he reported hearing.

Stephanie added, “It’s just a question that’s thrown out there [about civil war], you know? Like not a ‘what if,’ but if this continues, it’s a possibility.”

Brandon, 39 from Havertown, Pennsylvania, offered this chilling observation:

I’ve heard some claims from both sides to be honest, but there’s gonna be an extreme far right that can rewrite the government or rewrite the rules. Or that any gun legislation . . . is gonna start this revolution that’s gonna start the next civil war. And I don’t know, it’s just, it’s kind of a joke. You laugh about it, but it’s also a little terrifying to be honest, especially when it comes to guns, personally.

John, 30, from Lititz, Pennsylvania, said, “It’s a lot of rabble-rousing to be honest. Just a way to inflame people, to scare them. Fear is the biggest motivator we have when it comes to getting things done today.”

As for personal worries about a possible second civil war, only 4 of the 13 said they held such concerns. And they sounded like this, starting with Joshua, 25, from Palmerton, Pennsylvania:

I’m just concerned that everything’s very polarized. You can’t even talk to people anymore about politics without them freaking out or turning into an argument anymore. And I just feel like something might happen eventually, if not a full civil war. Maybe like, I don’t know, some kind of greater divide in the country, or sections splitting off in the country. I don’t know. Something, something weird.

Brandon said:

I wouldn’t say “civil war,” but I’m concerned of something more like January 6th on steroids, personally. I think “civil war” sounds like a movie, kind of. But I think, especially when it comes to guns and other things like that, that there could be something extreme that could happen.”

Scott, 59, from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, said: “I don’t think it’s gonna be the red versus the blue, like the blue and the gray [in the 1860s]. I do think there could be a rise in militia and militia activity, which could result in some serious problems.”

Christina had similar concerns: “I think of the term ‘civil war,’ and thinking of it on that large scale is not something that I think is actually going to happen. But I do agree that it seems that there could be an uptick in more local groups acting out and causing a lot of big problems, and a lot of danger for people.”

So most of these swing voters don’t worry about a civil war, and the four who do worry don’t envision a cataclysm.

This somewhat-concerned-but-not-quite-alarmed state puts one other Times/Siena poll finding in context: only 7 percent of respondents said the state of democracy is the most important issue facing the country today—with an additional 1 percent citing “election integrity.”

In sum: The vast majority of Americans believe our democracy is in major peril. They disagree wildly on what the source of that peril is. And only a tiny sliver of them think that the potential collapse of democracy is the most important issue facing the country.

Good luck, America.

Rich Thau

Rich Thau is the president of the research firm Engagious, which specializes in message testing and message refinement for trade associations and advocacy groups. He is also the moderator of the Swing Voter Project, conducted in partnership with Schlesinger Group.