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What’s Democracy to You?

Americans’ perceptions of democracy, patriotism, and other terms of civic language vary based on race and party.
April 11, 2022
What’s Democracy to You?
(Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)

For all the talk about our democracy being in a death spiral—the worries about toxic polarization, government paralysis, attempts to overturn elections, the Jan. 6th insurrection, nonstop culture wars, and rising illiberalism—there turns out to be little agreement on exactly what democracy is, what it is supposed to do, and whom it is supposed to serve. As a result, a concept that should be one of the unifying core tenets that all Americans subscribe to becomes yet another thing that sends us to each other’s throats.

A large online survey of American adults, conducted in November and released late last month by the Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement, hints at how our differing perceptions of democracy, among other terms, contribute to the anti-democratic impulses we’re presently seeing.

For example, only 61 percent of the respondents said they view democracy positively, while more than a third view it neutrally or negatively. And, like many things in our country, there is perception gap between the races. Nearly 3 in 4 (72 percent) white Americans have a positive impression of the concept of democracy compared to less than 50 percent of black Americans; Hispanics respondents came in at 58 percent, Asian Americans at 63 percent, and Native Americans at 51 percent. Yet there was almost no distance among those with negative impressions, each racial or ethnic group falling in the 7 to 9 percent range. Rather, neutral feelings toward democracy drive the racial disparity, with nearly twice as many black Americans and Native Americans saying they hold no positive or negative impressions of democracy relative to white Americans’ views (35 and 38 percent to 18 percent). Clearly, a group’s historical experience with democracy influences its present-day feelings towards it.

These results suggest that although Americans talk about democracy like it’s a value, many perceive it as little more than a tool—like a gun or a hammer, its goodness or badness is mostly connected to our perception of who is using it and for what purpose. Those who have benefited the most from its employment are more likely to have positive impressions of it while those who feel it has been used against them or to subjugate them are less likely to see it as inherently good.

In this way, when democracy is perceived to be less an expression of values and ideals and more an object to be wielded on behalf of some at the expense of others, the doomsday predictions become all the more understandable. The notion that our democracy is eroding is directly connected to the idea that people we disagree with are using it against us. It is a commentary, not that there is a fraying commitment to a government of, by, and for the people, but that the question of who are considered to be the people—the real and true Americans—remains heavily contested.

As one might expect, this quandary bleeds into perceptions of other terms central to our civic language. The words with the most positive ratings in the study were unity, liberty, and citizen; the words with the most negative ratings were privilege, social justice, racial equity, and activism. Again, the racial—and partisan—undertones of these words are impossible to ignore.

There’s not even consensus on words like patriotism, which has become highly partisan in the last decade-plus: More than 83 percent of Republicans view it positively, compared to about 47 percent of Democrats. And 72 percent of white Americans hold positive impressions of the term patriotism, compared to just 30 percent of black Americans; the latter are almost twice as likely to hold a negative view and two and half times more likely to view it neutrally.

If we perceive patriotism to be a love of country, these numbers might be troubling, but the fact that black Americans constitute more than 17 percent of the active military force despite being about 13 percent of the nation’s population demonstrates that their love for America pulses deeply. Moreover, love of country often finds other expressions: black Americans are nearly 50 percent more likely to think positively of activism and social justice relative to white Americans; Democrats twice as likely as Republicans. Through this lens, little wonder that some who consider the Jan. 6th insurrectionists to be patriots often describe Black Lives Matter as a terrorist threat. One’s view of what actions are patriotic most often depends on one’s opinion of who is taking the action.

Here is where another study is especially useful. In 2019, More In Common, a nonprofit that researches the things dividing us and tests interventions to improve our democracy, published a study titled “The Perception Gap,” drawing on a survey of American adults conducted days after the 2018 midterm elections. (Disclosure: I’m a board member of the organization’s U.S. chapter.) The survey found that Democrats believe Republicans are far more anti-immigration or deniers of the existence of racism than they actually are. And Republicans perceive Democrats to feel far less national pride than they really do, to consider police “bad people” much more than they really do, and to support open borders much more than they really do. The results also revealed how media coverage of the most extreme views contribute to a number of national misunderstandings.

On the question of racial perceptions, social psychologists Thierry Devos and Mahzarin R. Banaji have found that Americans across race and ethnicity believe that equal treatment and democracy are civic values that are central to the American identity. But they also found that Americans hold the view that some races and ethnicities are simply less American, not due to a lesser belief in equality but the product of the American identity being seen as prototypically white. This insight aligns with scholarship from a range of disciplines that reveals how entangled race is with our national identity.

Taken together, our perceptions of the concepts that should unite us run headlong into our perceptions of which groups best embody them and our misperceptions of one another along partisan and racial lines. Suddenly, conversations about democracy are not about democracy at all, but about who gets to access it and for what purpose. Discussions about patriotism or equity are just opening salvos for zero-sum arguments about American culture, identity, and belonging.

In America, democracy is more than just a system of institutions, relationships, and processes. It is a declaration of our national identity that we have not yet managed to accept and appreciate as being multiracial and ideologically diverse.

So, when you hear laments about the state of our democracy, don’t think exclusively in terms of a crumbling system. Think instead of a people who are hesitant to be governed by those different than them, a nation deficient in social trust.

Theodore R. Johnson

Theodore R. Johnson was a writer at The Bulwark and a senior advisor at New America. He is the author of the book When the Stars Begin to Fall: Overcoming Racism and Renewing the Promise of America (Atlantic, 2021). Twitter: @DrTedJ.