The Democracy Project
Even as Americans remain committed to the ideals of democracy, a majority see democracy in the United States as weak and getting weaker, according to a national survey jointly commissioned by Freedom House, the George W. Bush Institute, and the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement. With democracy and democratic institutions under attack globally, the three organizations engaged two polling firms, one Democratic and one Republican, to survey Americans’ attitudes about democratic principles and institutions at home and support for U.S. policies that advance democracy abroad. We are grateful to the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation for its generous support of our research.
Democracy is facing its most significant challenge of recent years. Worldwide, the uneven distribution of economic progress and unrelenting pace of change have tested the capacity of democratic institutions and their leaders to deliver. At the same time, authoritarian regimes and populist national movements have seized the opportunity to undermine democracy and the example of freedom it represents. The phenomenon has not spared the United States, where confidence in our governing institutions has been weakening over many years and key pillars of our democracy, including the rule of law and freedom of the press, are under strain. These trends have raised questions about whether the public has begun to lose faith in basic democratic concepts and what can be done to strengthen popular support.
To help provide answers, Freedom House, the George W. Bush Institute, and the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement commissioned a series of focus groups and a national survey examining American attitudes about democratic principles and institutions at home and support for U.S. policies that advance democracy abroad. Our organizations engaged two distinguished firms to design and analyze the opinion research: Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and North Star. This bipartisan effort is a testament to the universality of democratic values and the importance of America’s democratic standards for the future of our country and the world. We are grateful to the Knight Foundation for its generous support of our research.
We are encouraged by our finding that American commitment to democracy remains strong. Sweeping majorities want to live in a democracy, and they endorse U.S. support for democracy abroad. But the public is also experiencing a crisis of confidence in our political system—a sentiment that spans partisan affiliations and demographic groups. And not all Americans perceive the same benefits from democracy, with some much more convinced of its importance than others.
The study confirms that these frustrations are rooted in systemic problems, including political polarization, racial inequality and discrimination, the influence of money in politics, and degradation of our civil discourse. Such dynamics are hardly new, and the public voiced its dissatisfaction two years ago with the election of a nontraditional candidate for president. While the concerns in question are long-standing and well-documented, they increasingly risk undermining our democratic experiment and must be addressed with new urgency today. We draw inspiration from the powerful activism of citizens across the country, who are taking meaningful steps to restore the health of our democracy. This is a mission that can and must unite us all.
As President George W. Bush has said, “The great democracies face new and serious threats—yet seem to be losing confidence in their own calling and competence. Economic, political, and national security challenges proliferate, and they are made worse by the tendency to turn inward. The health of the democratic spirit itself is at issue. And the renewal of that spirit is the urgent task at hand.”
As Vice President Joe Biden said, “The United States is unique among nations because we are founded on a set of democratic ideals. You can’t define an American based on where you come from, what you look like, or what faith you follow. Being American is about a commitment to certain basic rights and fundamental freedoms. It’s about upholding those self-evident truths—that all men and women are created equal, that we are all entitled to dignity. We don’t always live up to our ideals, but they’re the only thing that we all have in common."
“This is a moment where democratic values are under siege around the globe. Governments are making it harder for civil societies to function. Populist attacks are undermining confidence in democratic institutions. Leaders are bolstering their personal power by rolling back democratic principles. And the United States is not immune from these trends. We’ve seen the power of nationalism and populism to appeal to people’s fears and sow division."
“The findings of the Democracy Project confirm we can’t take our freedoms for granted—we have to work for them, and we have to defend them. It’s also a reminder that our democracy has never been perfect, and we can’t be complacent if we hope to continue to lead in the 21st century. By identifying key challenges, we can keep working—Democrats and Republicans, together—to strengthen and reinforce the values that form the foundations of our democracy.”
As leaders of our three organizations, we urge all who care about democracy in the United States to consider these findings and take action of their own. One of the primary purposes of this research is to identify ways that we can communicate more effectively on behalf of the democratic ideals we share and help mobilize public support for democracy and its core principles. We are eager to reinforce the values that form the foundation of our country and have long guided its engagement with the world.