Chapter 1 • Democratic Beliefs and American Democracy

ELECTIONS ARE AT THE HEART of representative democracies. It is through elections that citizens have a voice in choosing who will represent them and the opportunity to hold elected representatives accountable for what they have done, or not done, while in office. Americans know when the next election is coming as elections for national office are always held on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November of even-numbered years. People who want to run for office can start their efforts far in advance of Election Day. On the day Donald Trump was inaugurated as president—January 20, 2017—he filed a letter with the Federal Election Commission indicating he qualified to run for reelection in 2020.1 On the day he became president, he was already running for reelection.

What he couldn’t have foreseen was that 2020 would be unlike any other election year. A New York Times timeline lays out the staggering spread and effects of the pandemic.2 The first coronavirus (COVID-19) case was reported in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. By January 20, 2020, the United States had its first known case, a man in the state of Washington. The disease spread quickly, with the United States leading the world in confirmed cases by the end of March. Stay-at-home orders and mask mandates became the norm in the hardest-hit areas. Schools went remote, businesses closed their doors, restrictions on travel were put in place, and sports were sidelined. Millions of Americans were out of work, and countries worldwide tumbled into a recession. By Election Day, the United States had more than ten million infections and was nearing a quarter of a million deaths.

Adding to the tumult of 2020 was the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests across the United States. On May 25, a store clerk in Minneapolis called 911 saying that a Black man had bought cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. Within seventeen minutes of police arriving at the scene, Floyd was dead, his neck pinned under the knee of a police officer.3 Protests erupted in Minneapolis and quickly spread across the country. On June 6 alone there were over five hundred protests. Some experts estimate that the number of BLM protesters was the largest in U.S. history.4 Unlike past seasons that saw protests against police brutality, the summer of 2020 witnessed what appeared to be a major shift in support for the movement. Protests were occurring in predominantly white counties, and diverse organizations, including the NFL and NASCAR, publicly supported efforts to stop racism.5

Even Election Day—November 3, 2020—was not normal. According to Charles Stewart III, in-person voting on Election Day has been dropping since the early 1990s, but it took a nosedive in 2020. Whereas 60 percent of voting was done in person on Election Day in 2016, that number dropped to 28 percent in 2020. Mail and absentee voting shot from 21 percent in 2016 to 46 percent in 2020. (The remaining 26 percent of 2020 voters voted early in person.)6 The partisan gap in Election Day versus mail-in and early voting was huge, with many Democrats voting absentee or early and many Republicans voting on Election Day.7 Part of this difference was due to Democrats’ greater fears about the coronavirus and not wanting to take the risk of catching it by going to the polls. A large part of the explanation, though, was Trump’s frequent questioning before the election of the security of voting by mail. From arguing that mail ballots could be stolen to claiming that foreign countries would mail in millions of fraudulent ballots, Trump caused many Republicans to be uneasy about voting by mail and to choose instead to vote in person.8

Trump’s claims about voting by mail fed into his argument that the only way he could lose the election was “if the election is rigged.”9 Many experts pointed out that the differences in voting method between Democrats and Republicans would lead to election returns coming in unevenly. On Election Night, the numbers favored Trump, but as the ballots that were mailed in started to be counted, the numbers started to favor the Democratic candidate, former vice president Joe Biden. This is what happened, but Trump’s framing of mail-in ballots as illegitimate and his Election Night speech claiming he had won because he was ahead in the vote count, along with his tweet claiming “We are up BIG, but they are trying to STEAL the Election,” led many Republicans to believe the election had been stolen and that Trump had really won.

Not surprisingly, claims of fraud were rampant. Trump and his followers claimed that more votes were cast in nineteen Michigan counties than there were people who lived there (although the counties listed were actually in Minnesota and the turnout in these areas was all under 100 percent); that surges in the count of Democratic votes implied malfeasance (claims deemed not credible by a judge); that the voting machines made by Dominion Voting Systems flipped millions of votes (a claim denied by Dominion and for which no evidence has been found by Edison Research) because it was owned by Bill and Hillary Clinton and other Democrats (Dominion claims to be a nonpartisan company, is not owned by top Democrats, and has made campaign donations to both Democrats and Republicans); and that thousands of dead people had voted (proved untrue when people on the list of dead voters came forward to prove they were alive).10 Approximately sixty cases brought by lawyers trying to overturn the election either were dismissed by the courts or made claims that judges ruled against, arguing that the courts needed facts, not innuendo.11 These lawsuits were only brought in swing states in which Biden won even though other states used the Dominion voting system and had made similar minor alterations in how the elections were run due to the impact of COVID-19.

The insurrection that occurred on January 6, 2021, was the culmination of the constant claim from Trump and his fellow Republican supporters that the election had been stolen. His supporters stormed the Capitol building in Washington, DC, after Trump gave a speech reiterating false claims that the election had been stolen, extolling his followers to “fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” and encouraging them to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol to give congressional Republicans “the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.”12 These supporters held signs saying “Stop the Steal” and shouted such things as “We will not take it anymore!” and “Arrest Congress!”13

The attempted dissident coup14 combined with the rhetoric surrounding the 2020 election and the efforts by the outgoing president to undermine the peaceful transfer of power to Biden raise serious concerns about Americans’ support for elections, democratic government, and the processes that distinguish democracies from authoritarian regimes. Do Americans have confidence that elections are free and fair? Do they trust their government and each other, or has this trust disappeared? Do they continue to want to live in a democracy, or would they prefer a less messy, more efficient authoritarian system? Throughout this book, we examine in depth the political behavior and attitudes of the American electorate while taking into account the context within which those behaviors and attitudes occur. In this chapter, we address whether Americans have lost their affection for democracy and their belief in democratic principles, beginning with their attitudes toward elections. Gauging Americans’ beliefs and values about democratic processes sets the groundwork for what happens in specific elections.

Learning objectives for Chapter 1 include:

· Exploring the perceptions and reality of what makes elections free and fair with a focus on the 2020 presidential election

· Understanding why trust in government has plummeted and what impact this has on politics in the United States

· Learning to appreciate the messiness of democratic practices and processes

· Addressing concerns about maintaining democracy in the United States given current public opinion


One aspect of democracy that political theorist Robert Dahl highlights is “free, fair, and frequent elections.”15 Elections are a basic component of a democratic political system. At regular intervals, competitive elections give ordinary citizens the power to choose their leaders and, just as important, to throw them out of office. Competitive elections require that all citizens must be free to participate fully in campaign activities before the election itself. Such campaign activities include the freedom to express one’s views and the freedom to organize with others during the nominating phase and the campaign to make preferences known and to persuade others. Implicit in this is the freedom to receive information about the choices before the voters. Citizens must also be free to vote, and the right to vote should not be undermined by substantial economic or administrative barriers. No physical or social intimidation should take place. Citizens legally eligible to vote should have full and convenient access to polling places. The right to vote and the right to express one’s choices freely require a secret ballot. In fair elections, the ballots cast should reflect the intention of the voters, and the votes should be counted accurately. Votes should be weighted equally, or as equally as possible, in translating votes into representation.

Americans take great pride in their democracy, but recent presidential elections provide an opportunity to reassess the extent to which the requirements for being fair and free have been met in the American political system. Elections in the twenty-first century have been close and intensely contested, and it is during extremely close elections that irregularities matter the most. Many observers questioned how free and fair the 2000 presidential election was, but questions have been raised in other recent elections as well, especially in the 2020 election. From concerns about the role of money in politics to people being kept from voting to votes not being counted, there is good reason to keep an eye on what happens during elections. Acknowledging the importance of keeping an eye on elections is very different, however, from questioning the integrity of elections. Trump’s claim in October 2016 that “the election is absolutely being rigged” and his postelection claims in 2020 that “the only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged”16 can be adjudicated by looking at the evidence.

The evidence shows clearly that there is no need for concern about who really won in 2020. Biden won 81,268,924 votes to Trump’s 74,216,154 in the 2020 presidential election, a difference of over 7 million votes. In the Electoral College, Biden had 306 votes to Trump’s 232.17 For Trump to have won the election, enough voter fraud would have had to occur in close states to give Trump 38 more Electoral College votes. The three closest states were Arizona (Biden won by 10,457 votes), Georgia (Biden won by 11,779 votes), and Wisconsin (Biden won by 20,682 votes). Their combined Electoral College votes, 37, were not enough to give Trump the election, even if there had been enough fraudulent votes to flip the winner in those states.18 The next state on the list is Nevada, which Biden won by 33,596 votes. Nevada has 6 Electoral College votes and, combined with the other three states, would have put Trump over the threshold needed to win. Another state that received a lot of attention after the election was Pennsylvania, a state with 20 Electoral College votes. Biden won Pennsylvania by 80,555 votes.

To win the election, the Trump campaign would have had to prove that there were large numbers of fraudulent votes, all of which had been cast for Biden, not Trump, or that there was serious election malfeasance that would allow large numbers of votes to be tossed out. To back up their claims of widespread fraud and malfeasance, Trump and his Republican supporters filed many lawsuits. New York Times reporters Jim Rutenberg, Nick Corasaniti, and Alan Feuer summarized the outcomes:

After bringing some 60 lawsuits, and even offering financial incentive for information about fraud, Mr. Trump and his allies have failed to prove definitively any case of illegal voting on behalf of their opponent in court—not a single case of an undocumented immigrant casting a ballot, a citizen double voting, nor any credible evidence that legions of the voting dead gave Mr. Biden a victory that wasn’t his.19

The Associated Press fact-checked Trump’s claims that vote rigging had occurred and found them “all wrong.”20 The New York Times called election officials in every state, all of whom reported “that there was no evidence that fraud or other irregularities played a role in the outcome of the presidential race.”21 U.S. Attorney General William Barr told the Associated Press after the FBI investigated complaints about voting irregularities that “to date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.”22 The Heritage Foundation’s “Election Fraud Cases” website lists cases that have been serious enough to get to court. While many of these cases have to do with ballot initiatives and voter registration, there are occasional cases of people voting twice or fraudulently using an absentee ballot that belonged to someone else. For example, a man in Michigan forged his daughter’s signature on an absentee ballot in the 2020 general election; a woman in Colorado switched her party identification and was sent two absentee ballots, both of which she mailed in.23 Election fraud does occasionally occur, but there is no evidence, even in all of the lawsuits filed in the 2020 election, that there was enough fraud to give Trump anywhere near the number of votes he needed to overturn the presidential election.

Some of the conspiracy theories, though, suggested that there might be something nefarious happening behind the scenes. Questions about foreign interference and Dominion voting machines raise the possibility that finding individual fraud cases isn’t going to uncover the alleged deep fraud. These concerns can be allayed, though, via statistical analyses that can determine if the election results were statistically out of whack compared to what would be considered normal and feasible. In a thorough analysis, Andrew Eggers, Haritz Garro, and Justin Grimmer did just this when they analyzed claims that the 2020 election results were statistically inconsistent with results that would occur in a free and fair election. After extensive analyses, they state, “In all cases we find that the supposed anomaly is not an anomaly once we compare the properly computed test statistic to a reasonable null distribution. In other words, facts that are purportedly so surprising as to throw the 2020 election result into question are either not facts or not surprising.”24 The combined evidence from the lawsuits, state officials, the attorney general of the United States, and statistical analyses of the vote shows that Biden won the presidency in a free and fair election and that Trump lost.

The lack of evidence for election fraud in the United States is not surprising. Researchers have carefully analyzed evidence on voter fraud and have concluded that if voter fraud has occurred, it “is an isolated and rare occurrence in modern U.S. elections.”25 Just because there is a lack of evidence for voter fraud occurring at the level needed to affect election outcomes, however, doesn’t mean that people do not believe the allegations. A Monmouth University poll fielded after the 2020 election found that among all respondents, 60 percent thought Biden won fair and square, and 32 percent thought his win was due to fraud. Looking just at Trump voters, however, fully 77 percent thought Biden’s win was based on fraud.26 The questioning of the election results by Trump and his followers in 2020 occurred within a challenging context for the integrity of the election process. When the political parties are highly polarized, when the winner of the popular vote does not win the Electoral College (as happened in 2000 and 2016), and when a major party candidate questions the legitimacy of the election outcome (as happened with Trump in 2016 and 2020), it is important for people to believe that the electoral system is fair and effective. Belief in the integrity of U.S. elections acts as a bulwark against the various events and claims made by opposing partisans.

Unfortunately, belief in election integrity has become highly polarized in the United States. In both 2016 and 2020, people were asked in the American National Election Studies (ANES) survey how often votes are counted fairly in American elections. The response options were “all of the time,” “most of the time,” “about half of the time,” “some of the time,” and “never.” Figure 1-1 shows the percentage of people who answered “all of the time” or “most of the time” in the two years surveyed. While more people gave the stronger answer of “all of the time” in 2020 compared to 2016, the total percentage of people giving a positive response was quite similar across these two years: 74 percent in 2016 and 69 percent in 2020. These results would suggest little change between the two election years. Figure 1-2, however, shows that this would be a mistaken interpretation. While there was essentially no difference between Democrats and Republicans in assessments of election fairness in 2016 (a difference of only 3 percentage points), the difference in 2020 was huge (38 percentage points). It is likely that people in both parties were reacting to Trump’s statements about election fraud: Republicans believed what he said, and Democrats became more positive as a counter to Trump’s position. Many people on the left and the right worried that the then president’s accusations would make people question the integrity of elections in the United States. These data suggest that the concern should be focused on Republicans.

The ANES asked additional questions dealing with election integrity in 2020: Are votes counted accurately, do elections make the government pay attention, and do people trust election officials? Americans overwhelmingly think elections make the government pay attention (82 percent gave a positive response), but they are much more skeptical about election officials (only 44 percent gave positive responses) and that votes are counted accurately (only 38 percent gave positive responses). It is not clear what distinction people are making between fairness and accuracy when it comes to counting votes, but they are much more likely to think that votes are counted fairly than to think that they are counted accurately.

A stacked bar graph of the beliefs about the fairness of elections in the United States between 2016 and 2020.Description

Figure 1-1 Beliefs About the Fairness of Elections in the United States, 2016 and 2020

Source: 2016, 2020 American National Election Studies, available at

A clustered bar graph of the beliefs about election fairness by party identification between 2016 and 2020.Description

Figure 1-2 Beliefs About Election Fairness by Party Identification, 2016 and 2020

Source: 2016, 2020 American National Election Studies, available at

Americans have a long history of accepting election outcomes, even when the elections were close or when the Electoral College vote did not uphold the popular vote. It is also the case that American elections have become more fair and accurate over the country’s history. In recent elections, the number of cases of voter fraud has been miniscule compared to the number of votes cast, and certainly not large enough to overturn the results in virtually all elections from local school boards to president. The narrative propagated by Trump that the election was rigged and that the counting of votes did not reflect people’s preferences led many Americans, especially Republicans, to reject the 2020 election outcome. In their minds, Trump had legitimately, and Biden had illegally, won the presidency. The storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, when the House and Senate were meeting to certify the Electoral College votes was meant to keep the normal process of declaring the winner of the presidency from happening, based on the belief that the election results were fraudulent. Never before had this happened in all of American history. Allowing the peaceful transfer of power in a democratic political system is essential, even when people, including the losing candidate, do not like the outcome.


It is not just trust in the electoral system that matters in a democracy. Trust is a major part of all human interactions. People trust other people to behave according to accepted rules of behavior across all aspects of life, from having a vendor send the item purchased through an online site to having a friend not betray a secret. Interpersonal trust, or the generalized sense that people as a whole can be trusted, declined, especially among young people, between 2002 and 2008 (see Figure 1-3). There was an uptick in interpersonal trust in the 2010s, which is important since this type of trust, according to social capital scholars, plays an important role in democratic political systems. People have to be able to trust their fellow citizens to follow through on promises and to hold up their end of the bargain to have democracy run smoothly.

A line graph of social trust by age between 1964 and 2020.Description

Figure 1-3 Social Trust and Age, 1964–2020

Source: Trust data from American National Election Studies, available at

Note: From 1964 through 2008, the question wording was “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted, or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?” From 2012 through 2020, the question wording was “Generally speaking, how often can you trust other people?” with response options “always,” “most of the time,” “about half of the time,” “some of the time,” and “never.” Responses of “always” and “most of the time” are included in the figure.

Political trust moves trust into the domain of the government. Jack Citrin and Christopher Muste define political trust as the “confidence that authorities will observe the rules of the game and serve the general interest.”27 Citizens elect people to represent their and the nation’s interests in the government. Elected officials report back to constituents what they have accomplished, and local media outlets often cover town-hall meetings or votes on major bills, but people have relatively limited information about their representatives’ behavior. This means that the people cannot be completely certain that their representatives have not misbehaved or done something behind the scenes that went against the constituents’ or nation’s interests. Russell Hardin argues that because of this lack of information, people’s default position should be distrust of the government.28 Indeed, some political distrust in a democracy is good. People need to stay informed and engaged enough to hold elected officials accountable for their actions, and some distrust can be the motivator for people to remain vigilant.

Political trust in 2016, however, dropped to alarmingly low levels, and 2020 didn’t show any improvement. For years, the ANES has asked respondents how often they thought “the government in Washington could be trusted to do the right thing.” The solid black line in Figure 1-4 shows the percentage of people who responded “all of the time” or “most of the time” to this question. The high point of political trust in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when over three-quarters of Americans gave trusting responses, was followed by a steep decline. Trust has been on something of a roller-coaster ride ever since. Certain contextual factors lead to upticks in trust: Ronald Reagan’s presidency and his message of American greatness, the booming economy in the Bill Clinton years, and the rally-around-the-flag effect after the terrorist attacks in 2001. Figure 1-4 includes two gray lines, the darker one showing positive responses to a question about whether or not people are satisfied with the way things are going in the United States and the lighter one showing positive responses to a question about whether the country is on the wrong track or heading in the right direction. Clearly, political trust increases when people are happy with what is happening in the country and decreases when people are dissatisfied.

Political trust in the 2016 election—the lowest level ever recorded by the ANES surveys at only 14 percent—was quite a bit lower than satisfaction with how things were going. This pattern persisted in 2020. While only a quarter to a third of Americans thought the United States was doing well, this is far more than the 14 percent who said they could trust the government to do what is right. Trump tapped into that feeling of distrust and was an important part of the context surrounding the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. Many Americans were fed up with government and wanted change. Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp,” referring to the federal government in Washington, DC, was a favorite rallying cry at Trump rallies, even after he had served as president for four years.

A line graph of the trust and attitudes about the how things are going in the United States between 1964 and 2020.Description

Figure 1-4 Trust and Attitudes About How Things Are Going in the United States, 1958–2020

Sources: Trust data from American National Election Studies, available at Right direction data from NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll, available at (1996 to 2020), and from ANES (1992 to 1994), available at Satisfaction data from Gallup, available at

a“How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right—just about always, most of the time, or only some of the time?”

b“All in all, do you think things in the nation are generally headed in the right direction, or do you feel that things are off on the wrong track?”

c“In general, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time?”

Another measure used by Gallup over the years is the extent to which people have confidence in various institutions in the United States. The percentage of people expressing “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the military has increased significantly since the 1970s, from 58 percent in 1975 to 72 percent in 2020. Confidence in the three branches of government have not fared so well. While confidence in the Supreme Court only dropped from 49 to 40 percent, confidence in the presidency dropped from 52 to 39 percent, and confidence in Congress dropped from 40 to 13 percent.29

Why Is Trust Lower?

Why do so few Americans trust the U.S. government in recent years? Political scientists have expended considerable effort answering this question and have pointed to such things as the state of the economy (people have a much more positive view of the world, including the government, when times are good) and whether politicians have been involved in scandals or other bad behaviors (people do not look kindly on scandals, and their opinion of the government goes down).30 We briefly explore three possible explanations that have received varying levels of attention: direct experience, media coverage, and negative attacks on the government.

People’s direct experiences with the government or with government officials could affect their levels of political trust. If people have bad experiences when they interact with government officials or if they do not receive the government benefits they expect, they can easily become jaded, and their trust can subsequently decline. The direct experience explanation, however, appears not to be viable. People who have had contact with federal employees, such as an employee of the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), the National Park Service (NPS), or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), are positive about the experience. A Washington Post poll in 2010 found that three-quarters of respondents who had had direct experience with federal employees thought the employees had done their job fairly or very well.31 Similarly, the Pew Research Center asked respondents in 2019 about their views of a variety of federal agencies. They found that a vast majority of Americans had a favorable view of the USPS (90 percent), the NPS (86 percent), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA, 81 percent), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, 80 percent). In fact, a majority of Americans had a favorable view of fourteen out of the sixteen governmental agencies about which they were asked, including the Internal Revenue Service (IRS, 55 percent), which is the agency that collects taxes. Only the Department of Education (48 percent) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE, 42 percent) did not get favorable ratings from a majority of Americans.32

People are also much more positive about their own member of Congress than Congress as a whole. Gallup found a 20-percentage-point difference in comparisons of one’s own member and all of the other members of Congress on whether they are corrupt, focused on special interests, and out of touch with average Americans.33 People tend to think of their own member of Congress as “one of us,” which Richard Fenno labels identification. Members of Congress speak and act in ways that send the message, “You can trust me because we are like one another.”34 When people see their representative at a town-hall meeting or giving a talk to the local Rotary Club, their sense of identification improves their level of trust in their own representative. This feeling of trust remains focused on the individual representative and is not generalized to Congress as a whole.

The second explanation for declining trust focuses on the media and people’s negative reactions to media coverage, in terms of both what the media cover and how they cover it. Media coverage tends to focus on conflict, disagreement, and incivility to keep people tuned in. With so many entertainment options available, having two politicians sedately discuss a policy quickly loses an audience, and this leads to a loss in advertising revenue. To keep people engaged, and therefore tuning in, the media prefer covering conflict and, if possible, dramatic conflict. Politicians who engage in uncivil behavior tend to get more media coverage, and the up-close, in-your-face camera work brings the conflict right into people’s living rooms. Diana Mutz and her colleagues have shown that the close-up coverage of incivility leads to greater distrust of government, although some researchers have argued that when politicians are highly civil, people have greater distrust as well.35

The media’s constant negativity has also been associated with broader societal distrust. People are less trusting not only of government but also of each other and of a variety of institutions that used to be highly trusted, such as education, medicine, and religion. When people read and hear about only the negative things that happen in society, they begin to distrust everything around them. This “media malaise” encompasses government and therefore can explain the decline in trust.36 Politicians recognize this behavior and use it to their advantage when campaigning. Trump regularly castigated the media as spreading “fake news” and of covering stories in “unfair” and “nasty” ways in both 2016 and 2020. At some of his large and occasionally raucous rallies, Trump would point out particular reporters whose coverage he did not appreciate. NBC’s Katy Tur even needed Secret Service protection after being called out by name at a rally in August 2016. Some researchers, however, have argued that the relationship between the media and lower political trust is more nuanced, with the effect being more pronounced among the highly educated and informed. Others have found no relationship.37

The third explanation we address is the idea that the constant verbal attacks, especially from elected representatives themselves, have undermined people’s faith in the government. Fenno, in his book Home Style, noted that members of Congress often run for Congress by running against the institution.38 In this way, the public’s disdain for Congress is constantly reinforced, and members of Congress get reelected at astounding numbers because the problems with Congress are the fault of everyone else. If incumbents running for reelection are actively bashing Congress and this bashing has an impact on people’s disapproval, we should see an increase in disapproval as an election nears. David Brady and Sean Theriault tested this argument by examining whether disapproval of Congress increases closer to an election. They found that approval of Congress increases almost one-third of a point each month away from an election and increases seven points after an election.39

The Impact of Lower Trust

Trust has decreased significantly, but what impact does lower trust have on a political system? One impact can be seen directly in the 2016 presidential election. Presidential candidates who were “Washington insiders,” including Republicans Ted Cruz (a U.S. senator), Marco Rubio (another U.S. senator), and Jeb Bush (former governor of Florida but brother of former president George W. Bush and son of another former president, George H. W. Bush), had difficulties gaining traction as they tried to convince voters that they were not part of the problem. Trump ran gleefully as an outsider, and voters responded. On the Democratic side, political insider Hillary Clinton was expected to easily win her party’s nomination but faced stiff competition in the primary from Bernie Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont who could point to his independence from the two political parties (he is the longest-serving independent in Congress) as a measure of his outsider status in Washington. In 2020, Trump continued to run as an outsider, even though as president he was an insider, whereas Biden embraced his long service in government, beginning as a U.S. senator in 1972 and serving as vice president during the Barack Obama administration.

Not only does lower political trust increase the appeal of outsider candidates; it has policy consequences as well. Marc Hetherington has examined extensively the relationship between political trust and redistributive versus distributive policy outcomes. Redistributive policies are policies that end up redistributing wealth, such as welfare policies. People pay taxes, with the wealthier paying in more money than the poor, and this money is then used to fund programs such as SNAP and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Distributive policies, such as Social Security, involve the beneficiaries bearing the costs of the program. Decreased trust in government leads to less support for redistributive policies but not distributive policies. Hetherington argues that when people are being asked to sacrifice some of their wealth for the benefit of others, they need to trust those asking them to make the sacrifice: “When people know for certain that they will not readily or materially gain from a program but that they will have to help pay the costs, it is essential that they trust the agent asking such sacrifice.”40 During times when Americans have higher levels of political trust, politicians are more likely to pass liberal policies, such as welfare policies. Politicians pass more conservative policies when Americans are more distrusting of the government.41

Another possible consequence of lower trust concerns support for democratic processes. We discuss in the next section Americans’ attitudes toward democracy, but it is important to consider whether the heightened distrust in the United States actually acts to undermine democracy. In a preliminary test of this idea, survey respondents were asked about their support for two basic democratic processes, debating with the other side to fully air considerations surrounding the policy and compromising with the other side to get policy passed.42 Higher political trust was strongly related to support for both debate and compromise. Debating and compromising on contentious issues involves trusting that both the process and the outcome will be fair. The more people distrust the government, the more likely they are to think the system is rigged and that efforts to debate issues fully and to find a compromise that takes into account the views of the other side are a waste of time.

Political trust has declined sharply over the past fifty years, and it reached its lowest point during the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. Trump’s appeal to many Americans was in part due to his outsider status. Many Americans saw him as a businessman, not a political hack in Washington, even after serving four years as president. His support for conservative policies, such as putting severe restrictions on immigration and cutting government spending on social, but not military, programs, was seen as a way to move the country in the right direction by many of his voters. By 2020, however, many Americans were eager to embrace Biden, a Washington insider who promised to work with both Democrats and Republicans to achieve his more liberal policy goals. We examine policy support in greater depth in Chapter 6.


The main ideas underlying American democracy are (a) that power must be broadly dispersed and not concentrated in the hands of a small number of people and (b) that democratic citizens must have the ability to influence political outcomes. For the latter to occur, citizens must have access to information, preferably accurate information, and the opportunity to voice their opinions and participate in the political sphere. Not everyone will get what they want in a democracy, but people must have the opportunity to try to get what they want.

The United States has democratic structures well in place to allow for these outcomes, but these structures can be used to pursue democratic or undemocratic goals. In democratic theory, much depends on the set of values and beliefs held by citizens that support democratic processes and institutions. Citizens need to accept the idea of rule by the majority and, equally, to believe that the rights of the minority should be respected. They should have some sense of their rights and obligations to participate in the political process, at a minimum through exercising the right to vote. The political elite—those who hold elected or appointed office and those who are informed about and engaged in politics—need to be willing to play by the democratic rules of the game and respect the will of the majority, even when it means the loss of their positions. Finally, elites and the public in general need to understand that democratic solutions do not come quickly and easily. Democratic solutions require allowing diverse interests to have a voice in debates over policy options, and they require accepting that many of these solutions will be based on compromises made with the opposing side. We examine the content of Americans’ beliefs and values concerning democracy and assess them as a foundation for the maintenance of democracy.

Freedom of Expression and the Press

A distinction is often made between democratic goals, such as equality and individual freedom, and democratic procedures, such as majority rule, due process of law, and protection of the political rights of freedom of speech, press, and assembly. The distinction is an important one when the extent to which these ideals are supported within a political system is under consideration because democratic goals can be pursued through undemocratic means or democratic procedures can be used for antidemocratic ends. Likewise, mass support may exist for democratic goals but not for democratic procedures, or vice versa.

A widely held and perfectly plausible expectation is that the American people support the values underlying democratic goals and procedures. At an abstract level, this is true enough. American citizens overwhelmingly subscribe to the basic rules and goals of democracy when the commitment is kept vague. The near-unanimous support for democratic goals and procedures disappears when specific applications of these concepts are considered. Majorities historically have been happy to infringe on the right to speak, to organize, and to run for office of unpopular groups such as atheists, Communists, and the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

The willingness to give disliked groups their basic constitutional rights is referred to as political tolerance.43 Americans overwhelmingly support freedom of speech and assembly, for example, but they are much more reluctant to allow a group they abhor, such as the KKK, to speak or assemble in a public place. So long as there is not a widespread consensus on which groups Americans believe are so noxious that they should not be given their rights, and so long as there are people who believe that rights should be given to all groups (known as civil libertarians), there will be enough people available to defend the rights of the noxious group to speak and assemble. The real problem occurs when a majority of Americans turn against a group and want group members’ rights taken away. Examples in U.S. history include the internment of people of Japanese descent during World War II and the treatment of suspected communists during the McCarthy Era in the early 1950s.

More recently, protection of the rights of Muslims and Arab Americans in the United States has been a major concern for civil libertarians. The September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States led many Americans to feel highly threatened, and this perceived threat significantly increased their willingness to support policies that would infringe on the rights of Arab Americans. For example, almost a third of Americans (29 percent) supported the idea that Arabs and Arab Americans should be put under special surveillance by the U.S. government, and the more threatened people felt, the more they supported this policy. Threat also increased support for government surveillance of all Americans and of viewing security as more important than civil liberties.44 Americans’ willingness to sacrifice rights and freedoms in waging the war on terrorism can be seen in their support of the 2001 USA PATRIOT Act, which expanded the government’s authority to monitor and regulate citizens. Over time, Americans have shifted their opinion to be more pro–civil liberties. Gallup has asked respondents which of two options comes closer to their views: The government should take all steps necessary to prevent additional acts of terrorism in the United States even if it means your basic civil liberties would be violated, or the government should take steps to prevent additional acts of terrorism but not if those steps would violate your basic civil liberties. The percentage of Americans choosing the first option (accepting the violation of civil liberties) dropped from 47 percent in January 2002 to 30 percent in June 2015, whereas the percentage saying civil liberties should not be violated increased from 49 percent to 65 percent across the same time span.45

A major topic of the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections was the role of a free press in American politics. Trump frequently targeted the media as evil or as the enemy both during his two campaigns and while serving as president.46 Upon taking office in January 2017, his administration indicated a desire to change libel laws to make it easier to try and punish reporters for writing negative stories.47 The First Amendment of the Constitution offers protection for a free press. Politicians would often prefer not to have the press investigating what they are doing, but the framers viewed the role of the press as so important that it needed to be constitutionally protected. Americans, however, are somewhat divided on whether the media should be free to criticize political leaders. The Pew Research Center, in a survey administered in February 2017, asked respondents whether having news organizations free to criticize political leaders was important to maintaining a strong democracy in the United States. Two-thirds (64 percent) agreed that this was very important, although there was a pronounced partisan divide: 49 percent of Republicans said a press free to criticize was very important compared to 76 percent of Democrats.48 Since the survey was done when Republican Donald Trump was in office, perhaps the partisan division is due to Republicans not wanting the press to criticize their president and Democrats wanting the media to criticize him. This argument, however, does not appear to be the case. A Pew survey fielded in October 2016, when Democrat Barack Obama was still president, reveals the same partisan divide, with 49 percent of Republicans and 72 percent of Democrats viewing a free press critical of political leaders as very important.49

Democratic Processes

In addition to believing in the integrity of elections, trusting the government and each other, and upholding basic rights, the healthy functioning of democracy rests on people’s understanding of and support for basic democratic processes. The U.S. political system is set up as a representative system in which people elect representatives to positions in government and these representatives both follow the rule of law and represent the interests of their constituents when debating and compromising on policy outcomes. The people do not have a direct vote, at the national level, on these outcomes. The framers intentionally, through federalism and the separation of powers, made it difficult for a majority to have its way without taking into consideration the interests of the minority. What this means is that the American political system is intentionally slow and inefficient and not easily swayed by the passions of the time. The framers hoped that this system would allow cooler heads to prevail, thereby leading to wiser decisions.

Putting aside the question of whether decisions are indeed wiser, what this system has done is to increase Americans’ frustration with what they see as politicians’ unwillingness or inability to solve the major problems facing the nation. This frustration could make Americans question basic democratic processes and prefer instead more efficient undemocratic processes, such as having experts or a strong leader make decisions rather than elected representatives. The left side of Figure 1-5 provides evidence that many Americans are not averse to having undemocratic processes in place. A vast majority are positive about having a democratic political system (85 percent), but a surprisingly large proportion think experts, not the government, should be making political decisions (53 percent) or that a strong leader who does not have to bother with the legislature or elections should be making the decisions (38 percent).50 A third of respondents agree or strongly agree that having a strong leader is good, even if the leader bends the rules to get things done (this 2020 result is down from almost half, 46 percent, who agreed or strongly agreed in 2016). A 2020 postelection survey of Wisconsin voters showed that 33 percent felt that the American way of life is changing so much that force may be required to save it.

When looking at specific democratic processes, many Americans are similarly skeptical. Three major features of the American political system are that it is a representative democracy, which means that elected officials, not the people, make the decisions; that political decisions are the outcome of debate and compromise; and that even though the majority has more say in outcomes, the minority’s interests and rights must be protected. The right side of Figure 1-5 shows that while only 21 percent think the United States should be a purely majoritarian democracy, a third look askance at compromise, and over half think the United States should be a direct democracy instead of a representative one. When asked if they were satisfied with democratic processes in 2020, only 61 percent said yes.

A bar graph of the percent of positive responses for different beliefs about political systems and democratic processes.Description

Figure 1-5 Beliefs About Political Systems and Democratic Processes, 2017 and 2020

Source: 2020 American National Election Studies, available at; 2017 World Values Survey, available at

World Values Survey: “I’m going to describe various types of political systems and ask what you think about each as a way of governing this country. For each one, would you say it is a very good, fairly good, fairly bad or very bad way of governing this country? Having a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament or elections; Having experts, not government, make decisions according to what they think is best for the country; Having a democratic political system.”

2020 ANES: “Having a strong leader in government is good for the United States even if the leader bends the rules to get things done”; “The people, and not politicians, should make our most important policy decisions”; “The will of the majority should always prevail, even over the rights of minorities”; “On the whole, are you very satisfied, fairly satisfied, not very satisfied, or not at all satisfied with the way democracy works in the United States?”

Some of Americans’ preferred processes raise practical concerns. How is the will of the majority determined? If people had to make all of the important decisions, how would they find the time to become knowledgeable about the issues, how would their voices and votes be tallied, and what decision rule (plurality, simple majority, or supermajority) would be used to determine the outcome? These preferences also raise questions about Americans’ commitment to principles that are foundational to American democracy, such as minority rights and separation of powers. Questions must also be raised about the compatibility of some of these opinions. For example, a preference for having the people decide appears to be inconsistent with the preference for having a strong leader who presumably makes the decisions. There would be no inconsistency, however, if people who agreed with one option disagreed with the other. Table 1-1 provides evidence that about a third of Americans hold consistent attitudes: 25 percent liked the idea of the people deciding policy and opposed having a strong leader, and 6 percent liked the strong leader idea and did not think the people should decide. The 21 percent who agreed with both options hold inconsistent attitudes. They both want to have people make the important decisions and want to have a strong leader who would presumably be making the decisions. Perhaps the people who agree with both options just want anything but the current system. Interestingly, only 11.5 percent of the respondents are consistent supporters of the current American political system (not wanting a strong leader and not wanting the people to directly decide important policies).

Table 1-1

Source: 2020 American National Election Studies, available at

Note: Cell entries are total percentages.

The sustainability of the political system rests in part on Americans choosing democracy over the alternatives. Two things could cause worry in this regard. First, if the most pro-democracy citizens are older and those less supportive of democracy are younger, then the trajectory might lead to a less democratic America over time. Using the World Values Survey data from 2017, Figure 1-6 breaks down support for democratic and undemocratic systems by age. While a vast majority of Americans say that a democratic system is very or fairly good, those under thirty years of age are significantly less positive about democracy than people fifty and older. Younger people have spent their whole lives in a time of extreme polarization, diminishing government efforts, and debilitating crises (including the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001). Older people, in contrast, lived through major accomplishments, including World War II, the tremendous expansion of the U.S. economy, the civil rights movement, and so on. They also were more directly aware of what can result from having strong leaders who do not have to play by the rules of the game, including Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Having decisions made by undemocratic experts or strong leaders might look appealing when the gridlock in Washington appears so intractable, but history provides numerous examples of the horrific outcomes that can come from these types of leaders.

A clustered bar graph of the beliefs about political systems by age in 2017.Description

Figure 1-6 Beliefs About Political Systems by Age, 2017

Source: 2017 World Values Survey, available at

Second, having a segment of the population support undemocratic alternatives is not likely to undermine the democratic system if these preferences are located in small fringe parties or are spread across the two major parties. Third parties have a difficult time gaining traction in the two-party system, and most often have an impact on policies when a major party picks up their cause. The real problem arises if one of the major parties chooses not to support democratic processes. In 2020, Trump refused to say he would support the peaceful transfer of power if he lost the election. After the election, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said on Fox News, “If Republicans don’t challenge and change the U.S. election system, there will never be another Republican president elected again.”51 If these individuals reflect the preferences of Republicans as a group not to accept basic democratic processes, then the undermining of American democracy is more likely. Democracy itself becomes a polarized issue, and no longer is part of the foundational beliefs upon which the American political system rests. Figure 1-7 shows the breakdown of support for democratic and undemocratic processes by party identification. Partisans on both sides of the aisle overwhelmingly support having a democratic political system (94 percent of Democrats and 81 percent of Republicans). There is also not a big difference between Democrats and Republicans in their support for having experts make the decisions, although over half of Democrats support this approach. The biggest difference is in support of a strong leader making decisions without the democratic controls of a popularly elected legislature or elections themselves. Almost half of Republicans (46 percent) like this approach, compared to under a third of Democrats (29 percent). If support for democracy becomes more polarized, American democracy may well be in trouble.

A clustered bar graph of the beliefs about political systems by party in 2017.Description

Figure 1-7 Beliefs About Political Systems by Party, 2017

Source: 2017 World Values Survey, available at


Belief in democratic ideals is essential to the preservation of a democratic system, both because such beliefs inhibit citizens from undemocratic actions and because the public will demand proper behavior on the part of political leaders. Belief that the system and its leaders meet democratic expectations in adhering to democratic procedures and responding to the wishes of the public is also important. A third factor is perhaps less obvious. A democratic system must meet some standard for effectiveness in solving societal problems. If not, the public may conclude that democracy does not work, and that some other form of government—such as a dictatorship—is needed to maintain order, fend off an enemy, or provide economic well-being.

The United States is facing some big challenges at this point in its history. The threat of a terrorist attack looms constantly. America’s education system is less competitive internationally than was historically the case. The economy, while strengthening, remains weaker than most Americans would like. Income inequality is increasing at dramatic rates. The Gini coefficient, which measures gross income inequality, has been increasing dramatically and is higher in the United States than in other G7 nations (0.434 in 2018). The gap in wealth between upper-income and lower-income families has similarly increased. In 1983, lower-income families held 7 percent and upper-income families held 60 percent of U.S. aggregate wealth. By 2016, lower-income wealth dropped to 4 percent while upper-income wealth increased to 79 percent. The hardest-hit group, though, is middle-income Americans, who dropped from holding 32 percent of aggregate wealth in 1983 to holding only 17 percent in 2016.52 With all of these challenges, the government’s ability to deal with such problems is hampered by the polarization that currently grips Washington. This polarization is based not simply on the parties trying to win political points but on deep-seated differences between the parties on how best to handle the problems. The unwillingness of political leaders to hammer out compromise solutions with the opposition, and the increased tendency of voters to throw out incumbents willing to compromise in primary elections, leads to stalemate.

Given the lack of sophistication in the public’s understanding of democratic values and procedures, the declining levels of trust in government and in elections, and the increased support for undemocratic alternatives, some uneasiness emerges about public support for American democracy—and perhaps for any democratic regime. Democratic theory implies that the public should demand values and procedures embodying democratic principles. The hope or expectation is that the public in a democratic society will insist on certain values and processes. Leaders’ positive support for a political system is also essential to its existence. If some leaders are willing to oppose the democratic system, it is crucial that few people are open to their appeal.

Study Questions

1. What makes for free and fair elections? Was the 2020 election free and fair given the evidence?

2. What is it about government that people don’t trust? Why should we care about the decline in trust?

3. Does the American public support democracy as a form of government?

Suggested Readings

Achen, Christopher H., and Larry M. Bartels. Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016. An important book on the influence of identities and party loyalties and the potential of democratic governance.

Almond, Gabriel, and Sidney Verba. The Civic Culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963. A classic study of political culture in five nations, including the United States.

Herrnson, Paul S., Richard G. Niemi, Michael J. Hanmer, Benjamin B. Bederson, Frederick G. Conrad, and Michael Traugott. Voting Technology: The Not-So-Simple Act of Casting a Ballot. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2008. An in-depth look at voting systems and their impact on voters’ ability to vote as they intended and their confidence in voting.

Hetherington, Marc J. Why Trust Matters: Declining Political Trust and the Demise of American Liberalism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005. An important study of the policy implications of declining trust.

Hibbing, John R., and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse. Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs About How Government Should Work. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2002. A provocative analysis of the public’s attitudes toward American political processes.

Marcus, George E., John L. Sullivan, Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, and Sandra L. Wood. With Malice Toward Some. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995. An in-depth study of the public’s tolerance of unpopular groups.

McClosky, Herbert, and John Zaller. The American Ethos. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984. An analysis of the public’s attitudes toward democracy and capitalism.

Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000. An analysis of the decline of participation in civic affairs.

Skocpol, Theda, and Morris P. Fiorina, eds. Civic Engagement in American Democracy. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1999. A collection of readings on civic engagement in historical perspective.

Stimson, James A. The Tides of Consent: How Public Opinion Shapes American Politics. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Mainly about policy views and their impact, but also an interesting discussion of trust in government.

Verba, Sidney, Kay L. Schlozman, and Henry E. Brady. Voice and Equality: Civic Voluntarism in American Politics. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995. A survey of various forms of political participation, their determinants, and their impact on representative democracy.

Internet Resources

The website of the American National Election Studies,, offers extensive data on topics covered in this and other chapters. Click on the Resources menu and then choose “Guide to Public Opinion and Electoral Behavior.” Scroll down to “Support for the Political System.” Some of the attitudinal data cover 1952 to the present. For every political item, there is a breakdown for each social characteristic in every election year.

If you have access through your school, go to and click on Search iPOLL menu. Follow the sign-in instructions to search the hundreds—perhaps thousands—of items related to political culture from surveys taken from the 1930s to the present.


1. Matea Gold, “President Trump Tells the FEC He Qualifies as a Candidate for 2020,” Washington Post, January 21, 2017,

2. Derrick Bryson Taylor, “A Timeline of the Coronavirus Pandemic,” New York Times, January 10, 2021,

3. Evan Hill, Ainara Tiefenthäler, Christiaan Triebert, Drew Jordan, Haley Willis, and Robin Stein, “How George Floyd Was Killed in Police Custody,” New York Times, May 31, 2020, updated February 23, 2021,

4. Larry Buchanan, Quoctrung Bui, and Jugal K. Patel, “Black Lives Matter May Be the Largest Movement in U.S. History,” New York Times, July 3, 2020,

5. Ibid.

6. “A Summary of the 2020 Election: Survey on the Performance of American Elections,” MIT Election Lab, January 22, 2021,

7. Nathaniel Rakich and Jasmine Mithani, “What Absentee Voting Looked Like in All 50 States,” FiveThirtyEight (blog), February 9, 2021,

8. Miles Parks, “Fact Check: Trump Spreads Unfounded Claims About Voting by Mail,” NPR, June 22, 2020,

9. Terrance Smith, “Trump Has Longstanding History of Calling Elections ‘Rigged’ If He Doesn’t Like the Results,” ABC News, November 11, 2020,

10. “U.S. Election 2020: Fact-Checking Trump Team’s Main Fraud Claims,” BBC News, November 23, 2020,

11. Jim Rutenberg, Nick Corasaniti, and Alan Feuer, “Trump’s Fraud Claims Died in Court, but the Myth of Stolen Elections Lives On,” New York Times, December 26, 2020, updated January 7, 2021,

12. Brian Naylor, “Read Trump’s Jan. 6 Speech, a Key Part of Impeachment Trial,” NPR, February 10, 2021,

13. Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, “Police Brush Back Protesters During Clash,” New York Times, January 6, 2021,

14. Cline Center for Advanced Social Research, “It Was an Attempted Coup: The Cline Center’s Coup D’état Project Categorizes the January 6, 2021 Assault on the US Capitol,” University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Researchers at the Cline Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have classified the January 6, 2021, storming of the U.S. Capitol as an attempted coup because of the attempt by the perpetrators to disrupt the constitutional transition process and to keep the legally elected president, Joe Biden, from taking power. We use their recommended term, attempted dissident coup, when talking about the January 6 events.

15. Robert A. Dahl, On Democracy (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 85.

16. Smith, “Trump Has Longstanding History of Calling Elections ‘Rigged.’”

17. “Official 2020 Presidential General Election Results,” Federal Election Commission, January 28, 2021,

18. The Electoral College votes for each of these states were 11 (Arizona), 16 (Georgia), and 10 (Wisconsin).

19. Rutenberg et al., “Trump’s Fraud Claims Died in Court.”

20. Hope Yen, Ali Swenson, and Amanda Seitz, “AP Fact Check: Trump’s Claims of Vote Rigging Are All Wrong,” AP News, December 3, 2020,

21. Nick Corasaniti, Reid J. Epstein, and Jim Rutenberg, “The Times Called Officials in Every State: No Evidence of Voter Fraud,” New York Times, November 10, 2020, updated November 19, 2020,

22. Michael Balsamo, “Disputing Trump, Barr Says No Widespread Election Fraud,” AP News, December 1, 2020,

23. “Election Fraud Cases,” The Heritage Foundation, accessed March 16, 2021,

24. Andrew C. Eggers, Haritz Garro, and Justin Grimmer, “Comment on ‘A Simple Test for the Extent of Voter Fraud With Absentee Ballots in the 2020 Election,’” Hoover Institution, January 4, 2021,

25. Ray Christensen and Thomas J. Schultz, “Identifying Election Fraud Using Orphan and Low Propensity Voters,” American Politics Research 42, no. 2 (2014): 311–337, p. 313; see also David Cotrell, Michael C. Herron, and Sean Westwood, “An Exploration of Donald Trump’s Allegations of Massive Voter Fraud in the 2016 General Election,” Electoral Studies 51 (2018): 123–142.

26. “More Americans Happy About Trump Loss Than Biden Win,” Monmouth University Polling Institute, November 18, 2020,

27. Jack Citrin and Christopher Muste, “Trust in Government,” in Measures of Political Attitudes, vol. 2, eds. J. P. Robinson, P. R. Shaver, and L. S. Wrightman (San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 1999), 465–532.

28. Russell Hardin, “Do We Want Trust in Government?,” in Democracy and Trust, ed. M. E. Warren (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 22–41.

29. “Confidence in Institutions,” Gallup, accessed June 25, 2021, The data for the earlier years were from 1975. The most recent data are from 2020.

30. See, for example, Russell J. Dalton, “Political Trust in North America,” in Handbook on Political Trust, eds. Sonia Zmerli and Tom W. G. van der Meer (Cheltenham, England: Edward Elgar, 2017), 375–394.

31. Lisa Rein and Ed O’Keefe, “New Post Poll Finds Negativity Toward Federal Workers,” Washington Post, October 18, 2010,

32. “Public Expresses Favorable Views of a Number of Federal Agencies,” Pew Research Center, October 1, 2019,

33. “Congress and the Public,” Gallup, accessed June 25, 2021, Data are taken from a September 9–13, 2015, poll.

34. Richard Fenno, Home Style (New York: Addison-Wesley, 2003 [1977]), 59.

35. Diana C. Mutz and Byron Reeves, “The New Videomalaise: Effects of Televised Incivility on Political Trust,” American Political Science Review (February 2005): 1–15; Diana C. Mutz, In-Your-Face Politics: The Consequences of Uncivil Media (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015); Eran N. Ben-Porath, “Interview Effects: Theory and Evidence for the Impact of Televised Political Interviews on Viewer Attitudes,” Communication Theory (August 2010): 323–347.

36. See, for example, Ken Newton, “Political Trust and the Mass Media,” in Handbook on Political Trust, eds. Sonja Zmerli and Tom W. G. van der Meer (Cheltenham, England: Edward Elgar, 2017), 353–372, for a good overview of these arguments.

37. See, for example, Pippa Norris, A Virtuous Circle: Political Communications in Postindustrial Societies (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Doris A. Graber, Processing Politics: Learning From Television in the Internet Age (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001); Dhavan V. Shah, “Civic Engagement, Interpersonal Trust and Television Use: An Individual-Level Assessment of Social Capital,” Political Psychology (September 1998): 469–496.

38. Fenno, Home Style, 914.

39. David W. Brady and Sean M. Theriault, “A Reassessment of Who’s to Blame: A Positive Case for the Public Evaluation of Congress,” in What Is It About Government That Americans Dislike?, eds. John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 175–192.

40. Marc J. Hetherington, Why Trust Matters (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 48.

41. Ibid., 53.

42. Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, Dona-Gene Barton, and Michael W. Wagner, “Political Trust in Polarized Times,” in Motivating Cooperation and Compliance With Authority: The Role of Institutional Trust, Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, vol. 62, eds. B. H. Bornstein and A. Tomkins (New York: Springer, 2015).

43. For the major study of the 1950s, see Samuel Stouffer, Communism, Conformity, and Civil Liberties (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1955). See also James W. Prothro and Charles M. Grigg, “Fundamental Principles of Democracy: Bases of Agreement and Disagreement,” Journal of Politics 22 (May 1960): 276–294; John L. Sullivan, James Piereson, and George E. Marcus, Political Tolerance and American Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).

44. Leonie Huddy, Stanley Feldman, Charles Taber, and Gallya Lahav, “Threat, Anxiety, and Support of Antiterrorism Policies,” American Journal of Political Science 49 (July 2005): 593–608.

45. “Civil Liberties,” Gallup, accessed June 25, 2021,

46. Alexander Burns and Nick Corasaniti, “Donald Trump’s Other Campaign Foe: The ‘Lowest Form of Life’ News Media,” New York Times, August 12, 2016,; Manuel Roig-Franzia and Sarah Ellison, “A History of the Trump War on Media—The Obsession Not Even Coronavirus Could Stop,” Washington Post, March 29, 2020,

47. Adam Liptak, “Can Trump Change Libel Laws?” New York Times, March 30, 2017,

48. “Large Majorities See Checks and Balances, Right to Protest as Essential for Democracy,” Pew Research Center, March 2, 2017,

49. “As Election Nears, Voters Divided Over Democracy and ‘Respect,’” Pew Research Center, October 27, 2016,

50. In the 1994–1998 World Values Survey, 90 percent of Americans were positive about democracy, 37 percent were positive about experts making decisions, and 25 percent were positive about a strong leader making decisions.

51. Stephanie Saul, “Lindsey Graham’s Long-Shot Mission to Unravel the Election Results,” New York Times, November 17, 2020,

52. Juliana Menasce Horowitz, Ruth Igielnik, and Rakesh Kochhar, “Trends in Income and Wealth Inequality,” Pew Research Center, January 9, 2020,

Descriptions of Images and Figures

Back to Figure

The horizontal axis shows years, namely, 2016 and 2020. The vertical axis shows percent most or all of the time and ranges from 0 to 100 in increments of 20. The data from the graph are tabulated below.

Back to Figure

The horizontal axis shows 2016 and 2020. The vertical axis ranges from 0 to 100 in increments of 20. The data from the graph are tabulated below.

Back to Figure

The horizontal axis ranges from 1964 to 2020. The vertical axis is labeled percent and ranges from 0 to 80 in increments of 10. The approximate data from the graph are tabulated below.

Back to Figure

The horizontal axis ranges from 1964 to 2020. The vertical axis ranges from 0 to 100 in increments of 10. The approximate data from the graph are tabulated below.

Back to Figure

The horizontal axis shows different beliefs. The vertical axis shows percent of positive responses and ranges from 0 to 100 in increments of 20. The data from the graph are tabulated below.

Back to Figure

The horizontal axis shows beliefs about political systems. The vertical axis shows percent who say very or fairly good and ranges from 0 to 100 in increments of 20. The data from the graph are tabulated below.

Back to Figure

The horizontal axis shows beliefs about political systems. The vertical axis shows percent who say very or fairly good and ranges from 0 to 100 in increments of 20. The data from the graph are tabulated below.

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