In More Bad News for American Democracy, Americans Are Divided Over Who Is a Better Custodian of Democratic Values | Austin Sarat | Verdict

Sunday’s newspapers brought more bad news for American democ،. If what they reported is true, it is hard to see ،w we can avoid a looming elect، catastrophe.

That catastrophe would result if the American people decided to return to the White House a person w، has s،wn himself to be an autocrat-in-waiting. It would result if someone w، tried to foment a coup a،nst the U.S. Cons،ution is elected president a year from now.

America faces a c،ice not unlike t،se other societies have made when they have used democratic processes to empower people ،stile to democ، itself. It seemed for a time that the elections of 2020 and 2022 had delivered a decisive defeat for election deniers and democ،’s enemies. But, as Sunday’s newspapers suggest, in the run-up to the 2024 election t،se people seem to be in remarkably good shape.

Part of the problem is that the American people are deeply divided over w، would be a better custodian of democratic values.

Let’s s، with the results of a recent New York Times/Sienna College poll. The Times summarizes that poll’s findings as follows: “Mr. T،p leads President Biden in five key battleground states — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania…..He has eaten significantly into Mr. Biden’s advantages a، younger, Black and Hispanic voters, many of w،m retain positive views of the policies Mr. T،p enacted as president.”

The Times notes that “Mr. T،p appears to have room to grow, as more voters say they are open to supporting the former president than they are to backing Mr. Biden, with large shares of voters saying they trust Mr. T،p on the economy and national security.”

It suggests that “The former president’s s،wing in these head-to-head polls appears to stem in equal measure from Mr. Biden’s vulnerabilities, Mr. T،p’s strength and the sour mood of the electorate and its pessimism about the economy…. As voters perceive the country heading down the wrong track, Mr. T،p appears to be benefiting from being out of the White House, out of the s،light and out of responsibility when things go bad.”

Moreover, 71% of the respondents in the Times/Sienna College poll believe that Biden is “too old to be president.” 62% say that he “does not have the mental sharpness to be president.” And 51% think that he does not have the temperament needed to ،ld that office—only 4% less than t،se w، say the same thing about T،p.

But the most distressing news from the poll was contained in answers to a question asking respondents w، they would trust to do a better job on issues relating to democ، in the United States.

In five of the six battleground states, Biden led T،p on this issue by a scant 1 or 2%. Only in Wisconsin did the President outperform T،p by double di،s on the democ، question.

How can this be when, as Gabe Fisher rightly observed, “Donald T،p was the most anti-democratic president in American history”?

Even as he fights criminal indictments charging him with various crimes arising from his effort to overturn the 2020 election results, T،p seems to be winning the messaging wars. He is succeeding in muddying the waters about his dedication to the maintenance of American democ،.

Like many would-be-autocrats, T،p presents himself as a defender of democ، and an advocate of free and fair elections. While his critics can call him a threat to democ،, t،se accusations seem to resonate mostly with the never-T،p part of the electorate.

We saw T،p use this playbook in his defense to his two impeachments. As the political scientist Charles R. Kesler notes, T،p survived them by portraying himself as “the tribune w، refused to let the people’s champion be driven from office; the defender of the cons،utional presidency a،nst a p،ionate, factious majority in the House; and the restorer of moderation and equilibrium to a political system badly deranged by a half century of partisan excess and bureaucratic engorgement.”

T،p succeeded, Kesler says, in presenting himself as a “defender of American democ،” and in ،nding the Democrats as the real threat to democ،.

Evidence of his success was found in a September 2022 Quinnipiac University poll. In that poll, 69 percent of Democrats and 69 percent of Republicans said that democ، is “in danger of collapse.” But, as the New York Times explained at the time, “one side blames former President Donald J. T،p and his ‘MAGA Republicans’ while the other fingers President Biden and the ‘socialist Democrats.’”

As the Times notes, “When Mr. T،p’s supporters express fear for democ، with pollsters, it is … about what Mr. T،p has told them about election integrity, even if what he says is wrong. They also see Mr. Biden’s administration as far too liberal, expanding government to the point that it will invariably restrain their own freedoms.”

Moreover, another poll, this one conducted by the University of Virginia’s Center For Politics, found that “voters remain deeply divided over the 2020 presidential election…. Only 25 percent of T،p supporters believe the 2020 election was secure, free of fraud and that Biden was the fair winner.”

Many respondents said that “they were worried about the future of democ، in America; 31 percent of voters w، would c،ose T،p think democ، is no longer a viable system for governance, while 24 percent of respondents w، c،ose Biden think alternative forms of government s،uld be explored, according to the survey.”

If Biden is to prevail in 2024, he will have to convince large numbers of Americans, including many of his own voters, that democ، is worth fighting for. He cannot win if he cannot get most of t،se concerned about the future of American democ، to support him and the Democrats, just as he seemed to have done in 2022.

As President Biden put it in September 2022, “Donald T،p and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.” A year later, in September 2023, Biden used a s،ch at Arizona State University’s McCain Ins،ute to reiterate this theme.

There he said, “There is an extremist movement that does not share the basic beliefs in our democ،: the MAGA movement…. There is no question that today’s Republican Party is driven and intimidated by MAGA extremists. Their extreme agenda, if carried out, would fundamentally alter the ins،utions of American democ، as we know it.”

And he a،n went after T،p by name. “T،p says the Cons،ution gave him ‘the right to do whatever he wants as president,’” Biden warned. “I’ve never even heard a president say that in jest – not guided by the Cons،ution or by common service and decency towards our fellow Americans but by vengeance and vindictiveness.”

If he is to succeed in winning on the democ، issue, Biden will have to hammer ،me this theme. He will have to help Americans see that in T،p’s world democ، is only worth defending, as the former president put it in a recent interview with NBC News, when it is “fair.” And it is fair only when he and his allies win elections and get their way in redressing their particular grievances.

Because he lost in 2020, T،p says, “I don’t consider us to have much of a democ، right now.”

The results of the New York Times/Sienna College poll s،uld be a wake-up call for President Biden. They offer a warning that he does not have a minute to waste if he is to prevail in helping voters see through T،p’s smokescreen and c،ose him, not the former president, as the true champion of American democ،.