Why Democrats have to win large majorities in order to govern while Republicans don’t need majorities at all
“In a highly polarized environment, partisanship gets in the way of democratic ideals,” Meng said. “If your person is being very antidemocratic, but you perceive that politics is just hyperpolarized, you’re going to value just keeping your guy in power over the health of the democracy.” Even a partisan power grab can gain a false veneer of democractic legitimacy, Meng told us, when leaders use democratic procedures to pass it. “Voters might be like, ‘Well, they got this passed through the legislature … That seems OK’” — especially if the party passing it is “your guy.” In other words, Republican voters might support democracy in the abstract, but their loyalty and trust in their team can override that.
Indeed, despite all the suggestions that Republicans may have abandoned their commitment to democracy, a Jan. 28-Feb. 8 poll from Bright Line Watch, a group of academics who study democratic backsliding, found that 81 percent of Republicans still said democracy was a good form of government. However, according to one of the political scientists behind Bright Line Watch, the University of Rochester’s Gretchen Helmke, while the two parties might still largely agree that democratic principles are important (94 percent of Democrats also said that democracy was a good form of government), they often have very different views on whether and how those principles have been violated.
One example is the share of Republicans who say they are not confident that votes in presidential elections are counted accurately when their candidate loses, something the Survey on the Performance of American Elections tracks after every election. And although this number was especially low after the 2020 election, it was true after 2012 too, suggesting these antidemocratic attitudes are a long-term problem for the GOP.
In part, though, this helps explain why voters who claim to support democracy actually support measures that would undermine it: They don’t think what’s happened is democratic. For example, Bright Line Watch found that Republicans were 11 percentage points less likely to vote for a GOP congressional candidate who voted to affirm the certification of Biden’s win. Other research has shown that, when polarization is high and the stakes feel as existential as they do now, voters are willing to abandon democratic principles to further their partisan interests and keep the other side out of power. According to Cyrus Samii, a professor of political science at New York University who studies ethnic conflict, “the sort of extreme partisanship that you see in response to legislative agendas seems to tie back to that fundamental conflict” over who “the people” in “we the people” ought to be.