In the United States, the people want democracy. In fact, recent work by the Pew Research Center finds that “while Americans generally agree on democratic ideals and values […] they see the country fall well short in living up to these ideals” about democratic governance.  Today, the American people urge their government to preserve the country’s long-lived democratic traditions, and yet these same Americans discredit the political establishment that they’ve put in charge of maintaining democracy in America. If the government cannot ensure democracy for its people, who can?
Perhaps the most obvious answer is the people themselves, and yet questions remain about the people’s ability to do just that. Do Americans have a good hold on what democracy is? If so, do their political actions (i.e. how they vote) align with their value of democratic preservation? And if not, why do Americans put up with undemocratic principles if their political desires are expressly democratic?
Matthew H. Graham and Milan W. Svolik address these questions in a recent experiment about how Americans’ voting preferences align with their political interests and with their belief in preserving the integrity of democracy. Before discussing whether Americans support and defend democracy and its institutions, it is important to know whether Americans understand democracy itself. In their experiment, Graham and Svolik assure that “the majority of [their] respondents correctly distinguish real-world undemocratic practices” and, at least in the abstract, can recognize ways in which the principle ideas of democracy can be disrupted by politicians working within those same democratic frameworks. This question is integral to understanding how Americans themselves conceptualize whether their political actions are in line with democracy. If Americans do not understand what democracy is — and, perhaps more important, what it is not — then how could they determine which policies are democratic and which are not? Graham and Svolik demonstrate that, at least in their sample, Americans have a solid understanding of what democracy is. In light of this, we can take American’s political decisions, particularly which candidates they vote for, to be informed as to whether their political choices align with preserving and indeed enforcing democracy.
Knowing this, do Americans prioritize democratic principles in their voting choices even when doing so saliently interferes with voting for their political interests? Graham and Svolik explore this question via an experimental design where subjects are given a choice between two candidates of opposing political parties, one of which aligns with the respondent’s own party. Respondents were given information about the candidates’ proposed social and economic policies. One of the choice of candidates had proposed policies that were undemocratic in nature. How did participants react? Graham and Svolik found that only 13.1% of their respondents were “willing to punish a co-partisan for violating democratic principles by voting against their own parties,” demonstrating a persistent trend for Americans to prioritize political interests when voting, even when doing so enables the disruption of democracy in the United States. For Americans, participating in politics equates to proliferating their interests by supporting their party. And yet, doing so can have severe implications when supporting candidates of one’s party on the basis of prioritizing one’s own interests gives way to allowing undemocratic actions and attitudes to seep into the American political establishment.
This brings me to my most important question: why do Americans put up with candidates with undemocratic principles if their most basic ideological desires are democratic? As Graham and Svolik suggest, the desire to see one’s political interests advance is one clear reason for why Americans increasingly put up with candidates whose policies do not align with, or in some instances clearly interfere with the essence of democracy. But is there more? As a possible way to further understand this, I argue that the increasing polarization in the American political landscape is another explanation for why Americans will overlook co-partisans undemocratic policies when voting.
American politics are more polarized today than ever before. Such polarization, particularly between the Democratic and Republican parties, has shifted the ways in which Americans conceptualize politics and indeed how they make political decisions — how they vote. Beyond matters of policy and ideology, Democrats and Republicans increasingly argue about how each other is “a threat to the nation’s well-being;” a 2014 Pew Research Center study showed that 27% of Democrats and 36% of Republicans believed that the opposing party constitutes “a threat to the nation’s well-being.”  Polarization has not slowed down, and instead has likely become more rampant since Trump’s election in 2016 and during this most recent election cycle. Moreover, such political polarization becomes more evident as American politics becomes more personal and about complicated and controversial social issues that the American votes have an increasing emotional stake in. 
Ultimately, I argue that this rampant polarization in American politics sheds some light on why, as Graham and Svolik demonstrate in their recent study, Americans are largely unwilling to punish their co-partisans for adopting undemocratic policies. Despite an American tradition and culture that maintains democracy as the pinnacle of good governance, most Americans today will not take the risk of voting against their co-partisans for fear that a candidate of the opposing party poses an inherently greater risk to the American way of life and government. The irony, of course, is that this attitude persists even when it is those same co-partisans’ undemocratic ideals that threaten America’s democratic institutions. As the political parties in the United States polarize further, the American people find it increasingly harder to look beyond their own partisan identities. This polarization makes it so that, even if a co-partisan’s policies would be clearly undemocratic, Americans seem to believe that to vote against their own party is to abandon the totality of their believes, something that is too much to ask of the American voter.
 Dimock, Michael. “How Americans View Trust, Facts, and Democracy Today,” Pew Research Center, 2020. https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/trust/archive/winter-2020/how-americans-view-trust-facts-and-democracy-today
 Graham, Michael H. and Milan W. Svolik. “Democracy in America? Partisanship, Polarization, and the Robustness of Support for Democracy in the United States,” American Political Science Review, 2020, p. 393.
 Ibid., p. 400.
 Pew Research Center. “Political Polarization in the American Public.” Pew Research Center U.S. Politics & Policy, 2014. https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2014/06/12/political-polarization-in-the-american-public/