Trumpists want you to be cynical — it's how they'll destroy democracy

Polling data shows the reason Americans won't fight for democracy is they doubt it can be saved

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published October 20, 2022 6:00AM (EDT)

Voting booth against stormy sky (Getty Images/John M Lund Photography Inc)
Voting booth against stormy sky (Getty Images/John M Lund Photography Inc)

Everyone who is paying attention to politics knows it: The 2022 midterms may determine the fate of American democracy. If Republicans win key offices, especially gubernatorial and state secretary seats, they are prepared to steal the 2024 election for Donald Trump by invalidating and falsifying election results. Once he's installed illegally, Trump has signaled that he's going to fill his government with anti-democracy cronies, helping make sure a free and fair election is never held again in this country. As Heather "Digby" Parton noted Monday at Salon, issues like abortion rights and economic fairness are crucial, but "none of that will matter if these authoritarian, anti-democratic election deniers win their races." If Trump and his allies successfully end democracy, all avenues Americans have to protect their rights and solve economic problems will be shut down. 

And yet polling shows time and again that voters don't seem to care. With a poll that sent a traumatic shockwave through #Resistance Twitter Tuesday, the New York Times reported, "Voters overwhelmingly believe American democracy is under threat, but seem remarkably apathetic about that danger, with few calling it the nation's most pressing problem." Even though 71% of voters said democracy is at risk, only 7% identified that as the most pressing issue of the election. 

To be certain, the polling data is complex and difficult to parse. A big reason is the results are distorted by Republicans who are mad that Joe Biden won the presidency in 2020, and say therefore it's a sign democracy has failed. Some are arguing in bad faith and some really are deluded by the Big Lie, but either way, these aren't legitimate concerns about the state of democracy. On the contrary, Republican enthusiasm for voting for election deniers is a rejection of democracy in favor of rigging the system so they cannot lose, regardless of what rationalizations they prop up to defend their views. 

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But this isn't just a matter of Republicans justifying their attacks on democracy by claiming to defend democracy. The data shows that only 11% of Democrats and 9% of independents rate the state of democracy as their number one issue. That's compared to 35% of Democrats and 40% of independents who rank the economy as their top priority — even though solving economic problems will become much harder, if not impossible, without democracy. 

People don't care about democracy because they've been convinced it's already failed.

What's going on? Are people just that daft? No, the likelier — and sadder — possibility is that they are just cynical. People don't care about democracy because they've been convinced it's already failed or that it's not salvageable. Because of this, they've downscaled their expectations of what politics can do. 

Unfortunately, this is a very dangerous attitude to have. In a very real sense, the biggest threat to democracy isn't the authoritarians themselves, who still represent a minority of Americans. It's cynicism. It's people who don't think democracy can be saved and therefore won't spare the time to fight for what they believe is a hopeless cause. If one believes democratic collapse is inevitable, then it becomes a lot easier to vote for election-denying Republicans or just not vote at all. 

As Russian sociologist Greg Yudin told New York magazine in April, cynicism is the main tool Russian president Vladimir Putin uses to maintain power. "Russians are completely certain that there is no possible way to change anything through politics, that no change is possible in general," he explained, and "political activity is all just complete nonsense to a vast majority of Russians." Putin isn't popular. It's just that the population has no hope for change and so don't bother to fight back. Of course, the effects of that are immeasurably bad, as shown by the Ukrainian invasion that would have never happened if Russia had a real democracy. 

That Americans are sliding in that direction is unfortunately what the polling data suggests is happening. Another poll from the Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research released on Wednesday shows only 9% of Americans feel our democracy is working well. Even when you remove the distortion effect caused by Republicans who define "working well" as their party winning every time, the data is dispiriting. Only 15% of Democrats and 6% of independents think democracy is working well. Forty percent of Democrats and 49% of independents don't think it's working at all. 

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As Nate Cohn explained in his analysis of the New York Times polling, few people even mentioned the ongoing GOP efforts to destroy democracy when asked to identify the threats. Instead, most people, even Democrats, said the issue was corruption. Most voters were skeptical that voting translated into power to the people, in other words. "Overall, 68 percent of registered voters said the government 'mainly works to benefit powerful elites' rather than 'ordinary people,'" Cohn writes. This is true across party lines: 58% of Democrats, 75% of Republicans, and 69% of independents see the American government as fundamentally corrupt. 

When people feel like democracy is a rigged game and the bad guys win no matter what, it's hard not to turn nihilistic. That's a large part of how Trump won. His voters are indifferent to his off-the-charts corruption because they falsely believe all politicians are that corrupt. Trump merely offered a path for them to spite their perceived enemies and kick at people they view as lower than themselves. 

When people feel like democracy is a rigged game and the bad guys win no matter what, it's hard not to turn nihilistic.

Still, those folks have been and remain a minority of Americans. The larger issue is that most Americans, who are not spiteful, just check out entirely. They don't like Trump or Trumpists, but they also don't want to put effort into voting — why bother if it doesn't matter anyway? They have, unfortunately, good reasons to be cynical. Democrats won in 2020, and until recently, the filibuster tanked the vast majority of agenda items that the Biden administration wanted to pass. (There have been some improvements with the passing of a major climate change bill and the student loan forgiveness program.) Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has asserted itself as a right wing power that can impose its will over the democratic will of the people. Broad majorities of Americans want better gun control, better health care, reproductive rights and better voting laws. Almost none of that is possible, because our system has already been thoroughly corrupted. 

One reason authoritarianism is hard to fight once it gets entrenched is that it creates a vicious cycle. Under right wing leadership, corruption flourishes, and the will of the people is denied, which creates more skepticism about the utility of voting. That's why Republicans are bragging that they plan to force government shutdowns and gin up fake scandals if they get back in power, even though all of that is wildly unpopular with the public. Republicans, especially in the era of Trump, realize they don't need to be popular to win. All they need is for the majority of Americans to grow disgusted with politics to the point of checking out entirely. 

Of course, the irony of all this is that the people do, for now, have the power to change things. Even in 2022, the Biden administration managed, even with a slim majority, to pass a massive climate bill that will pay dividends for years. If more people vote, then more good politicians would be elected and more bills would likely pass. In a very real way, the cynicism of American voters is a self-inflicted wound. But it's in the interest of Trump and his allies to never see it heal. They'll never get the majority of Americans to agree with them. All they can do is get a majority of Americans to give up fighting them. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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