6 in 10 Americans say U.S. democracy is in crisis as the 'Big Lie' takes root
One year after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, Americans are deeply pessimistic about the future of democracy.
A new NPR/Ipsos poll finds that 64% of Americans believe U.S. democracy is "in crisis and at risk of failing." That sentiment is felt most acutely by Republicans: Two-thirds of GOP respondents agree with the verifiably false claim that "voter fraud helped Joe Biden win the 2020 election" — a key pillar of the "Big Lie" that the election was stolen from former President Donald Trump.
Fewer than half of Republicans say they are willing to accept the results of the 2020 election — a number that has remained virtually unchanged since we asked the same question last January.
"There is really a sort of dual reality through which partisans are approaching not only what happened a year ago on Jan. 6, but also generally with our presidential election and our democracy," said Mallory Newall, a vice president at Ipsos, which conducted the poll.
"It is Republicans that are driving this belief that there was major fraudulent voting and it changed the results in the election," Newall said.
Nearly two-thirds of poll respondents agree that U.S. democracy is "more at risk" now than it was a year ago. Among Republicans, that number climbs to 4 in 5.
Overall, 70% of poll respondents agree that the country is in crisis and at risk of failing.
Deep partisan divisions about what happened on Jan. 6
The country can't even decide what to call the assault on the Capitol. Only 6% of poll respondents say it was "a reasonable protest" — but there is little agreement on a better description. More than half of Democrats say the Jan. 6 assault was an "attempted coup or insurrection," while Republicans are more likely to describe it as a "riot that got out of control."
Americans are bitterly divided over the events that led to Jan. 6, as well.
"I think the Democrats rigged the election," said Stephen Weber, a Republican from Woonsocket, R.I. "And who the hell would vote for Biden?"
More than 81 million people voted for Biden, compared with more than 74 million for Trump. Biden won with 306 electoral votes to 232 for Trump.
But Weber is skeptical. In a follow-up interview, Weber said he doesn't trust mail-in voting and doesn't believe that Democratic lawmakers have the country's best interests at heart.
"They want to change it to something else. We don't want it changed," he said.
Democrats also expressed dismay about the state of democracy — but for very different reasons. In follow-up interviews, they voiced concern about voting restrictions passed by Republican-controlled state legislatures in the wake of the 2020 election. And they struggled to make sense of the persistent belief in the fiction that Trump won.
"When Trump first came out with his 'big lie,' it just never occurred to me that so many Republicans would jump on board," said Susan Leonard of Lyme, N.H.
"It's like a group mental illness has hit these people," said Leonard. "I cannot believe this is happening in our country. I'm scared, I really am."
Republican support for false claims is remarkably stable
The poll found that support for false claims about election fraud and the Jan. 6 attack have been remarkably stable over time.
For example, one-third of Trump voters say the attack on the Capitol was actually carried out by "opponents of Donald Trump, including antifa and government agents" — a baseless conspiracy theory that has been promoted by conservative media since the attack, even though it has been debunked.
"They probably had some antifa people, or they paid those people to do that and try to say that it was Trump's people," said Krissy Cripps, a Republican from Carterville, Ill., in a follow-up interview. Cripps said without evidence that the Democratic National Committee was likely responsible for the false flag operation.
Claims of major fraud that affected the results of the election have also been widely disproved. But large numbers of Republican voters remain unmoved.
Heidi Kravitz remembers watching Trump's lawyer, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, at a news conference shortly after the election.
"He had a stack of papers as evidence," said Kravitz, a Republican from Salem, Ore., in a follow-up interview. "And I was just like, 'OK, well, then why don't we at least check that?' Like if there's nothing to hide and if it is not true, then why don't we just check it?"
Giuliani did appear in federal court for the first time in decades, asking a judge to block the certification of votes in Pennsylvania. That case was quickly dismissed for lack of evidence.
A New York court later suspended Giuliani's law license in the state due to "false and misleading statements" about Trump's 2020 election loss. Giuliani now faces a billion-dollar defamation lawsuit filed by Dominion Voting Systems over baseless claims of widespread election fraud.
Democrats want more accountability for Jan. 6
The poll found widely diverging views of Trump's role in the lead-up to Jan. 6. Two-thirds of Democrats agreed that "Trump and his allies broke the law trying to overturn the election," while most Republicans believe they were "exercising their correct legal right to contest the election," or that they "did not go far enough."
In follow-up interviews, Democrats expressed frustration with what they see as the slow pace of the House select committee that is investigating the Jan. 6 attack. And some voiced disappointment with the length of the sentences handed down so far for those convicted of participating in the attack on the Capitol.
"They need to be held accountable," said Stafford Keels, a Democratic voter from Florence, S.C. Keels says that includes anyone who helped organize the events — all the way up to the former president.
"Trump and the rest of those guys should be in jail more than the rioters," Keels said in an interview. "The rioters should be doing years. But they're the ones who pushed the lie."
Few Americans of any political stripe seem to be paying much attention to changes in voting laws at the state level.
We asked about efforts to reduce access to absentee ballots and early voting, and to give state legislatures more power to determine the outcomes of elections. Majorities of voters on both sides of the aisle said that would make elections less fair, not more.
There was somewhat more support for election reform at the federal level. A proposal to standardize election rules across states drew support from a majority of Republicans and Democrats. The idea of allowing any voter to use a mail-in ballot was popular among Democrats, but not Republicans.
A majority of Americans rule out political violence — but a minority does not
The poll found that a majority of Republicans and Democrats alike reject political violence.
"In a way, it is reassuring to see that the system hasn't totally broken down," said Newall, "that most Americans on both sides of the aisle are still not willing to engage in violence."
But more than 1 in 5 poll respondents say violence is sometimes justified — either to protect democracy or American culture and values.
Republicans were slightly more likely than Democrats to agree that "it is OK to engage in violence to protect American democracy"; 32% of Trump voters agreed, compared with 22% of Biden voters.
The poll was conducted Dec. 17-20, 2021, with a sample of 1,126 adults online in English. The poll has a credibility interval of plus or minus 3.3 percentage points for all respondents.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.