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Large numbers on both sides do not trust the legitimacy of the other side, starting with its electoral victories.

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Editor’s Note: WhoWhatWhy has asked a select group of experts and observers to weigh in on where America is at and where it may be headed with regard to the health and function of its democracy. This essay, the first of our series, presents the views of John Zogby, who has been a prominent pollster with his finger on the nation’s cultural and political pulses since 1984.

The threats to democracy worldwide are very real and not to be dismissed. In addition to enabling more formal alliances among autocratic powers like China, Russia, and Iran, there has been an ascendancy of ultra-right regimes and parties in places as diverse as Italy, Turkey, Hungary, Sweden, India, Israel, and France. Even Tennessee, for that matter. 

This provides a global context for the dangers the United States faces with Trumpism. There is less of a cushion for the supporters of democratic institutions and governance to rely upon and, in turn, the US no longer can represent itself as a governance role model to others. 

This threat is not new. Following the disputed US election of 2000, Zogby International was commissioned to conduct a poll by Reuters. We asked those who had voted for George W. Bush and Al Gore how they would feel if the other side were declared the winner. The results 23 years ago were stunning. Among Gore supporters, 47 percent acknowledged that Bush would be the legitimately elected president, while 30 percent felt the election would be stolen. On the other hand, among Bush voters, only 21 percent said Gore would be legitimate. 

Let’s understand this fully. Our findings did not merely suggest opposition or dislike, these voters were saying that they would not accept the results of the election. Notable, as well, was the strong partisan differential: Bush voters were significantly less accepting. It was an actual challenge to our democracy. And it was a precursor to the very position we find ourselves in now. 

There are broader reasons for this. Culturally, we appear to be hopelessly split, no longer the national community desired by James Madison and other Founding Fathers. In a December 2003 poll, Zogby International asked a series of questions about hot-button issues as well as values and behaviors. 

Splitting American voters into red-state Bush voters and blue-state Gore voters, we discovered that the red-state voters were far more likely to consider abortion to be a form of manslaughter, while the blue-state voters tipped well in favor of a woman’s right to choose. Sixty-one percent of Reds owned a gun, compared to only 37 percent of Blues. By two to one, Reds saw God as an all-powerful force who governed humanity, while Blues by the same margin were more likely to see God as the “watchmaker” who created and then let nature take over from there. 

We are different, we live in our own boxes, and congressional gerrymandering — which tends to result in a greater number of “safe” seats whose occupants can comfortably wax extreme without risk of electoral punishment — does not help foster an atmosphere of civil discussion on matters of dispute.  

On top of that, there have been tectonic changes in the lives of Americans that have caused serious disruptions and fear of both the present and future. Financially, many Americans have suffered layoffs and often work more jobs for less pay than in previous economies. Increasing artificial intelligence in the workplace will only expand the sense of insecurity about the future. 

Culturally, many of the white middle class no longer look out their windows and see the sea of white faces that once dominated their neighborhoods, communities, schools, and workplaces. Parents, already deeply concerned about the safety and values of their children, are puzzled and worried about new gender identities and marital structures.  

It is for many people a lot to handle and, combined with the flood of changes on multiple fronts, only compounds these fears. Enter Donald Trump. 

Channeling a movement that began with Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan and was broadened and further radicalized by the Tea Party of the early 2010s, Trump has brought a well-honed outsized persona, a means of dominating the news, and simplistic explanations to the political landscape. 

I call Trump the “Great First Letter.” You know, that letter you write in the middle of the night that is filled with your darkest thoughts: losing a job, blamed for something you didn’t do, recalling being bullied, things in your life that spun out of your control. You are angry and are taking it out on the world. Best advice is that, once you have vented, you crumple up that letter then go to bed. 

Trump is that first letter. He vents it all for angry and anxious folks, out in the open. He has such contempt for everything that he brags about violating all of the rules and winning. His supporters want to be like him. He is their steward. 

But he brings out the very worst angels of our nature. Record numbers of Americans simply do not trust any of our institutions — government, political parties (at least the other one), organized religion, the Boy Scouts, higher education, pollsters, the media (at least the other side’s media), and many others. 

Yes, our democracy is being threatened. This is the most serious challenge since the Civil War because the loudest voices on either side will not accept the legitimacy of the other side. 

While these all have done a lot on their own to generate mistrust, the political system is the one over which voters have control. We are now two warring camps, each hating the other. This sentiment has festered to the point where large numbers on both sides do not trust a majority vote and are willing to deny the legitimacy of the other side, starting with its electoral victories. 

Polling has actually done a good job of capturing all of this. And pollsters have been getting elections more right than wrong. But, for many, the only “good polls” are the ones that agree with “me.” And partisan pundits have done a good job of generating one-dimensional feelings about polls. 

Yes, our democracy is being threatened. This is the most serious challenge since the Civil War because the loudest voices on either side will not accept the legitimacy of the other side. 

There is a flicker of hope from our immediate past: There were MAGA candidates who denied the results of the election of 2020 but conceded their own defeat in 2022. And a large flame of future hope burns brightly, as I have faith in Millennials and Gen Z, who are less steeped in the old dichotomous wars. 

Their tabula rasa on these matters will allow them to move forward with different, less hierarchical forms of problem-solving and consensus-building. It will be better. But it will get much worse in the meantime. 

John Zogby is senior partner at John Zogby Strategies with his sons, Benjamin and Jeremy. He has polled for Fortune 500 and Fortune 10 companies, UNAIDS and the World Health Organization, Reuters, NBC News, and major daily newspapers throughout the US and worldwide. He is the author of three books on public opinion and the future.


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