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Do Enough Americans Actually Care About Democracy?

Updated: May 19, 2022

By John Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.

When our perception of reality is deeply colored by what we see and hear in the media that constantly bombards us, it’s hard to know how good or bad things really are beyond our own lives. I’ve noticed that people usually say times are tough, no matter which political party has the upper hand.

According to a recent CNN poll, 89 percent of the Americans surveyed have heard bad news about the economy even though unemployment is down to about 3 percent, 93 percent of the 22 million jobs lost during the pandemic have been filled, and wages are up 5 percent.

Not surprisingly, with inflation at a four-decade high, the economy ranks as the top concern of the 1,162 registered voters surveyed by Marist College for an NPR/PBS News Hour poll. The war in Ukraine is a distant second, with Covid third.

Alarmingly, the active threat to our democracy is a relative blip in the poll despite the constant flood of revelations about Republican attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election and the party’s ongoing effort to more directly control the outcome of votes in the states it runs. Yet a sizable 31 percent of those polled still say they prefer the GOP to protect voter rights (41 prefer Democrats). Democrats edged Republicans, 33 to 29 percent, for election security.

No matter what Joe Biden does for them, few Americans are happy with him
No matter what Joe Biden does for them, few Americans are happy with him

By all accounts, Joe Biden is a woefully unpopular president, with an approval rating of 41 percent, up slightly his all-time low of 39 percent in March. According to the CNN poll, more than half the Americans surveyed believe his policies have hurt the economy.

I find this view myopic because much of the distress is due to a worldwide pandemic that was mishandled by a Republican president and GOP governors who fought public safety measures to limit the damage. Even so, the NPR/PBS/Marist poll says a majority trust Republicans to handle the economy more effectively.

How the GOP would curb inflation eludes me. The party champions an unfettered free market, and the current rate of inflation (8.5 percent) is largely due to free-market forces (supply and demand) that were thrown out of whack by Covid-related layoffs and shutdowns of businesses. Even if everyone had kept going to work, the carnage the virus wreaked — more than one million dead in America alone — would have been far worse and still hobbled the economy.

But it’s easier just to blame Biden, who actually helped keep many struggling people afloat with rent breaks and money from his $21.6 billion American Rescue Plan. He and his party also managed to pass a $1 trillion infrastructure bill (that should produce jobs and quality of life improvements) despite stiff opposition from the GOP and Democratic contrarians Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.

Yet, Republicans are expected to retake Congress, and later the presidency, in a landslide. According to NPR/PBS/Marist, 45 percent of independents would now rather vote for a Republican in their district, despite the GOP’s litmus test for its candidates: Do they support Trump’s Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen despite a glaring lack of proof?

Progressives and many other voters are angry that Biden hasn’t done more to address problems and issues they care about, and they will quite possibly stay home in November. Do they really think they’re going to get what they want from the Republicans? The GOP is against reproductive rights, has no desire to combat climate change, and does not offer coherent health-care or child-care plans.

Even working stiffs who avidly support Trump didn’t seem to notice or mind the major rollbacks in their rights during his administration, or the cuts in protections against the kind of predatory lenders to whom they often turn.

And most of us who complain about high fuel prices don’t realize that every square inch of America’s soil can be drilled, baby, drilled, but what comes out of the ground is then private property. The company that extracts the oil is free to sell it on the world market at the best available price. Companies do not owe Americans cheap gas. They owe their investors the highest possible returns. That is fundamental capitalism.

The Capitol riot likely set a dangerous precedent in America’s polarized political climate
The Capitol riot likely set a dangerous precedent in America’s polarized political climate

The GOP’s midterm strategy is to blame Democrats for the economy (and everything else), to focus attention on culture war issues (abortion, critical race theory, LGBTQ rights etc.) and to hope voters ignore the elephant in the room: the ongoing investigations into the Jan. 6 Capitol riot and Trump’s businesses.

So far, it’s working. The flood of leaks about the House Select Committee’s findings about Jan. 6 is expected to create a “so what?” reaction to its upcoming public hearings. Most Americans are apparently much more concerned about the cost of living. And the criminal investigations into Trump are grinding along so slowly that nothing is expected from them.

The stark reality: Failure to report a highly probable crime, or not try to stop it, isn’t illegal, nor is insisting an election was stolen. Prosecutors need strong evidence beyond a reasonable doubt — evidence that can survive an extremely well-funded, prolonged defense — that Trump and his inner circle helped plan or actively aided and abetted the insurrection or illegal attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

As the Mueller Report found, Trump and his allies were well aware of Russia’s efforts to help him win in 2016 and, while they welcomed the help, they avoided any direct involvement or appearance of it. They probably did the same with right-wing militias, rioters and even Republican House members who were directly involved in Jan. 6.

I’m gobsmacked that so many Americans consider the GOP’s behavior no big deal. It’s merely “legitimate political discourse” and politics as usual despite the perilous precedent that has been set.

According to the April 14 New Republic, most Americans, including 48 percent of Democrats and 44 percent of Republicans, feel our political system is broken and our democracy is in jeopardy. Yet, when they go to the ballot box in November, a shockingly high percentage of voters say they are likely to choose the candidate from a party that is actively working to solidify its power by any means necessary, because these voters feel the GOP will ease the strain on their wallets.

Democrats are now on the brink of being legislated and adjudicated out of any significant power for the foreseeable future. Many Germans enthusiastically traded away their rights in the 1930s for secure, living wage jobs that gave them a cheap annual vacation … and they ended up with what Adolf Hitler brought to their formerly democratic nation.

The promise of security is key to the popular appeal of even brutal dictators like Hitler and Mussolini
The promise of security is key to the popular appeal of even brutal dictators like Hitler and Mussolini

Personally, I prefer a system with a least two parties that keep each other honest and focused on the best ideas for helping citizens. But decades of bitter battles between the Democrats and Republicans have created so much frustration in Americans that many are willing to risk the end of our traditional system of governing.

So what happens if the GOP wins?

I see the Republican party locking itself into power via even stronger oversight and control of local election processes. I also see a quick end of inquiries into Trump and the insurrection, and the beginning of an era of political retribution (via questionable impeachments of Democrats and harsh punishments of dissenting businesses like Disney) rather than effective governance.

Social spending will be cut. NATO will likely be abandoned, and the environment left at the mercy of corporations.

Personal rights such as privacy, abortion, gay and interracial marriage, and press freedom will be strongly curtailed.

I also expect a rise in unpunished police brutality and violent crackdowns on protests as “law and order” becomes the mantra.

As both history and current world trends show, the simplicity of one party control in chaotic times holds great appeal. It’s the old “Mussolini made the trains run on time” trope. A former co-worker of mine who avidly supports Trump grew up in Greece during the rule of dictator Georges Papandreou and fondly recalls the efficiency of that era. He believes America would benefit from something like it.

It’s really not a stretch to see a sizeable chunk of America’s population content to live in a “Land of the Free” that is anything but, with everything draped in red, white and blue mythology and proud claims of freedom and justice for all. At some point, you’ll still be free to vote but the GOP’s approved cookie-cutter candidate will be guaranteed to win.

As the old saying goes, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Pardon the indelicate analogy, but when the authoritarian toilet inevitably backs up and overflows into your life, and you have no recourse to a plumber, all you can do is hold your nose and pretend to like it even if you originally welcomed that authoritarian leader.

Elbert County (Colorado) Clerk Dallas Schroeder, a Republican, is under investigation for secretly copying sensitive information on voting machines used in the 2020 election
Elbert County (Colo.) Clerk Dallas Schroeder, a Republican, is under investigation for secretly copying sensitive information on voting machines used in the 2020 election

So how many Americans are truly concerned about this likelihood? How many are willing to vote for Democrats who are likely in the pocket of special interests but at least not trying to subvert our democracy?

How many fully grasp the meaning of the reported illegal breach of voting machines by Trump allies in eight locations where once-secure systems are now very likely compromised?

The leak of the Supreme Court’s draft of its likely Roe v. Wade decision may awaken more Americans to the grave threat to things that matter as much or more than their immediate financial bottom line. But we are a notoriously materialistic society living in a land founded as a place where you are free to make an unlimited fortune with little or no concern for anyone else.

Voting to preserve democracy and jeopardized rights will require most of us to give a damn about others — pregnant women, the LGBTQ community, racial minorities, refugees, people of differing opinions and religions. Do enough of us really care about them? And have voting regulations and oversight procedures already been changed to the point where our votes no longer really count?

I wish I didn’t feel compelled to say this, but I doubt it.


John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website ( with the meter running.



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