Political polarization is at record highs, and some have speculated we are headed toward civil war. Both sides of the spectrum agree with each other in that they are concerned about democracy being under threat — but for very different reasons.
Political violence has erupted more than once over the last several years. The U.S. ranks in the middle of the pack when it comes to political freedom, according to Freedom House (Lean Right bias). Nearly 70% of the Republican Party believes our last election was illegitimate (which means different things to different people) according to Poynter (Center).
Across the political spectrum, Americans are worried that our democracy is in danger, and understandably so. But the specific concerns and perceived threats differ greatly from left to right. Liberals and conservatives are both concerned about democracy’s decline, but point to very different issues and hold vastly different perspectives about why that is.
- Donald Trump
- Right-wing misinformation
- Limitations on abortion, voting and other rights
- Left-wing censorship, misinformation and media bias
- Politicized and unaccountable government institutions
- Dismantling of democratic protections such as free speech, the filibuster, separation of powers and the electoral college
Donald Trump and the Jan. 6 Riot
Many on the left are concerned about the effects of the Trump administration, arguing that during his administration, Trump’s policies were detrimental, but so was his rhetoric. They believe Trump made America into a joke and frequently point out his disrespect for other officials. Some on the left thought Trump on his own was threatening our democracy, while others thought Trump was a symptom of the problems that were degrading democracy.
Whether Trump was a symptom of a greater problem or an entirely new one, after Jan 6th, they almost all agreed that Trump had to go. The left considers the Jan. 6 Capitol riot to have been an insurrection — an attack on the cradle of our democracy. Many on the left believe that Trump incited the insurrection and comforted traitors, directly contradicting his oath of office. (Notably, some on the right also agree that Trump has threatened democracy and have condemned the events of Jan. 6)
Some believe that Trump’s 2016 election, and his claims of election fraud in 2020, were primarily driven by misinformation. They see misinformation fracturing our shared reality and radicalizing the right. Misinformation became an even larger focus for some on the left during the pandemic, as anti-vaxxers and vaccine-hesitant people shared information online.
Some on the left argue that the carelessness of Facebook and other social media corporations in regulating information had deadly consequences. President Biden has said social media companies are “killing people” by failing to police misinformation on their platforms about COVID-19 vaccines.
In this view, misinformation has not only driven mistrust of the COVID-19 vaccine, but it has also encouraged skepticism of our elections. From the left’s point of view, a cocktail of misinformation and encouragement from the former president caused the January 6 riot. They believe this was a testament to just how far the right had fallen from reason — challenging legitimate election results and buying into false narratives that drove them to attack a democratic institution.
Elections and Voter Suppression
Some on the left see blatant hypocrisy from the right when it comes to election integrity, with many Republicans believing the election was stolen and winning elections on those claims. The left again sees Trump at the center of this “Big Lie” narrative. They find it extremely concerning that many sources point to the 2020 election being the most secure in American history, yet a significant number of Republicans refuse to believe it.
The Supreme Court is also considering handing election regulations to state legislators as opposed to state courts. It worries the left that legislators who believe the “Big Lie” would be entrusted with regulating elections, as opposed to an impartial court. This process, according to the left, would enable the possibility that an election could be legitimately stolen in the future.
Some believe that Republicans would not win elections if not for what they see as voter suppression laws that have passed in states like Georgia. The left argues that several of these bills target black communities in a racist attempt to prevent Democrat-supporting people of color from voting.
Those on the left would also point out that the last several Republican presidents have not won the popular vote, and many would prefer to eliminate the Electoral College in order to ensure everyone in the population has an equal vote in the electoral process.
Abortion and Other Rights Being Removed by Supreme Court
Another major concern on the left is Supreme Court rulings that they believe attack fundamental rights. When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the left saw it as the rolling back of 50+ years of women’s rights. They are disturbed that nine justices on the Supreme Court overruled what they see as a women’s constitutional right to an abortion in one afternoon. They are concerned about other rights being in danger as well, such as the legality of contraception and same-sex marriage.
SCOTUS also recently limited the power of the EPA and expanded gun rights in New York. These rulings are perceived as massive roadblocks to democracy on the left, and a few figures, including Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), have called to expand the courts in an effort to prevent more rights from being restricted.
Legislation Targeting the Marginalized
Women’s rights are the latest in a series of legislative attacks on marginalized communities, according to the left. Some argue that America still needs to reckon with its racism through reparations or other means. They worry that legislation aimed at restricting the teaching of critical race theory is preventing teachers from educating students on America’s true past.
Other legislation they deem discriminatory includes bills regarding transgender lives, such as bills that restrict trans athletes from competing with their chosen gender. They believe such restrictions can have a negative effect on the athletes’ mental health and ability to live freely. They’re also concerned about legislation that prevents transgender children from receiving gender-affirming care, arguing it could lead to an uptick in suicide rates. In this view, the continuing infringement on the rights of minority groups is an abhorrent reminder that their fellow citizens still do not consider everyone to be equal.
A Dying American Dream
Traditionally, the “American Dream” involves doing better than your parents before you and starting a family, but for many, this feels impossible. The threat of climate change has caused many on the left to reconsider their stance on children; meanwhile, the student loan debt crisis, inflation, and the housing bubble have made it hard for young people to get ahead.
The US currently has the most elderly Senate in history. In the left’s view, the next generation should be stepping up to lead the nation in addressing the concerns above, but the younger generation is struggling to stay above water while the government offers no assistance. Many people are no longer invested in the success of the nation because they don't believe it can give them a good life.
Outdated Constitution and Legislative Processes
To some, the very values the U.S. was founded on are outdated, and adhering to them limits American progress.
An August 2022 op-ed in the New York Times opinion section (Left bias) from two Ivy League professors says the U.S. Constitution "inevitably orients us to the past and misdirects the present into a dispute over what people agreed on once upon a time, not on what the present and future demand for and from those who live now." The professors argue that Americans must "reclaim America from constitutionalism" and calls on liberals to move to "radically alter the basic rules of the game." They suggest "reorganizing our legislature in ways that are more fairly representative of where people actually live and vote, and perhaps even reducing the Senate to a mere 'council of revision'."
In a 2018 poll from Pew Research Center (Center bias), 78% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents said Supreme Court rulings "should be based on the Constitution’s meaning in current times." Just 30% of Republicans and Republican leaners said the same.
In contrast to the left’s concerns about misinformation, the right is concerned about censorship from mainstream media and Big Tech. Many worry about factual information (like Hunter Biden's laptop controversy) and their perspectives being labeled “misinformation” and suppressed. They argue this is one of many issues that results from institutional capture, with the left overwhelmingly dominating universities, mainstream media, and other major institutions. They also believe the suppression of conservative thought and political dissent is a threat to our fundamental rights of free speech and free association and, taken to its extreme end, can erode democracy by even leading to a one-party state.
Election and Institutional Integrity
Another issue of concern on the right is voting security. During the COVID-19 pandemic, mail-in ballots became more popular. The right is dubious about the integrity of the mail-in voting system, and wants to limit the potential for voter fraud in elections. Secure elections are integral to a functioning democracy, and the right believes that in-person voting with required voter ID is one way Americans can ensure the soundness of our elections.
The right is also concerned that the left wants to eliminate barriers in place intended to prevent an institutional takeover from one side of the political aisle, such as the filibuster and the Electoral College. Many on the right argue these limitations prevent a tyranny of the majority and are necessary to protect democratic freedom.
Threats to the Supreme Court
Another institution in danger, according to the right, is the Supreme Court — however, the right is concerned about the integrity of the court in ways that differ from the left. They see the leak of SCOTUS Roe v. Wade draft opinion as a way to undermine the court, arguing it paves the way for political intimidation and mob rule to cause the justices to rule differently. They point to subsequent protests on the property of the Supreme Court justices’ homes, threats, and intimidation tactics used by some on the left as attempts to pressure justices to change their opinions as abhorrent, illegal, and a direct attack on a democratic institution.
Beyond that, some on the left have expressed interest in packing the court in their favor, which would degrade the integrity of the court and impede their obligation to evaluate laws neutrally, according to the right. The right argues this is not the only group of unelected officials for which the left wants to expand their power: many on the right are supportive of the Supreme Court’s move to limit the powers of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). They stand against the left’s support of rules enacted by these bureaucracies.
The amount of power exercised by the CDC and others during the COVID-19 pandemic is concerning to many on the right. Not only did state and city governments order Americans to stay home and bring our economy to a grinding halt, but for nearly two years, many were required to wear masks and sometimes get vaccinated or risk losing their jobs.
While the left may argue that Trump was authoritarian, many on the right saw CDC mandates, as well as mandates by local and state governments, to be truly authoritarian, especially since many of the restrictions were not voted on by the public. They argue that no one should have to undergo a medical procedure under order from the government in order to keep their job, and that such mandates are a threat to democratic rule by the people.
Black Lives Matter Riots
The right is also broadly concerned about rioting on the left. For example, they point to the Black Lives Matter riots in numerous American cities following the death of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, in which rioters targeted police precincts and federal courthouses. They note that agitators chanted and spread radical slogans like “Abolish the Police” and “ACAB” (“All Cops Are Bastards”).
Some view the events of that summer as mob rule — an attempt to coerce people into accepting a left-wing agenda through fear and intimidation. They argue that the riots were deadlier and more destructive than the Jan. 6 riot, yet were largely underplayed by mainstream media and politicians who agreed with rioters’ radical agenda to intimidate police and upend American institutions and rule of law.
Degrading Parental Rights
The right is also seeing the degradation of parents’ rights in both schools and the law.
Not only are universities facing institutional capture by the left, the right argues, but K-12 schools are as well. Parents are concerned about what their kids are learning in school about race, America’s founding, and LGBTQ issues and want more control, leading to a surge in homeschooling. The right has long been an advocate for school choice so that parents have a wider variety of options other than government schools.
The right’s concern about parental rights is not limited to schooling, as some states have introduced legislation that would allow children to begin transitioning genders without parental consent. Some on the right think that bills that strip away rights from parents and allow children to make life-altering, irreversible medical decisions serve to upend the traditional family hierarchy that they argue is the bedrock of a healthy society.
A Concern in Common
Both sides are concerned that democracy is in peril. The United States has been divided into sharply polarized sides in which both the left and right struggle to understand each other’s perspectives and concerns.
To better understand what the left and right think about threats to democracy, be sure to bookmark AllSides’s balanced newsfeed to get a broader view.
Clare Ashcraft is the Bridging Intern at AllSides. She has a Center bias.
This piece was reviewed by Julie Mastrine, Director of Marketing and Media Bias Ratings (Lean Right bias), Joseph Ratliff, Daily News Editor (Lean Left bias), and Managing Editor Henry A. Brechter (Center bias).