OPINION: An unlikely prescription for an unhealthy democracy
Is it any wonder that after four years of close elections, contested elections and "stolen elections" — not to mention government hits and misses during the pandemic and now voter restrictions — that a strong majority of Oregonians feel democracy has gotten weaker in the United States? If you want to know what unites us, I give you this finding from the March 2021 survey conducted by the Oregon Values and Beliefs Center as part of the Oregon Values & Voices project: Oregonians across every population subgroup, including race and ethnicity, area of the state and political persuasion, feel U.S. democracy is in decline.
Similar sentiments are held by Oregonians about how democracy is working in the state, with 26% feeling it has gotten much weaker compared to only 4% saying much stronger. Fueling these beliefs are walkouts by Republicans in Salem and government's failure to adequately address myriad issues related to the principles of democracy including individual rights, equality and faith in majority rule.
That finding is not all that surprising. But OVBC exists to look beyond the soundbites and explore the motivations underlying Oregonians' values and beliefs. It is only then that we can learn about what unites us or could unite us, and gain a better understanding of what divides us. This is what we did for our March survey questions about the health of democracy in Oregon.
Among those who said Oregon's democracy has become weaker, reasons varied greatly, including: concerns over partisan politics, political correctness, a perceived over-emphasis on urban concerns over the rest of the state, discontent with state and local leadership and a feeling that their voices/opinions are unwelcome.
Overall, there were more than 120 mentions of "party" and "parties," making partisanship a key theme for respondents. Here are some representative comments from our panelists:
"The divide between east and west and conservative vs. progressive has gotten worse. The governor and most politicians in Salem do not seem to adequately consider the needs of rural communities." (Male, 65-plus, from Union County)
"Unwillingness of political party members to work together for the good of the state's residents. There is such a divide in perspectives between the major metropolitan areas and rest of the state. There should be some common ground that most people can agree on." (Male, 65-plus, from Washington County)
"I think the national scene has weakened democracy in our state. When Republicans repeatedly walk out because they can't get their way, when a Clackamas County official tells the media she will have many people at her home for Thanksgiving going against the governor's orders, it weakens our local democracy. It also shows Oregon citizens they don't have to follow our laws." (Female, age 45 to 64, from Clackamas County)
To dive deeper into the rabbit hole known as the health of democracy in Oregon, consider what else opinion research shows, including findings from other recently completed OVBC projects:
Large numbers of Oregonians are woefully or willfully ignorant about the features of democracy and its history. Oregonians don't trust core democratic institutions — including government, politicians and the media — with trust levels being at or near all-time lows. The closed primary system in Oregon fuels partisanship.
And perhaps most sadly, a majority of Oregonians feel we can't, or are unsure if we can, come together as Oregonians — urban and rural, Republican and Democrat, white and communities of color — and make progress addressing our state's challenges.
There you have it. That rabbit hole is deep and wide. Are there findings that suggest there is perhaps a way to climb out of it? Again, we can look at the OVBC March survey findings to find some rungs in the ladder.
A quarter of Oregonians feel democracy has gotten stronger in Oregon over the past four years. These respondents were also provided an open-ended opportunity to explain why they think Oregon's democracy has become stronger.
They provided a variety of reasons why, including strong voter participation and voting infrastructure (like vote by mail and automatic voter registration), satisfaction with state and local leadership and community unity and engagement during difficult times. Overall, there were more than 90 mentions of "vote," "voter," "voted" and "voting," making the electoral process a key theme for our panelists. Here are some representative comments:
"Our voting laws are, I think, the best in the nation. The motor/voter registration and vote by mail are exceptional and could be emulated throughout the country." (Male, age." (Male, 65-plus, from Deschutes County)
"We are getting more diverse voices in various levels of government, and people are becoming more active and aware of what is happening in their communities." (Female, age 30 to 44, from Washington County)
"Providing postage on mail-in ballots was a great step. I also think the increased political engagement of regular people and increased interest in hyper-local politics is a positive development and getting more BIPOC and young people into office." (Female, age 18 to 29, from Columbia County)
So, the way to climb out of the rabbit hole is to remind people about the greatness of our election system and provide them examples of effective local leadership and citizen activism and they'll feel better about democracy. Really? Based on what I've seen more than 40 years of doing opinion research in Oregon, doing such things alone will not be enough. A lack of understanding of basic democratic principles and the impact of Oregon's closed primary system needs to be addressed. And not until there's a restoration of rhetoric in Washington, D.C., and the media on both ends of the political spectrum moderate their "reporting" will there be a significant change in Oregonians' opinion about the health of democracy.
Yes, to a large extent it's beyond our control, but there are things we can do, including supporting Healthy Democracy's Citizens' Initiative Review project, introducing more civics Oregon's K-12 schools and adopting the election reforms other states have made, including ranked choice voting, nonpartisan primaries and significant changes to lobbying and campaign finance laws.
As an independent, nonprofit organization, OVBC will keep monitoring Oregon's values and beliefs to help guide us forward — all of us. We look forward to being part of the Oregon Values & Voices project.
Adam Davis is co-founder of DHM Research, an independent, nonpartisan firm and the Oregon Values and Beliefs Center, which is a partner in the Oregon Values & Voices project. He has been conducting opinion research in Oregon for more than 40 years. Reporting from the Oregon Values& Beliefs Project can be found at pamplinmedia.com/portland-tribune-news/oregon-values-and-beliefs-center.
More than a penny for your thoughts
The Oregon Values and Beliefs Center is committed to the highest level of public opinion research. To obtain that, the nonprofit is building the largest online research panel of Oregonians in history to ensure that all voices are represented in discussions of public policy in a valid and statistically reliable way. Selected panelists earn points for their participation, which can be redeemed for cash or donated to a charity. To learn more, visit oregonvbc.org/about-the-panel and join the panel.
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