Threats to democracy” have, according to NBC News’ August poll, become the “most important issue facing the country.” It has overtaken “jobs and the economy,” the “cost of living,” and even wedge issues like abortion and gun control. Americans increasingly suspect their neighbors have nefarious designs on the nation. Well, an Axios-Ipsos survey released on Monday suggests that these anxious Americans aren’t just being paranoid.

That survey found that a disturbingly large number of Americans were prepared to agree with some shockingly illiberal sentiments. While only one-third of all adults agreed with the idea that “strong, unelected leaders are better than weak elected ones,” a full 42 percent of Republicans supported this sentiment. Likewise, 42 percent of Democrats nodded along with the notion that “presidents should be able to remove judges whose decisions go against the national interests,” which only 35 percent of all respondents endorsed. About one-third of all adults said the federal government should be able to prosecute members of the press who make “offensive or unpatriotic” statements, with a similar share of Democrats and Republicans in agreement. Roughly 40 percent of all respondents, Democrats and Republicans alike, agreed that the “government should side with the majority over ethnic/religious minority rights.”

Leave aside for the moment that majorities—all adults and partisans alike—disagreed with or refused to endorse these offending sentiments. That’s cold comfort when considering that something approaching four-in-ten Americans have abandoned what Axios summarizes as “American values.” For the sake of argument, let’s also forget that these questions are worded so that they elide the fact that both partisan camps believe their opponents represent the greater threat to the institutions of American self-government. Taking these polls at face value, you could be forgiven for thinking that America’s commitment to individual liberty and republican self-determinism had reached a nadir. In many crucial ways, however, America’s institutions have never been more committed to minority rights than they are today.

At the dawn of the 21st century, the courts had generally deferred to a strict interpretation of the First Amendment’s prohibition on congressional interference in the conduct of religious practice to proscribe any blurring of the line between church and state. No longer. In this young century, the courts have interpreted religious-freedom statutes to mean that closely held private firms are free from federal regulations that violate owners’ religious beliefs. States are prohibited from discriminating against religious educational institutions if they also subsidize nonsectarian private schools. Nor can schools and municipalities punish those who perform religious observances on secular grounds.

America’s religious minorities aren’t the only minorities who enjoy the benefits of America’s commitment to pluralism. Of course, some of the primary legal barriers that prevented gay Americans from enjoying the fullness of public life have been either circumscribed by the courts or retired at the state level. What were for the most part social conventions that prevented women and Jews from ascending to institutions of higher learning are behind us. Those barriers are today being imposed on Americans of Asian descent, but only out of the misbegotten assumption that the success of Asian minorities comes at the expense of black and Hispanic minorities—voting blocs in whose success so much of America’s governing institutions are deeply invested. The reformers’ intentions aside, the Supreme Court appears set to apply its dim view of ethnic and creedal discrimination to the war on high-achieving Asian Americans, too.

A doctrinaire libertarian could mourn America’s diminished commitment to non-intervention in the private sector on a host of issues related to economic liberty and property rights. But when compared with much of the postwar period, Americans are certainly freer today than they were yesterday.

Americans are now freer to decide for themselves if they want to join a labor union, and they’re less likely to face penalties or suffer a loss of work if they decline. Those Americans who do not want to join a union in an organized shop are no longer required to pay a portion of their income to an organization to which they do not belong. In this century, unconstitutional restrictions on firearm ownership have fallen away, one after another.

Both of America’s two major political parties have deferred to small-d democracy to such a degree that they’ve sacrificed their institutional prerogatives to determine who is fit to represent those organizations on the national stage. Since 1968, America’s two major parties have dismantled the smoke-filled rooms and built new grassroots fundraising mechanisms, all in an effort to tear down the power enjoyed by a small cadre of institutional gatekeepers. The results of this experiment in radical democracy are decidedly mixed, but that it is an experiment in radical democracy is undeniable.

Still, the experts mourn. The number of Americans who seem to have no use for the conventions that protect minority rights is, indeed, shocking. As George Mason University Professor Justin Gest lamented, “these are things you’d think would be universal.” Of course, there is no such thing as a “universal” viewpoint in a vast republic as varied as ours. There has never been a nation as culturally committed to individualism, even contrarianism, as the United States. Our fundamental lack of universals is a feature of American exceptionalism.

Clearly, American institutions are not committed to violating minority rights in the ways a minority of Americans would like. The authoritarian sentiments endorsed by some respondents to the Axios poll—prosecuting journalists and ejecting Senate-confirmed justices from the bench, for example—are at odds with the Constitution. The menace posed by election deniers in either party notwithstanding, they have not yet demonstrated the capacity to actually deny an election.

It’s true that both political coalitions harbor and coddle intolerant elements. These elements have no use for the procedural niceties that preserve republican comity, and they’d break them down if given the opportunity. But this poll also illustrates the numerical superiority of the forces arrayed against the authoritarians in our midst. Moreover, a cursory survey of the American political landscape suggests America’s commitment to preserving minority rights against the depredations of the majority is as strong as ever.

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