With the election of Joe Biden and the failure of President Trump’s efforts to overturn the results, many are saying America’s democracy is saved.
However, many of the ills that led to this moment of crisis are still with us. Deep partisan polarization has certainly not disappeared. No, American democracy is not saved. It’s just on life support. And the increasingly alternate realities occupied by some citizens is the central malady suffered by the body politic.
Indeed, the push and pull of ideology and policy is healthy for a pluralistic society looking for solutions to complex problems. But increasingly, partisans differ on their beliefs about basic facts. With no shared understanding of reality, it is increasingly difficult to get Americans to agree on anything.
Willingness to believe “alternative facts” exists to some degree along the political spectrum. And an increasingly polarized news media, especially on cable TV, radio and the internet, is not helping matters.
For instance, in mid-November, our Reuters/Ipsos poll found that over half of Republicans still believed that Donald Trump rightfully won the election. Among Republicans who mainly get their news from Fox News or other conservative outlets, that number climbs to almost two-thirds. Only a third of Republicans who get their news from other broadcast outlets believe Trump rightfully won. Similar numbers believed that Biden only won through massive fraud and illegal voting.
And beyond politics, these alternate realities have played havoc during the coronavirus pandemic. In September, during the heat of the campaign, two-thirds of Republicans and three-quarters of Fox News-watching Republicans believed official coronavirus death statistics inflated the actual toll of the pandemic.
These alternate realities have real-world implications. People who believe the death statistics are inflated are less likely to wear a mask and more likely to spend time with other people, potentially spreading the coronavirus.
One positive trend is that as Trump focused on the election and stopped talking about the pandemic, the number of Republicans who believed the official statistics are inflated fell from two-thirds to just over half. This suggests that without the constant reinforcing of these alternate realities, they may start to deflate over time. However, that still leaves America profoundly divided with no clear shared path forward.