Americans Don't Want a Dictatorship, but They're Creating One Anyway

Too many people think democracy works only if they get to dominate their opponents.


Whether a glass is half full or half empty is a matter of perspective. The same can be said about the half of Americans who oppose the idea of allowing presidents to rule unilaterally—an exercise of monarchical power favored by only a fifth of us. I like to look on the bright side, so I take it as a win that those opposing unrestrained executive power far outnumber those who favor it. Still, it would be better if, in a republic established two and a half centuries ago, more than half the population would commit to the proposition that turning the country into a dictatorship would be bad.

Opponents of Dictatorship Outnumber Supporters

"About half of the public think it would be a bad idea if the next president is able to act on important policy issues without the approval of Congress or the courts," the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research reports of the results of a survey of 1,282 adults conducted March 21-25. "Only 21% think it would be a good thing, and about 30% think it's neither good nor bad."

In the poll, 48 percent overall oppose unilateral presidential rule, including 58 percent of Democrats and 45 percent of Republicans. The 21 percent favoring the idea include 17 percent of Democrats and 26 percent of Republicans. Support for unrestrained executive power rises to 39 percent among Democrats in the case of a Biden win in November, and to 57 percent of Republicans if Trump wins.

Interestingly, the AP-NORC results are nearly identical to those found by the University of Virginia's Center for Politics in 2021. At the time, pollsters reported "roughly 2 in 10 Trump and Biden voters strongly agree it would be better if a 'President could take needed actions without being constrained by Congress or courts.'" Among Biden voters, 22 percent strongly agreed with the idea, compared to 19 percent of Trump voters (over 40 percent of both at least "somewhat agreed" with the idea of an unrestrained presidency).

In 2020, the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group noted: "Over three annual surveys, about 24 percent of Americans say that a 'strong leader who doesn't have to bother with Congress and elections' is a good way to govern a country."

The good news here is that surveys find a pretty consistent minority of only one-fifth to one-quarter of Americans favor throwing off this whole separation of powers thing in favor of dictatorship. It's a fraction of the population that seems firm in its batty beliefs but doesn't appear to be growing.

The bad news is that the citizens of a 250-year-old democratic republic are so lukewarm about the country's system of government that only about half of them can summon up opposition to the idea of unilateral rule. That almost a third of survey respondents think unilateral presidential rule is "neither good nor bad" isn't a ringing endorsement of the system. Then again, most don't think the system works.

The System Isn't Working if My Side Isn't Winning

"About half of the public, regardless of party identification, say the system of checks and balances dividing power among the president, Congress, and the courts is not working well these days," adds AP-NORC. Only around one in ten say it is working extremely or very well.

That reflects frustration with institutions that are in the hands of political opponents. Among Republicans, 46 percent say the presidency has too much power (16 percent of Democrats agree), while 58 percent say federal agencies (currently under the control of Democratic President Joe Biden) have too much power (20 percent of Democrats agree). Fifty-eight percent of Democrats think the Supreme Court, which has a conservative majority, has too much power (25 percent of Republicans agree). At 37 percent and 38 percent respectively, nearly identical numbers of Democrats and Republicans say the divided Congress is too powerful.

In January, Gallup reported that "a new low of 28% of U.S. adults are satisfied with the way democracy is working in the country."

That matches a separate AP-NORC report, published April 3, that "only 3 in 10 think democracy in the United States is functioning well, while about half believe it is a poorly functioning democracy."

"Typically, partisans have been more satisfied with the way democracy is working when a president from their preferred party has been in office," Gallup added.

It's not unreasonable to interpret such polling results as evidence that too many Americans think the system is working well only when it's under the control of their political faction. Unless they can jam their preferred laws and policies down the throats of neighbors with different ideas, they call the system a failure and look for alternatives. Fortunately, only a small minority are willing to go so far as to support dumping the whole system in favor of an actual dictatorship by their chosen el jefe. Unfortunately, the presidency is creeping in the direction of satisfying that minority.

The Presidency Is Already Almost an Elective Monarchy

"Over the past several decades, as our politics took on a quasi-​religious fervor, we've been running a dangerous experiment: concentrating vast new powers in the executive branch, making 'the most powerful office in the world' even more powerful," Gene Healy, a vice president at the Cato Institute and author of The Cult of the Presidency, wrote for Reason's May issue. "Fundamental questions of governance that used to be left to Congress, the states, or the people are now settled, winner-take-all, by whichever party manages to seize the presidency."

Only a small minority of Americans actually favor turning the presidency into an elective monarchy, but we're all getting it anyway. That's because many people ask far too much of a government that was originally designed to be limited in its role and hobbled by checks and balances. As the most recognizable face of that government, they expect the president to fulfill unreasonable expectations—and grant ever-greater power to the position so current officeholders can try.

"Recent presidents have deployed their enhanced powers to impose forced settlements on highly contested, morally charged issues on which Americans should be free to disagree," notes Healy.

A lot of our political discourse focuses on the specific flaws of the individuals who vie for high office, as if ridding ourselves of Orange Mussolini or Bumbling Brandon will resolve America's political problems. But the danger lies less in the candidates than in voters who use politicians as vehicles for their awful expectations and frankly authoritarian agendas.

It's encouraging that a majority of Americans don't want to live under a dictatorship. If only they'd stop acting in ways that are bound to bring one about.