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A New Study Finds Americans Support Politicians Who Respect the Courts

The research suggests that political polarization, while very real, hasn't convinced Americans to distrust the rule of law.
Gavel judge courtroom justice court

Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike prefer politicians "who promise to respect court decisions, and those who prioritize the impartiality of investigations into wrongdoing."

We are living in an age of intense political polarization. But does loyalty to one's party override an allegiance to democracy itself?

That's the worry among many opponents of President Donald Trump, who fear that the president will react to any upcoming indictments by working to delegitimize the legal system—and that his supporters will happily follow him down this dangerous path.

Reassuring new research suggests such a strategy is unlikely to succeed.

A new survey designed by a group of prominent political scientists finds that contemporary Americans have a strong, knee-jerk impulse to support candidates from their own party. But Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike prefer politicians "who promise to respect court decisions, and those who prioritize the impartiality of investigations into wrongdoing."

"Not all political values, then, are polarized in our current context," concludes the "Bright Line Watch" team, which includes Brendan Nyhan of the University of Michigan and Gretchen Helmke of the University of Rochester.

The survey, conducted in October of 2018, featured 962 Americans recruited online, and the team weighted respondents' answers to approximate a representative sample of the American public. Subjects were presented with 10 pairs of candidates running in an upcoming hypothetical election, and asked to choose which they would vote for.

"Each candidate was described using eight characteristics: Name, partisanship, positions on policies toward taxation and racial discrimination, and four positions reflecting democratic values," the researchers write.

The team included tax- and race-related positions to see whether voters would punish candidates who defied their party's consensus on those issues, such as a Republican who wants to raise taxes on the wealthy, or a Democrat who campaigns on lowering taxes for all, including the rich.

Two of the support-for-democracy statements directly reflected issues raised by Special Counsel Robert Mueller's ongoing investigation: Whether "law enforcement investigations of politicians and their associates" should be supervised by elected officials or "free of partisan influence"; and whether elected officials "must obey the courts," or else should not be bound by "court decisions they regard as politicized."

The other questions focused on voting rights (specifically, whether the candidate supports or opposes requiring voters to show state-issued IDs at the polls) and willingness to compromise with the other party.

Not surprisingly, the researchers report that party affiliation was the strongest indicator of whether a participant would support a given candidate. Both Democrats and Republicans were 19 percentage points more likely to choose a fellow member of their party than a candidate of the other party, regardless of the candidates' ethnicity or position on the issues.

That said, policy positions did matter: Republicans were nine percentage points less likely, and Democrats were 11.5 percentage points more likely, to support a candidate of either party who advocated raising taxes on the wealthy.

Of the four support-for-democracy questions, only one—voting rights—was strongly affected by partisan leanings. Republicans were 16.6 percentage points more likely to select a candidate who supports, rather than opposes, stricter voter ID laws; Democrats were nearly 9 percent less likely to vote for such a candidate.

While these numbers suggest that sustained rhetoric can decrease support among fellow partisans for one core democratic value—the right to vote—other results indicate that support for the rule of law remains strong.

"A candidate who questions judicial authority rather than deferring to it is 12.7 percentage points less likely to be selected by Republicans," and 9.7 percentage points less likely to be selected by Democrats and independents, the researchers report. The gap between 12.7 percent and 9.7 percent is not a statistically significant difference, meaning adherence to the court system is truly bipartisan.

In addition, similar percentages of Republicans, Democrats, and independents were less likely to support candidates who favor political control over investigations. And all three groups were more likely to support candidates who favor compromising with the opposing party.

The researchers express some concern about the clear partisan differences regarding voting rights, which, they note, reflect "a fundamental division over who should be included in, and excluded from, the political process." But they also point to some encouraging signs, such as the Florida ballot initiative restoring voting rights to felons, which passed with more than 60 percent of the vote.

Altogether, the results suggest that, if Trump argues that "politicized" judicial rulings are somehow illegitimate, he'll face a huge amount of backlash—even from Republicans. Partisanship may be infecting more and more of our lives, but, at least for now, we remain united in supporting the rule of law.