Michigan local officials’ assessments of American democracy at the state and federal levels decline sharply

November 29, 2021

 A survey of Michigan’s local government leaders shows a sharp degradation in trust in the functioning of democracy at the state and federal levels, echoing trends seen across the country.  

The Spring 2021 Michigan Public Policy Survey (MPPS), conducted between April 5 and June 7, 2021, by the University of Michigan Ford School’s Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy (CLOSUP), asked the officials for their views regarding the functioning of democracy in their jurisdictions, the State of Michigan, and the United States as a whole, as well as their confidence in elections in their own jurisdiction, across Michigan, and in other states.

The report's key finding offers a stark outlook: On a ten-point scale—where one means a total breakdown of democracy and ten means a perfectly functioning democracy— 43% of the state’s local leaders rate democracy in the state of Michigan at four or lower today. This is more than double the 18% who felt this way a year ago. It also includes 11% today who see a “total breakdown of democracy” in Michigan, up from 3% last year.

The view of the national scene is equally grim: 66% of Michigan local leaders rate democracy across the U.S. today at four or lower on the ten-point scale, up significantly from the 43% who gave such low ratings last year. And today, nearly a quarter statewide (23%) feel there is a total breakdown of democracy at the federal level, up sharply from 7% last year.

These views reflect a national mood that polls have shown is questioning democratic institutions. A February, 2021, AP-NORD poll showed that just 16% of Americans said democracy was working well or extremely well.  

The contrast with their confidence in the local functioning of democracy is dramatic: 84% of respondents rate it at seven or higher, unchanged from assessments in 2020.

“These findings are very concerning, since local government leaders are such fundamental actors in American democracy, and they live it day-by-day, much more so than the average resident,” according to CLOSUP Executive Director Tom Ivacko.   

The results did show some partisan differences. Republican local officials’ assessments dropped from 26% rating the functioning of the nation's democracy highly in 2020 to just 7% feeling the same way in 2021, while the percentage rating it poorly more than doubled from 34% to 75%. Democratic local leaders’ views flipped in the opposite direction, with higher ratings of the nation’s democracy in 2021 than in 2020. Meanwhile, Independent local leaders’ views changed less, but followed the same pattern as with Republicans, with lower ratings today than last year.

Debra Horner, CLOSUP project manager, notes, “What officials tell us on  this survey reflects patterns in a number of topics we’ve researched in the past, like civic engagement, ethics, trust, and election administration. Local leaders are generally positive about the institutions and relationships governing their own communities, but quite skeptical about all these things at the state and federal levels.”  ” 

“This is valuable data which we will be able to use to monitor trends in future election cycles, if assessments decline further from here, we’ll be quite worried,'' according to Natalie Fitzpatrick, CLOSUP research specialist and lead author on the report.

The MPPS is an ongoing census survey of all 1,856 general purpose local governments in Michigan conducted by CLOSUP since 2009. Respondents for the Spring 2021 wave include county administrators, board chairs, and clerks; city mayors, managers, and clerks; village presidents, managers, and clerks; and township supervisors, managers, and clerks from 1,364 jurisdictions across the state. The Survey is conducted in partnership with the Michigan Association of Counties, Michigan Municipal League, and Michigan Townships Association. 

The report concludes: While confidence in local democracy is heartening, the rapid deterioration in assessments of both elections and general democratic health at the state and national levels is a concerning sign.

The report is available at: myumi.ch/NmWb3