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

November 17, 2021
Contact: Daniel Rivkin rivkind@umich.edu,
Jeff Karoub jkaroub@umich.edu

Confidence in local functioning of democracy remain high, U-M survey finds

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 Michigan Public Policy Survey, conducted between April 5 and June 7 by the Ford School of Public Policy’s Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy, asked the officials for their views regarding the functioning of democracy in their area, the state and nation as a whole, as well as their confidence in elections across those jurisdictions.

The report’s key finding offers a stark outlook: On a 10-point scale—where 1 means a total breakdown of democracy and 10 means a perfectly functioning democracy— 43% of the state’s local leaders rate democracy in Michigan at four or lower. This is more than double the 18% who felt this way a year ago. It also includes 11% 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. at 4 or lower on the 10-point scale, up significantly from the 43% who gave such low ratings last year. And 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 questioning democratic institutions. An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll from February showed 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,” said 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 than last year.

“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,” said Debra Horner, CLOSUP project manager. “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.”

Natalie Fitzpatrick, CLOSUP’s research specialist and the report’s lead author, said the data is valuable data and useful for monitoring trends in future election cycles. However, she adds that it comes with caution.

“If assessments decline further from here, we’ll be quite worried,” she said.

The MPPS is an ongoing survey of all 1,856 general purpose local governments in Michigan conducted by CLOSUP since 2009. Respondents for the spring 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.

The survey is conducted in partnership with the Michigan Association of Counties, Michigan Municipal League and Michigan Townships Association.