Is support for democracy in the United States robust enough to deter undemocratic behavior by elected politicians? We develop a model of the public as a democratic check and evaluate it using two empirical strategies: An original, nationally representative candidate-choice experiment in which some politicians take positions that violate key democratic principles, and a natural experiment that occurred during Montana’s 2017 special election for the U.S. House. Our research design allows us to infer Americans’ willingness to trade-off democratic principles for other valid but potentially conflicting considerations such as political ideology, partisan loyalty, and policy preferences. We find the U.S. public’s viability as a democratic check to be strikingly limited: only a small fraction of Americans prioritize democratic principles in their electoral choices, and their tendency to do so is decreasing in several measures of polarization, including the strength of partisanship, policy extremism, and candidate platform divergence. Our findings echo classic arguments about the importance of political moderation and cross-cutting cleavages for democratic stability and highlight the dangers that polarization represents for democracy.