One of the greatest threats to democracy is the idea that it is unassailable.

The 2016 U.S. presidential campaign taught us not to assume that the country’s political leadership will follow the practices and norms that help guarantee American democracy. In the wake of a campaign in which candidates sometimes showed disrespect for an active, investigative press, demonized immigrants and religious and ethnic minorities, and failed to discourage grassroots political violence, we established Bright Line Watch.
Our overarching goal is to use our scholarly expertise to monitor democratic practices and call attention to threats to American democracy.The danger to our democratic norms and institutions has not subsided since the election. It is thus more urgent than ever for scholars to remind leaders and the public how democracy works and to highlight the risks to our system of government. In this spirit, BLW brings together a core group of political scientists to monitor democratic practices, their resilience, and potential threats:

  • John Carey, Wentworth Professor in the Social Sciences, Dartmouth College
  • Gretchen Helmke, Professor and Chair of Political Science, University of Rochester
  • Brendan Nyhan, Professor of Government, Dartmouth College
  • Susan C. Stokes, John S. Saden Professor of Political Science, Yale University

Our members have extensive experience in the study of democracy in parts of the world where democracy has often proven fragile, such as Latin America, as well as in the United States.

Bright Line Watch’s first project is a survey of political science experts that will provide benchmark data on democratic norms and the quality of democracy in the United States and in other countries both now and at other times in history.  This survey will be relatively demanding in terms of political knowledge and sophistication.  We plan to recruit respondents from university faculty in political science. We launched the first wave in February 2017 and plan to repeat the survey quarterly.  This survey will be the central data contribution of Bright Line Watch. We envision its core set of questions as stable and cumulative, although we will adapt parts of it and may add specific, topical questions as new issues arise.  Data from the survey will be archived and made publicly available immediately on the Bright Line Watch website.

The second project of Bright Line Watch, which will be conducted in partnership with the Yale Program on Democracy, is holding an international conference that will draw on the knowledge and perspectives of world-renowned scholars. The conference will seek to identify the critical factors that have led to the degradation or destruction of democracy in other times and places and to consider whether these factors could have the same effect in the United States today.

Our third project will commission a series of briefing papers by leading scholars addressing specific topics such as harassment and suppression of a free press; racism, anti-Semitism, religious intolerance, and attacks on immigration; and restrictions on protests and democratic practice. These will provide key information to the press, elected officials and the public on areas of possible democratic erosion and what prior research and historical experience teaches us about how to address them.

The common thread in all of these projects will be to evaluate democratic performance, persistence, and erosion in the United States through a comparative lens. We envision that both the surveys and the briefing papers will serve as standalone sources for the public and will be incorporated into an edited volume on democratic erosion. We will establish a blog at BrightLineWatch.org where we will post our own analyses, briefing papers, and make survey data and supporting materials available.