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Bright Line Watch Survey Report: Wave 2

From May 11-20, 2017, Bright Line Watch conducted its second expert survey of political scientists assessing the state of democracy in the United States. BLW’s first survey (Wave 1) was conducted at the outset of the Trump administration in February 2017. This report presents results from the second survey (Wave 2), which was completed soon after the first 100 days of the Trump presidency. It evaluates how experts view the United States in comparison to Wave 1 and to prior periods in U.S. history.

In this wave, we invited 9,539 political science faculty at 511 U.S. institutions to participate. By Saturday morning, May 20, we received 1,126 qualified responses (a response rate of 12 percent). This report is based on those data.

The Wave 2 survey had two goals. The first was to assess how our respondents rate the current state of democracy in the United States. To do that, we asked them to evaluate the United States using a battery of twenty-nine statements of democratic principles. The second purpose was to evaluate the performance of American democracy in historical context, which we accomplish by (a) comparing responses between our Wave 1 and Wave 2 surveys and (b) asking respondents in Wave 2 to rate the overall quality of U.S. democracy at different times from 1800 to the present.

The twenty-nine statements of democratic principles are as follows:

  1.  Elections are conducted, ballots counted, and winners determined without pervasive fraud or manipulation

  2.  All adult citizens have equal opportunity to vote

  3.  Voter participation in elections is generally high

  4.  Elections are free from foreign influence

  5.  The geographic boundaries of electoral districts do not systematically advantage any particular political party

  6.  All votes have equal impact on election outcomes

  7.  Parties and candidates are not barred due to their political beliefs and ideologies

  8.  All adult citizens enjoy the same legal and political rights

  9.  Government does not interfere with journalists or news organizations

  10.  Government effectively prevents private actors from engaging in politically-motivated violence or intimidation

  11.  Government protects individuals’ right to engage in unpopular speech or expression

  12.  Government protects individuals’ right to engage in peaceful protest

  13.  Government officials are legally sanctioned for misconduct

  14.  Government officials do not use public office for private gain

  15.  Government agencies are not used to monitor, attack, or punish political opponents

  16.  Government leaders recognize the validity of bureaucratic or scientific consensus about matters of public policy

  17.  Even when there are disagreements about ideology or policy, political leaders generally share a common understanding of relevant facts

  18.  Executive authority cannot be expanded beyond constitutional limits

  19.  The legislature is able to effectively limit executive power

  20.  The judiciary is able to effectively limit executive power

  21.  The elected branches respect judicial independence

  22.  In the elected branches, majorities act with restraint and reciprocity

  23.  Elected officials seek compromise with political opponents

  24.  Political competition occurs without criticism of opponents’ loyalty or patriotism

  25.  Information about the sources of campaign funding is available to the public

  26.  Public policy is not determined by large campaign contributions

  27.  Citizens can make their opinions heard in open debate about policies that are under consideration

  28.  Citizens have access to information about candidates that is relevant to how they would govern

  29.  Law enforcement investigations of public officials or their associates are free from political influence or interference

The first battery of questions asked, “How well do the following statements describe the United States as of today?” Each respondent was then asked to rate a randomly selected subset of fifteen statements drawn from the list above using the following response options for each statement:

  • The U.S. does not meet this standard

  • The U.S. partly meets this standard

  • The U.S. mostly meets this standard

  • The U.S. fully meets this standard

  • Not sure

(Note: The list of statements of democratic principles has grown from Wave 1, which included nineteen statements. Appendix A below describes changes from the Wave 1 survey to Wave 2.)

Respondents were then asked to evaluate the overall performance of U.S. democracy today on a 0-100 scale. After providing a rating, they were then asked to provide a similar rating at nine historical points: 1800, 1850, 1900, 1950, 1975, 1985, 1995, 2005, and 2015.

How is U.S. democracy doing?

According to our experts, the performance of U.S. democracy varies widely across different types of democratic principles. Rights of expression are perceived as well-protected, but ratings of elections and political accountability are mixed and standards of political equality and civility are overwhelmingly rated as not being met.

The figure below shows the distribution of responses on the democratic performance battery for each of the statements. The statements are ordered vertically according to the combined share of responses indicating that the United States fully or mostly meets the standard (as opposed to partly or not at all or not sure).  (Summary statistics in tabular form can be viewed here.)

W2 US BLW Wave 2 statements response distributions - slidebar

As the figure illustrates, there is a sharp break in performance assessments between statements for which over half of our respondents rated the United States as “mostly” or “fully” meeting the standard and statements for which over half said the United States “does not meet” or only “partly meets” the standard. We use this fifty percent cutoff to distinguish strong from weak performance.

To facilitate overall assessment of the results for our extensive list of democratic principles, we sort the survey statements into groups reflecting broader themes and present the average percentage of respondents who think the U.S. mostly or fully meets the standard in question for each

  • Freedom of expression (average: 72%)

  • Quality of elections (average: 46%)

  • Accountability (average: 46%)

  • Political equality (average: 28%)

  • Norms of civility (average: 14%)

(The full set of statements corresponding to each theme is listed in Appendix B below along with the percentage of “Mostly meets standard” and “Fully meets standard” responses for each.)

As these values indicate, respondents generally view the U.S. as performing well on democratic principles related to freedom of expression. However, views are more mixed on principles related to political and legal accountability. The judiciary’s independence (58%) and check on executive power (76%) are rated highly, but other checks on misconduct and the exercise of executive power receive lower ratings (29%-45%). Similarly, most experts believe U.S. elections are conducted without fraud (83%) or interference in the parties who can participate (82%), but ratings of other aspects of elections related to foreign influence (35%), campaign funding (34%), participation (10%), and boundaries of electoral districts (7%) are much lower. Finally, ratings are consistently dismal for measures of political, legal, and electoral equality (average: 28%) and respect for norms of political civility and consensus about the validity of information on politics and policy (average: 14%).

What changes do we see over time?

Our Wave 2 survey provides perspective on changes over time in expert assessments of democracy at three levels of granularity — changes while our survey was being administered, changes from Wave 1 to Wave 2, and changes across broader eras of U.S. history. Our initial intention was to focus on the latter two comparisons, but the dramatic events of the week of May 15-20, 2017 also allow us to evaluate how responses changed while our survey was in the field.

Changes during the survey week

In the six days after we first issued survey invitations on Thursday, May 11, the political news cycle was dominated by President Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey on May 9 and subsequent revelations about the motivations for Comey’s dismissal. However, the news cycle took a dramatic turn on the evening of Wednesday, May 17, when Justice Department announced that Robert Mueller had been appointed as a special counsel to investigate Russian interference into the 2016 election and whether it included collusion with Trump campaign officials. He was also given authority to consider any potential efforts to obstruct the investigation.

Mueller’s appointment as special counsel has implications for many of the democratic principles reflected in our statements. For this reason, we examined whether the patterns of responses to any of our questions differed systematically between the period before and after the Mueller appointment. Approximately seven in 10 respondents (783, or 70%) began answering the survey before 6 PM on May 17; the rest (343, or 30%) began afterward. On most statements, differences between early and late responses were minor. On two statements, however, the percentages who said the U.S. “mostly” or “fully” meets the standard in question shifted by more than ten percentage points (both differences are statistically significant):

  • “Executive authority cannot be expanded beyond constitutional limits” increased from 35% to 48%.

  • “Law enforcement investigations of public officials or their associates are free from political influence or interference” increased from 32% to 45%.

These shifts suggest that our respondents were reassured by Mueller’s appointment.

Changes from February 2017 to May 2017

We also evaluate shifts in our expert respondents’ assessments between our Wave 1 survey, which was conducted in February 2017, and our Wave 2 survey. To do so, we compare responses on the nineteen statements that were asked in both waves.

We observe a significant decrease in the proportion of respondents who think the U.S. “mostly” or “fully” meets the standard in question from Wave 1 to Wave 2 for five democratic principles:

  • Constitutional limits on executive (-12%)

  • Legislative check on the executive (-11%)

  • Equal legal and political rights (-9%)

  • Foreign influence on elections (-8%)

  • Judicial independence (-6%)

W2 wave1-wave2-horizontal-bar

(A comparison of ratings for all 19 items in Waves 1 and 2 is provided in Appendix C below.)

This deterioration was likely driven by events in the news. From the first to the second waves of our surveys, the Russian influence scandal attracted increasing attention, which may have contributed to declining expert ratings of constitutional limits on, and legislative control over, the executive, as well as foreign electoral influence. (Our analysis above suggests the Mueller appointment mitigated the perceived deterioration of constitutional limits on the executive.) Finally, the observed deterioration in perceptions of judicial independence and equal legal/political rights may reflect the dissipation of attention to actions by courts blocking the Trump administration’s executive order banning travel from majority-Muslim countries, which was  intense at the time of Wave 1.

Changes over time across eras of US history

The second main battery of questions on the Wave 2 survey asked respondents to rate the overall quality of U.S. democracy on a 0-100 scale in 1800, 1850, 1900, 1950, 1975, 1985, 1995, 2005, 2015, and 2017. The years we selected corresponded to distinct eras in American history. For instance, the first four cover the time period shortly after the founding (1800), the middle of the 19th century but before the Civil War (1850), the era of progressive reforms but also Jim Crow in the South (1900), and the mid-20th century period after the New Deal but before the main gains of civil rights movement (1950). As we moved toward the present day, we expected our respondents’ knowledge of U.S. democracy and ability to discern differences in quality would grow. Accordingly, we asked for assessments across narrower time gaps (1975, 1985, 1995, and 2005). Finally, we asked for assessments in 2015 and 2017 to measure any perceived shift in democratic quality under the Trump administration.

The results are reported in Appendix D, and plotted in the figure below:

W2 US 1800 to 2017 democracy rating averages - scatter

(95% confidence intervals are similar in height to the points in the graph and are thus omitted.)

We observe steady and dramatic increases in the assessments of the quality of U.S. democracy from the founding era up to the late 20th century. The increase from 1800-1850 coincides with expansion of suffrage beyond property holders to most of the white male population. The period from 1850-1900 saw the Civil War, the abolition of slavery, the Civil Service Act, and the beginning of the Progressive Era reforms, but also the abandonment of Reconstruction and the establishment of Jim Crow in the South (1850-1900). The period from 1900-1950 saw the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing women’s voting rights as well as the vast expansion of the federal welfare state under Roosevelt’s New Deal and the first achievements of the civil rights movement. Our respondents rated U.S. democracy as improving steadily during this period, surpassing a mean score of 50 on the 100-point scale for the first time.  

The time lapses in our survey question shortened at this point. Between 1950 to 1975, the country experienced the high water mark of the civil rights movement, including landmark civil rights legislation in 1957 and 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The average rating for US democracy rose more steeply during this 25-year span than it did on average during the prior 50-year intervals.

Subsequently, the assessments from our experts plateau over the next four decades, remaining roughly stable over ten-year intervals from 1975-2015. During this period, there is no clear difference in overall evaluations of U.S. democracy across administrations with diametrically different governing ideologies, including the two-term presidencies of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. In 2017, however, we observe a decline in the final rating after the beginning of the Trump administration.

The Trump slump is worth examining more closely. As summarized in the chart below, fully three-quarters of the experts surveyed registered a decline in the quality of U.S. democracy between 2015 and 2017. About a quarter regarded this as minor (between 1 and 5 points on the 100-point scale), another quarter gauged it as moderate (6 to 10 points), and 27% estimated it as larger than 10 points. By contrast, 21% perceived no change across the most recent two years and only 4% rate U.S. democracy as stronger in 2017 than in 2015.

W2 2015 to 2017 democracy rating differences - bar chart

Clearly, our expert sample of political scientists views the quality of US democracy more negatively in May 2017 than it did in the past.

Conclusion

Findings from the Wave 2 Bright Line Watch survey indicate that confidence in parts of the basic framework of liberal democracy in the U.S. remain solid, but significant concerns exist and are growing in numerous areas.

Respondent assessments of the U.S. vary widely across different dimensions of democracy. Evaluations of the rights that guarantee freedom of expression, including of unpopular ideas, are consistently positive. However, assessments of the quality of elections and mechanisms of accountability are mixed; some specific principles are widely regarded as met whereas others are seen as deficient. For example, there is widespread confidence that the minimum conditions for democratic elections, such as the absence of fraud, are fulfilled but other elements of electoral quality, including unbiased electoral districts, high participation rates, and transparent disclosure of campaign funding, are held to be lacking.

The variation in in our respondents’ judgments of mechanisms of accountability is not quite so wide but still remains uneven. The U.S. judiciary is held in high regard for its independence and its ability to exercise a check on executive authority, but other checks on government power and forms of accountability command far less esteem. Most respondents are skeptical about the effectiveness of Congress as a check on the executive, whether public officials can be constrained from abusing their authority, and whether investigation and enforcement mechanisms are uncompromised by political considerations.

Finally, our respondents rate the United States as deficient on metrics of political equality, including voting, legal, and political rights, as well as on equality of influence both at the ballot box and in shaping public policy. Assessments of respect for the behavioral norms that sustain civil discourse, including decency toward political opponents, willingness to compromise, and even to seek common understandings on basic facts, are lower still.

Over time, our expert respondents perceive the quality of U.S. democracy as increasing steadily for the first two centuries after independence, with the most dramatic gains concentrated in the decades immediately following World War II. Those gains were preserved through the Cold War era and into the 21st century despite the turmoil following the 9/11 attacks and the war on terror.

Between 2015 and the present, however, our respondents perceive a sharp decline in the quality of democracy, the first for any time interval we examined. We will continue to explore the sources and persistence of this shift in future surveys, but the evidence from February to May points toward intensifying concerns about whether constitutional limits on executive authority can be enforced, whether Congress is willing or able to enforce those limits, and whether legal and political rights will be equally guaranteed to all Americans. We are not shocked by our results given the ongoing political battles over these core democratic principles, but their familiarity in no way limits their urgency. We will continue to monitor the quality of democracy in the United States in future reports.

 

 

Appendix A: Changes to the survey

Bright Line Watch conducted its first expert survey on U.S. democracy in February 2017 (Wave 1). We received comments and feedback on the instrument from dozens of political science faculty who took the survey as well as from journalists and other scholars who took an interest in the project. We incorporated many of those suggestions in designing the Wave 2 instrument.

Our intention is to repeat variants of the survey quarterly, maintaining the core battery of statements evaluating democratic performance and rotating additional questions into the mix to explore historical and comparative cases. For the core battery, we will prioritize stability for purposes of comparisons over time, but we also aim to establish the best possible instrument.

The most significant change to the study was the expansion of the list of statements included in the Wave 2 survey from 19 to 29. Readers can view the full lists of statements from Wave 1 and Wave 2 here. The list of newly added statements is as follows:

  • Voter participation in elections is generally high.

  • The geographic boundaries of electoral districts do not systematically advantage any particular political party.

  • Government protects individuals’ right to engage in peaceful protest.

  • Information about the sources of campaign funding is available to the public.

  • Public policy is not determined by large campaign contributions.

  • Citizens can make their opinions heard in open debate about policies that are under consideration.

  • Citizens have access to information about candidates that is relevant to how they would govern.

  • Law enforcement investigations of public officials or their associates are free from political influence or interference.

  • Even when there are disagreements about ideology or policy, political leaders generally share a common understanding of relevant facts.

  • Elected officials seek compromise with political opponents.

In Wave 1, we asked respondents to evaluate all 19 of the statements twice – first in a battery asking how important each principle is to democracy in general and then again in battery asking about the performance of U.S. democracy. With the expanded list of statements in Wave 2, we decided to reduce the burden on respondents by requesting an evaluation of a randomly selected subset of 15 of the 29 statements. This change lightened the load on respondents considerably, although it reduced the number of responses we received evaluating any given statement (which ranged from 531 to 612).

The first eight of the new statements listed above were intended to expand the range of democratic principles that our survey evaluates. The last two statements have a different intent. We regard them as improvements over two Wave 1 statements that we concluded were awkward and unclear:

  • Government leaders recognize the validity of bureaucratic or scientific consensus about matters of public policy.

  • In the elected branches, majorities act with restraint and reciprocity.

On Wave 2, we included all four statements in order to confirm that the proposed replacements tap into related ideas as the originals. The responses for each pairing in Wave 2 suggests they do. For instance, the 84% of respondents for the original consensus question indicated the U.S. “does not” or only “partly meets” the standard versus 90% for the new common understanding question (correlation = 0.56 among those who answered both questions). Similarly, 85% of respondents said the U.S. “does not” or only “partly meets” the standard for the original majority restraint question versus 89% for the new compromise question (correlation = 0.43).

We therefore plan to drop the two original statements in future waves of the survey.

Appendix B: Statements by theme

Statement U.S. mostly+fully
meets standard
Expression
Protest tolerated 80%
Free speech 80%
Opinions heard on policy 75%
No political violence 68%
No interference with press 63%
Agencies do not punish 63%
Average 72%
Accountability
Judicial check 76%
Judicial independence 58%
Sanctions for misconduct 45%
Legislative check 41%
Constitutional limits on executive 39%
Investigations not compromised 36%
Public office for private gain 29%
Average 46%
Elections
Fraud-free elections 83%
All parties allowed 82%
Candidates disclose information 68%
No foreign influence 35%
Campaign funds transparent 34%
Participation high 10%
Districts not biased 7%
Average 46%
Equality
Equal opportunity to vote 35%
Equal legal and political rights 34%
Votes have equal impact 24%
Contributions do not determine policy 17%
Average 28%
Norms
Patriotism not attacked 19%
Policy consensus recognized 15%
Restraint and reciprocity 15%
Compromise sought 11%
Common understanding of facts 10%
Average 14%


Appendix C: Changes in ratings of democratic performance (Waves 1/2)

Statement W1: Mostly + fully W2: Mostly + fully W2-W1
Constitution limits executive 51% 39% -12%*
Legislature can limit executive 52% 41% -11%*
Equal legal/political rights 43% 34% -9%*
No foreign influence 42% 35% -8%*
Judicial independence 65% 58% -6%*
Judiciary can limit executive 80% 76% -4%
Fraud-free elections 86% 83% -3%
No interference with press 65% 63% -2%
Equal voting rights 37% 35% -2%
Free speech 81% 80% -1%
Restraint/reciprocity 15% 15% -1%
All parties allowed 83% 82% -1%
Sanctions for misconduct 45% 45% -1%
Policy consensus recognized 15% 15% 0%
Votes have equal impact 24% 24% 0%
No political violence 68% 68% 0%
No private gains from office 28% 29% +1%
Patriotism not questioned 17% 19% +2%
Agencies do not punish 60% 63% +2%
Protest tolerated 80%
Opinions heard on policy 75%
Candidates disclose information 68%
Investigations not compromised 36%
Campaign funds transparent 34%
Contributions not determine policy 17%
Compromise sought 11%
Participation high 10%
Common understanding of facts 10%
Districts not biased 7%

* p<.05

Appendix D: Assessments of U.S. Democracy

Year Rating
1800 30.78
1850 35.10
1900 46.18
1950 58.67
1975 75.31
1985 76.90
1995 78.16
2005 75.27
2015 75.78
2017 67.11

 

Article by BLW Co-Director Gretchen Helmke at The Monkey Cage

What makes checks and balances function in some presidential systems, but not others? With President Trump’s 100th day in office fast approaching, the constitutional crisis that many critics feared has yet to materialize. Rhetorically, Trump continues to claim vast powers. In practice, when both the courts and Congress have pushed back, the administration has demurred.

Read the full post by Gretchen Helmke at The Monkey Cage at The Washington Post:  “Could Trump set off a constitutional crisis? Here’s what we can learn from Latin America.

 

 

Results from the Bright Line Watch U.S. Democracy Survey

BLW conducted its first U.S. Democracy Survey from February 13-19, 2017. We invited 9,820 political science faculty at 511 U.S. institutions to participate and received 1,571 responses (a response rate of 16 percent).

The set of invitees was constructed from the list of U.S. institutions represented in the online program of the 2016 meeting of the American Political Science Association conference. We then collected email addresses for regular, adjunct, and emeritus faculty from the political science departments at each of these institutions.

Survey design and rationale

The survey had two broad goals. The first was to learn what qualities our respondents regard as most essential to democracy. Democracy is a complex, contested concept whose definition has been debated for centuries. We wanted to know which characteristics professional political scientists regard as the most important for democracy and which elements they regard as less essential. Our second purpose was to use that same set of characteristics to assess how our respondents rate the current state of democracy in the United States.

At the core of the survey were two batteries of questions organized around the following nineteen statements:

  1. Elections are conducted, ballots counted, and winners determined without pervasive fraud or manipulation.
  2. Government protects individuals’ right to engage in unpopular speech or expression.
  3. Government agencies are not used to monitor, attack, or punish political opponents.
  4. Government does not interfere with journalists or news organizations.
  5. All citizens have equal opportunity to vote.
  6. All citizens enjoy the same legal and political rights.
  7. The elected branches respect judicial independence.
  8. Executive authority cannot be expanded beyond constitutional limits.
  9. Government effectively prevents private actors from engaging in politically motivated violence or intimidation.
  10. Parties and candidates are not barred due to their political beliefs and ideologies.
  11. Government officials are legally sanctioned for misconduct.
  12. The judiciary is able to effectively limit executive power.
  13. The legislature is able to effectively limit executive power.
  14. Elections are free from foreign influence.
  15. Government officials do not use public office for private gain.
  16. All votes have equal impact on election outcomes.
  17. In the elected branches, majorities act with restraint and reciprocity.
  18. Government leaders recognize the validity of bureaucratic or scientific consensus about matters of public policy,
  19. Political competition occurs without criticism of opponents’ loyalty or patriotism.

In the first battery, participants were asked, “How important are these characteristics for democratic government?” They rated each of the nineteen statements on the following scale:

  • Not relevant. This has no impact on democracy.
  • Beneficial. This enhances democracy, but is not required for democracy.
  • Important. If this is absent, democracy is compromised.
  • Essential. A country cannot be considered democratic without this.

The second battery asked, “How well do the following statements describe the United States as of today?” Each respondent was then asked to rate the same nineteen statements using the following response options:

  • The U.S. does not meet this standard.
  • The U.S. partly meets this standard.
  • The U.S. mostly meets this standard.
  • The U.S. fully meets this standard.
  • Not sure.

The order in which statements were presented in each battery was randomized for each respondent so there should be no priming or ordering effects in how they were assessed.

After these two extensive batteries, we asked respondents to rate democracy in the United States today on a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 is least democratic and 10 is most democratic.

In developing this list, we attempted to capture a range of characteristics that are prominent in both minimalist and expansive definitions of democracy. The statements describe both institutions and practices, including elections, citizens’ rights, checks on political authority, mechanisms of accountability, and behavioral norms.

Of course, our list of attributes is not comprehensive. However, it includes many – though certainly not all – of the institutional characteristics that foster competition and participation. As such, it arguably speaks more to electoral and liberal conceptions of democracy, such as the institutional guarantees outlined in Robert Dahl’s seminal work or the Madisonian vision of limited government, than to more deliberative or majoritarian conceptions. We also tried to select attributes that are central to public debate about the status of contemporary democracy in the U.S. Again, however, the list is necessarily incomplete. It does not include, for instance, questions about party strength, campaign finance, turnout, or political engagement.

Findings

What matters for democracy

The figure below shows the distribution of responses on the importance to democracy battery for each of the statements. The statements are ordered from top to bottom on the y-axis by the proportion of responses that deem a principle important or essential to democracy.  (Summary statistics in tabular form are here.)

Analysis Post - FIG1 - DEM stacked bar

Respondents regarded some characteristics of elections as far more central to democracy than others. Although political scientists regularly warn against simply equating elections with democracy, they overwhelmingly rated elections that are free of widespread fraud and manipulation as the most important single element of democracy among the nineteen on our list. Fully 92% of respondents rate elections without widespread fraud as essential, which is far higher than for any other principle, and another 7% regard them as important.

Besides clean elections, respondents identify a series of characteristics related to basic individual rights as highly important, including free speech (#2), equal access to the vote (#5), and equal political and legal rights for all citizens (#6).

Also toward the top of the list is a group of characteristics that focus on safeguards for political opposition and dissent: no surveillance and harassment by government agencies (#3), a free press (#4), government protection against private political violence (#9), and guarantees for parties to compete regardless of ideology (#10).

A group of items in the middle of the distribution pertain to mechanisms of accountability: judicial independence (#7), restraints on the expansion of executive power (#8), guarantees that misconduct by public officials will be sanctioned (#11), the ability of the judiciary (#12) and the legislature (#13) to check executive authority, and that government officials do not use public office for private gain (#15).

Nearer to the bottom are two characteristics of elections that have been controversial of late in the United States — that they should be free from foreign influence (#14) and that all votes should have equal impact on election outcomes (#16). The contrast with respondents’ emphasis on elections free of fraud (#1) and equal voting rights (#3) is noteworthy. Perhaps reflecting the knowledge that there is no neutral way to aggregate preferences, the responses to our survey display a sharp disjuncture between insistence on equality in citizens’ right to vote and the level of importance given to those votes having equal impact.

Clustered at the end of the list are some behavioral norms that are not codified in statutes or the Constitution, but that have been the subject of discussion in the past year — that elected majorities should act according to norms of restraint and reciprocity (#17), that politicians should campaign without disparaging their opponent’s patriotism or loyalty (#18), and that public officials should recognize scientific or bureaucratic consensus (#19). It is important to note that roughly 90% of respondents still ranked such norms as at least beneficial to democracy.

Performance of democracy in the United States

Shifting from theory to practice, we now present the distribution of responses on the battery assessing U.S. democracy today. The statements are again ordered vertically according to the combined share of responses indicating that the United States fully or mostly meets the standard (as opposed to partly or not at all).  (Summary statistics in tabular form are here.)

Analysis Post - FIG2 - US stacked bar

The picture here is mixed. On only 10 of the 19 attributes did half or more of all respondents judge the United States to mostly or fully meet the standard in question. At the high end, 86% said the country mostly or fully meets the standard that elections are free from widespread fraud and manipulation. Likewise, the U.S. performs quite well in terms of open party competition, protecting free expression and media, judicial independence and checks on executive authority, and protection from private political violence and government harassment. By contrast, respondents gave relatively low marks to the U.S. on the remaining characteristics. For example, more than half of the political scientists surveyed estimated that the U.S. does not meet or only partly meets the standard that elections are free from foreign influence. Similarly, more than two-thirds said that the U.S. did not meet the standard of government officials refraining from using public office for private gain and votes having equal impact. And more than three-quarters responded negatively to U.S. performance on basic norms of debate and deliberation.

Comparing importance to democracy with U.S. performance

It is especially interesting to consider how political scientists rank the U.S. in terms of the characteristics that they regard as especially important to democracy. This relationship is captured in the figure below, which plots the combined share of responses that rate the U.S. as fully or mostly meeting each standard against the share of responses that rate a principle as essential and important to democracy.

scatterplot

 

There is a clear positive correlation between assessments of importance to democracy and perceived US performance. Perhaps most reassuringly, respondents rate the U.S. highest on the characteristic they view as most essential to democracy – clean elections. The contrast with President Trump’s narrative of rampant voter fraud is stark on this count. Using data from the 2016 election and prior contests, scholars have closely examined claims that voter fraud is widespread and have consistently found no evidence to substantiate them. Political science faculty at large appear to have accepted these findings and accordingly rate U.S. elections highly. The U.S. also fares well on other important dimensions ranging from party competition and free speech to the judiciary’s check on the executive and limiting private political violence.

There are, nevertheless, multiple important attributes on which half or more of respondents regarded the U.S. to be falling far short of democratic standards. Most notably, respondents rate the U.S. relatively low on the qualities held to be second- and third-most important for democracy – equal legal and political rights and equal voting rights for all citizens. These evaluations likely reflect concerns about racial disparities in the application of criminal law and the potentially disparate effects of voter registration and identification laws and changes to voting procedures on minority voters.

The United States rated even lower on some norms of behavior that, although less critical, are still regarded as either essential or important to democracy by around half of our respondents. On the statements about civil political discourse, majority restraint, and deference to non-political sources of information, more than 80%  regarded the United States as failing. Some prominent observers (here and here) regard erosion of behavioral norms along these lines as an early warning sign of democratic backsliding.

Overall rating

The next figure shows how respondents rated democracy in the United States on a 1-10 scale (where 1 is least democratic and 10 is most democratic). The responses skewed toward the favorable end of the rating scale. Almost seven in 10 respondents (69%) rated the U.S. at 7 or better and 36% at 8 or better, while only 1 in 6 respondents rated it at 5 or below.

ratings

We are hesitant, for now, to interpret these scores without points of comparison both across time and cross-nationally. We hope to provide such comparisons in future work. At this point, though, it fair to conclude that expert opinion among political scientists views the state of democracy in the U.S. relatively favorably, though they also recognize some serious flaws.

Conclusion

These findings provide mixed news. Despite an atmosphere of pessimism or panic among many observers and public intellectuals, the political science community holds a rather nuanced view of democratic governance in the United States as of February 2017. They rate the U.S. as performing well on many of the criteria that they say are most important for democracy. For instance, 86% say the United States fully or mostly meets the standard that elections are free and fair and approximately 80% say the same for the standards of protecting free speech and the judiciary limiting executive power.

The results, however, also provide significant reason for concern. Fewer than two-thirds (66%) are as confident that journalists can operate unimpeded by the state, that the elected branches respect judicial independence (65%), or that government agencies are not used to monitor and harass political opponents (60%). Only the barest majorities are confident that Congress can effectively check the executive or that executive authority can be constrained within constitutional limits (52% and 51%, respectively).

With regard to equal rights, both in voting and more generally, our respondents assess U.S. performance even more dismally, probably reflecting long-standing institutions of electoral exclusion and wide socioeconomic inequalities that have been matters of concern for many years. Finally, respondents’ evaluations of basic behavioral norms related to civil discourse, reciprocity, and the recognition of common standards of facts and analysis rate worst of all.

Ultimately, these findings provide an essential baseline measure of how political science experts view the status of American democracy in early 2017. As part of our continued effort to track what a wide range of professional political scientists think about democracy in contemporary America, we welcome input on these surveys going forward. We plan to conduct additional waves of the survey each quarter that will include new questions and comparisons with other time periods and other parts of the world. We invite critical feedback on our initial design and also encourage colleagues to use the data from our survey to examine our results further. In all of these ways, we hope to foster informed debate among our profession and in the country at large about the health of American democracy.

 

Appendix: Critical Evaluation of the First Bright Line Watch U.S. Democracy Survey

Our goals in designing the BLW U.S. Democracy Survey were to measure which characteristics our respondents regard as most critical to democracy and to assess the performance of democracy in the United States and elsewhere against that set of ideals.

Creating a survey instrument that can fulfill all of these goals proved to be a challenging task.  We recognize and appreciate the comments we have received so far and welcome further feedback. To explain the motivation for the survey design, we offer some observations here about the choices we made in the process. (We also welcome comments on our analysis of the survey data, which we have made available online.)

Distinguishing the most essential characteristics of democracy

We first wish to report that our efforts to design a survey that allowed respondents to make distinctions among different characteristics of democracy appears to have been successful.

For this survey to provide useful results, it was important that respondents did not simply equate democracy with every normatively desirable characteristic of politics and government. If they had simply rated each characteristic as essential, the survey would have provided no information about their relative importance.

The histogram below shows the distribution of all responses on the importance to democracy scale across all nineteen statements:

Critique Post FIG1 - DEM_overall_response_distrib_histogram

Respondents effectively used three of the four response options and those answers skewed toward the highest scale value. However, the distribution of responses varied tremendously at the statement level. Consider the first bar graph showing the distributions of responses for each statement about importance to democracy. The combined share of responses indicating that a given principle is either important or essential runs from 99% for clean elections to below 50% for respecting political opponents. The proportion of respondents rating a characteristic as essential varies even further (11% to 92%). We find these results reassuring. They suggest that respondents regarded our statements as relevant to democracy, but sharply distinguished among them in terms of their relative priority.

The next figure shows the corresponding distribution of responses on the U.S. democracy battery. Reassuringly, respondents used the whole scale in rating the performance of the U.S. The distributions of responses also varied dramatically across the statements.

Critique Post FIG2 - US_overall_response_distrib_histogram

In the second bar graph, showing the distributions of responses for each statement with respect to US performance, note in particular the discrepancies between the shares of “Fully meets this standard” (red) and “Mostly meets this standard” (pink). We expected many respondents to be reluctant to render a judgment of full compliance with almost any standard. (After all, there are are always deviations from democratic ideals.) We therefore regarded the combined share of “Fully meets” and “Mostly meets” responses to be particularly informative in showing that respondents were discriminating between statements.

Political bias

Some of the critical responses to the survey ran along the lines of:

  • “Seems driven by a political agenda.”
  • “Given the timing of the request, it’s easy to assume that you aim to characterize the political science profession as believing the Trump administration to be a threat to American democratic institutions.”

First, our aim with the first survey was to assess how political scientists define democracy and how they rate its performance in the United States. In subsequent surveys, we plan to ask respondents to assess U.S. democracy in other time periods and to assess democracy in other countries. In other words, we sought to design the survey to be flexible and generalizable. In crafting the statements in our batteries, we sought to reflect principles that are salient cross-nationally and across time periods. The first survey establishes some baseline results that will be useful for comparisons going forward.

It would be disingenuous, however, not to acknowledge that our own level of interest in these issues was elevated by recent events in the United States. The election that brought Donald Trump to the presidency was unprecedented in recent history in numerous respects. Many of the actions and behaviors for which Trump is criticized are reflected in the statements included on our survey. Furthermore, political science faculty, like the professoriate more generally, tend to identify with the Democratic Party and a number of political scientists have published commentary (here, here, and here) arguing that the Trump presidency represents a threat to American democracy.

With all that in mind, we note that, if respondents were engaging with our survey as a vehicle to bash President Trump, we would expect them to prioritize the statements that most closely reflect the actions on which Trump has been most widely criticized:

  • Attacking Clinton’s character during the campaign;
  • Making factual claims contradicted by authoritative sources;
  • Failing to separate his private financial interests from official business;
  • Inviting foreign influence over the U.S. election.

Respondents did rate the U.S. low on the statements most closely related to those controversies, but they also ranked these characteristics among the least important to democracy (#19, #18, #15, and #14, respectively). These results suggest that respondents were not merely using the survey as a vehicle for anti-Trump venting, which is welcome news.

Summing up

There is certainly more to say about the first BLW survey. We will monitor feedback carefully and invite thoughtful criticisms of the survey, particularly those that suggest ways to improve going forward. We are open to publishing such contributions on this blog in an effort to generate a sustained discussion about how best to evaluate what matters to democracy and how to measure it in practice.

For now, we are gratified with our initial survey on a number of counts. First and foremost, we appreciate that so many of our colleagues were willing to take the time to offer their views and expertise. Second, the statements we included in our batteries appeared to resonate with respondents, but also allowed them to distinguish principles according to importance. We think these results tell us quite a bit about which characteristics political scientists regard as central to democracy and which they regard as more peripheral. Finally, our respondents appear to have answered these questions in a relatively dispassionate manner. At the least, they did not appear to engage in reflexive expressions of dismay at the new administration – an encouraging sign for the validity of this new research enterprise.