Democracy in the COVID-19 era: Bright Line Watch August 2020 expert survey

Since March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has trans­formed Americans’ lives and the practice of politics in this country. To date, more than 180,000 Americans have died. Many schools and work­places have closed. Campaigns for the pres­i­den­cy, Congress, and other public offices are taking place in largely virtual form. During this period, protests against the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the gov­ern­ment responses to those protests have also high­light­ed deep chal­lenges to demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­er­nance. What effects have these dramatic events had? In its 11th survey of experts, conducted from July 27-August 17, 2020, Bright Line Watch invited political sci­en­tists across the country to assess the current state of U.S. democracy. In all, 776 respon­dents completed the survey.

Key findings:

  • Expert per­cep­tions of overall per­for­mance of U.S. democracy continued an ongoing decline since spring 2019, reaching the lowest point since Bright Line Watch began its surveys in early 2017.
  • Performance declines since March 2020 are greatest for pro­tec­tions of free speech, tol­er­a­tion of peaceful protest, and pro­tec­tion from political violence. Experts also report con­sid­er­able declines since 2017 in per­for­mance on demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples con­cern­ing limits on gov­ern­ment power and account­abil­i­ty for its misuse.
  • Experts also express concerns about the state of American elections. Although rel­a­tive­ly few express sig­nif­i­cant concerns about fraud, the majority does not believe that elections are free from foreign influence. Moreover, over two-thirds do not trust that citizens have an equal oppor­tu­ni­ty to vote or that all votes have equal impact.
  • The gap between expert assess­ments of the impor­tance of numerous prin­ci­ples and per­for­mance on those prin­ci­ples has widened. In the past, impor­tance and per­for­mance ratings were highly cor­re­lat­ed; experts perceived stronger per­for­mance for more important prin­ci­ples. That rela­tion­ship has weakened.

Overall democratic performance — contemporary and historical

We find a small but per­cep­ti­ble drop in experts’ ratings of the overall quality of U.S. democracy. During the first two years of Bright Line Watch expert surveys, from February 2017 to March 2019, average scores were generally in the high 60s on a 0–100 scale, with a decline in the period before the 2018 midterm elections and then an uptick afterward in March 2019.  Since then, however, three con­sec­u­tive expert surveys have shown suc­ces­sive declines, driving ratings of U.S. democracy to a new low of 61 on our scale.

In the July-August 2020 survey, we asked our experts to make ret­ro­spec­tive assess­ments on the same 0–100 demo­c­ra­t­ic quality scale for nine years cor­re­spond­ing to distinct eras in American history: 1800, 1850, 1900, 1950, 1975, 1985, 1995, 2005, and 2015. The first four proceed in fifty-year incre­ments to 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 after the New Deal but before the peak of the civil rights movement (1950). We then solicit ratings for smaller intervals of 25 years and then 10 on the assump­tion that respon­dents’ knowledge and ability to discern dif­fer­ences in demo­c­ra­t­ic quality improve as we approach the present day. Our final ret­ro­spec­tive assess­ment covers 2015, which allows us to capture respon­dents’ judgments of U.S. democracy before the 2016 election campaign.

In a survey conducted in May 2017, we asked expert respon­dents to rate these same his­tor­i­cal periods. We repeat the exercise in light of recent debates in academia, the news media, and main­stream political discourse that directly challenge previous his­tor­i­cal con­cep­tions of U.S. democracy. Prominent examples include the New York Times’s 1619 Project, which places slavery at the center of American history, and arguments that draw on critical race theory to advance claims for fun­da­men­tal public policy changes to address profound political, economic, and social inequal­i­ties. Similarly, the protests that swept the country in summer 2020 were initially prompted by incidents of racial­ized violence in policing but grew to include chal­lenges to monuments to his­tor­i­cal figures and the nar­ra­tives they embody.

We therefore repli­cat­ed our his­tor­i­cal survey battery to determine whether this sustained period of impas­sioned critique changed how experts assessed America’s demo­c­ra­t­ic past. We find no evidence of such change.[1] Rather, we find remark­able con­sis­ten­cy when we compare these responses to those from 2017. In both cases, we observe an upward trend from 1800 to 1950. (Our data do not allow us to capture some previous instances of demo­c­ra­t­ic back­slid­ing such as the erosion of a nascent mul­tira­cial democracy in the South after the Civil War.) Ratings of demo­c­ra­t­ic quality rise most steeply between 1950 and 1975, the period of the civil rights movement. Ratings then stabilize in the 75–80 range for the 1975–2015 period. The con­sis­ten­cy we observe between surveys suggests that our ret­ro­spec­tive measures of demo­c­ra­t­ic quality are reliable and valid, but also that the recent wave of critiques have not changed expert assessments.

Performance on democratic principles

To dis­en­tan­gle per­for­mance on different aspects of democracy, we asked our sample of experts to gauge how well the U.S. “fully meets,” “mostly meets,” “partly meets,” or “does not meet” standards for 28 demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples (a list of the text of each is provided in the Appendix). The figure below presents the response dis­tri­b­u­tion for each statement sorted by the pro­por­tion of respon­dents who consider the principle to be “mostly” or “fully” met.

In general, experts rate the U.S. as per­form­ing well on dimen­sions related to rights and freedoms (parties, opinions, speech). They rate it as per­form­ing poorly on dimen­sions asso­ci­at­ed with civility and behavior (patri­o­tism, com­pro­mise, facts) and electoral dys­func­tion (biased districts, campaign con­tri­bu­tions, inequal­i­ty of votes). Experts express more mixed judgments on items involving account­abil­i­ty of office-holders and insti­tu­tions. For instance, rel­a­tive­ly fewer experts provide ratings at either extreme of the per­for­mance scale (i.e., “does not meet” or “fully meets”) for items that mention the ability of insti­tu­tions (judiciary, leg­is­la­ture, the Constitution) to limit the executive.

How have these per­cep­tions shifted since our last expert survey in March 2020? We illus­trate these changes in the figure below, which plots the per­cent­age of respon­dents indi­cat­ing that the U.S. “mostly” or “fully meets” the standard in question in our March and August 2020 expert surveys. Statistically sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences are high­light­ed in color.[2]

Since March, experts perceive sub­stan­tial declines in gov­ern­ment pro­tec­tion for peaceful protests (-31%), pre­ven­tion of political violence (-16.7%), and pro­tec­tions for free speech (-12.4%). These decreases are likely attrib­ut­able to the administration’s responses to protests and demon­stra­tions, including the use of non-lethal weapons against pro­tes­tors and the deploy­ment of federal agents in Portland and Washington, D.C. Expert ratings also declined for the prin­ci­ples that gov­ern­ment sta­tis­tics and data are not influ­enced by political con­sid­er­a­tions (-14.3%), inves­ti­ga­tions of public officials are free of political inter­fer­ence (-10.9%), and that voter par­tic­i­pa­tion in elections is generally high (-9%).

The only sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant improve­ment in per­for­mance we observe is on the principle that the judiciary can effec­tive­ly limit the executive, which rose from 44% to 58% saying that the U.S. mostly or fully meets this standard. This increase might reflect recent court decisions that prevented President Trump from blocking the release of his financial records and over­turned his decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. It is also possible that the increase rep­re­sents a regres­sion to the mean after the March 2020 survey, when many items linked to insti­tu­tion­al account­abil­i­ty sank to record lows.

To put the declines we observe in a long-term context, we plot the evolution of each item since spring 2017 in the figure below, which lists the five items on which expert ratings of U.S. demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance have fallen the furthest since we began our surveys:

  • Government protects indi­vid­u­als’ right to engage in peaceful protest
  • Executive authority cannot be expanded beyond con­sti­tu­tion­al limits
  • The leg­is­la­ture is able to effec­tive­ly limit executive power
  • The judiciary is able to effec­tive­ly limit executive power
  • Government agencies are not used to monitor, attack, or punish political opponents

As the figure illus­trates, the first item, which measures gov­ern­ment tol­er­a­tion of protest, was high and generally stable until our most recent survey, when it plunged thirty per­cent­age points (as discussed above). The magnitude of this decline rivals the reduction for the principle that gov­ern­ment agencies not be used to punish political opponents that followed the discovery of the President’s efforts pres­sur­ing the Ukrainian gov­ern­ment to inves­ti­gate Joe Biden (the final item on the list). The next three items reflect our experts’ dimin­ished con­fi­dence in the effec­tive­ness of insti­tu­tion­al checks on executive authority since 2017. All four of these items declined sharply between March and October 2019 and have not rebounded sub­stan­tial­ly in the period since.

The importance-performance gap for democratic principles

The declines in demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance that we observe on a number of prin­ci­ples are dis­cour­ag­ing, but the sub­stan­tive relevance of these changes depends on how crucial each principle is to democracy. In addition to gauging per­for­mance on each demo­c­ra­t­ic principle, our survey also asked respon­dents to rate the impor­tance of each char­ac­ter­is­tic to demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­ern­ment as “not relevant,” “ben­e­fi­cial,” “important,” or “essential.” We have measured the impor­tance of these prin­ci­ples four times since we began our surveys in 2017.[3] In contrast with per­for­mance (which we have measured eleven times), impor­tance assess­ments are remark­ably stable.[4]

The figure below high­lights the dif­fer­ence between the per­cent­age of experts rating each principle as “mostly important” or “essential” to democracy and the per­cent­age saying the U.S. “mostly” or “fully meets” the standard in question for each principle. For example, if 95% of experts viewed free and fair elections as essential or important for democracy, but only 80% believed that the United States is fully or mostly meeting this standard, then we would have a deficit of 15 per­cent­age points, the value plotted on the hor­i­zon­tal axis. Dots further to the right indicate that a greater per­cent­age of experts rate the principle as important relative to the per­cent­age who rate the U.S. as per­form­ing well on it. The panels show this gap for a different demo­c­ra­t­ic principle across each of the four waves in which impor­tance and per­for­mance were measured, allowing us to see how gaps have changed over time.

We find sub­stan­tial gaps between impor­tance and per­for­mance. With just a few excep­tions, these have either widened since 2017 (i.e., dots move rightward across waves) or have been con­sis­tent­ly wide (i.e., located rel­a­tive­ly far from zero) since we began polling experts.

The largest impor­tance-per­for­mance gaps are for prin­ci­ples related to insti­tu­tions and account­abil­i­ty, where dif­fer­ences between impor­tance and per­for­mance fre­quent­ly exceed 50 per­cent­age points and have markedly increased over the course of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion. For example, the dif­fer­ence between impor­tance and per­for­mance for con­sti­tu­tion­al limits on the executive stood at around 30 per­cent­age points when we began polling experts in 2017. By August 2020, the gap had grown to 60 per­cent­age points. Measures for impartial inves­ti­ga­tions, sanctions against mis­con­duct, leg­isla­tive limits on the executive, and agencies not punishing political opponents show similar trajectories.

Heading into the 2020 election, the picture for elections and voting is also troubling. Many related prin­ci­ples show a dif­fer­ence of fifty per­cent­age points or more. A number of these prin­ci­ples (par­tic­i­pa­tion, con­tri­bu­tions deter­min­ing policy, equal voting rights, districts not biased) have been under­per­form­ing con­sis­tent­ly since we began our surveys. The most recent survey also shows an increased gap on whether votes have equal impact, perhaps owing to concerns about the potential for another inversion in which the Electoral College winner loses the popular vote in November. In addition, the importance/performance gap for foreign influence on the elections now surpasses 50 per­cent­age points, high­light­ing concerns that will likely intensify with the Trump administration’s recent move to end in-person intel­li­gence briefings to Congress about foreign inter­fer­ence in elections.

We see large gaps emerging, as mentioned, on prin­ci­ples related to rights and pro­tec­tions, including protests being tolerated, free speech, and political violence, as well as a slight widening of the dif­fer­ence between impor­tance and per­for­mance for equal political and legal rights and no inter­fer­ence with the press.

Several items on our surveys concern political discourse. Our experts have seen will­ing­ness to com­pro­mise as fairly stable since 2017. However, the impor­tance-per­for­mance gap has grown on ques­tion­ing the opposition’s patri­o­tism and cross-party common under­stand­ing of facts.

Rating the normalcy and importance of recent events

As in prior surveys, we asked experts to assess the impor­tance and normalcy of several notable events that took place since our last report in March. Experts clas­si­fied each event on separate five-point scales that ranged from unim­por­tant to important and from normal to abnormal, respectively.

The results are presented in the figure below. Routine activ­i­ties of little impor­tance lie in the lower-left quadrant. Points situated in the upper-right quadrant represent events that experts deem highly uncon­ven­tion­al and con­se­quen­tial; these are often major depar­tures from demo­c­ra­t­ic norms. For example, holding a joint press con­fer­ence with Mexico’s president is business as usual and thus rated as both normal and unim­por­tant, while the Justice Department’s decision to drop charges against former national security advisor Michael Flynn was rated as important and outside estab­lished norms.

Events regarded as both important and abnormal are abundant in the figures below. The dense cluster of unlabeled points in the shaded box in the first figure below cor­re­sponds to those labeled with black text in a magnified version of that same sector presented in the second figure. The second figure puts the most recent set of important and abnormal events in the context of all such events we have tracked during the Trump pres­i­den­cy, con­trast­ing events that occurred after March 2020 (in black) with those from previous surveys (in grey).

Experts view the per­sis­tent attacks and mis­in­for­ma­tion on mail-in voting by President Trump as the most important and most abnormal incidents that occurred since March, though they did not view any recent event as being as abnormal and con­se­quen­tial as the Trump-Putin summit in 2018.

We note, however, the challenge of dis­crim­i­nat­ing between what is normal or abnormal in the midst of a global pandemic. Many experts expressed this dif­fi­cul­ty in their comments, par­tic­u­lar­ly for policies directly linked to the pandemic. For instance, one expert writes of the CARES Act: “Clearly a $2 trillion appro­pri­a­tion is abnormal because the crisis is abnormal. But it was the normal func­tion­ing of the system.” Similarly, another expert described the sus­pen­sion of immi­gra­tion due to COVID-19 as “a normal response to an abnormal situation.”

Notes

[1] Although the average score for 2015 in our most recent survey is slightly higher than the same rating from our prior historical survey, the difference between the estimates is not statistically significant.

[2]  We calculate sharpened FDR q-values to compare against false positives due to multiple comparisons. In graphs that show changes in performance and importance ratings, only values below the conventional 0.05 significance threshold are colored.

[3]  Note that this most recent survey includes only our expert respondents, not an accompanying representative sample of the American public. Future surveys will again include public samples.

[4] For example, none of the 28 principles showed a statistically significant change in importance ratings since the last time we asked respondents about the importance of each democratic principle (March 2019; see Figure A1 in the Appendix).

Appendix

Figure A1

Figure A2

 

Bright Line Watch expert survey on the state of American democracy, August 2020

From July 27 to August 17, 2020, Bright Line Watch conducted its eleventh survey of academic experts on the quality of democracy in the United States. We surveyed 776 political science experts across a diverse range of subfields (7.5% of solicited invi­ta­tions). Our email list was con­struct­ed from the faculty list of U.S. insti­tu­tions rep­re­sent­ed in the online program of the 2016 American Political Science Association conference.

Data from the expert survey are available here.

28 statements of democratic principles

The foun­da­tion of Bright Line Watch’s surveys is a list of 28 state­ments express­ing a range of demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples (the full list is provided below). Democracy is a mul­ti­di­men­sion­al concept. Our goal is to provide a detailed set of measures of demo­c­ra­t­ic values and of the quality of American democracy. We are also inter­est­ed in the resilience of democracy and the nature of potential threats it faces. Based on the expe­ri­ences of other countries that have expe­ri­enced demo­c­ra­t­ic setbacks, we recognize that demo­c­ra­t­ic erosion is not nec­es­sar­i­ly an across-the-board phe­nom­e­non. Some facets of democracy may be under­mined first while others remain intact, at least initially. The range of prin­ci­ples that we measure allows us to focus attention on variation in specific insti­tu­tions and practices that, in com­bi­na­tion, shape the overall per­for­mance of our democracy.

Bright Line Watch’s Wave 1 survey included 19 state­ments of demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples. Based on feedback from respon­dents and con­sul­ta­tion with col­leagues, we expanded that list to 29 state­ments in Wave 2. We then reduced that set to a set of 27 state­ments for the Wave 3 through Wave 8 surveys. 17 of those 27 state­ments were included in Wave 1, and all 27 were included in Wave 2. We added one statement to the list in Wave 9.

The full set of state­ments is presented below and grouped the­mat­i­cal­ly for clarity. In the surveys, the prin­ci­ples were not cat­e­go­rized or labeled. Each respon­dent was shown a randomly selected subset of 14 state­ments and asked to rate the per­for­mance of the United States on those dimensions.

Elections

  • Elections are conducted, ballots counted, and winners deter­mined without pervasive fraud or manipulation
  • Citizens have access to infor­ma­tion about can­di­dates that is relevant to how they would govern
  • The geo­graph­ic bound­aries of electoral districts do not sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly advantage any par­tic­u­lar political party
  • Information about the sources of campaign funding is available to the public
  • Public policy is not deter­mined by large campaign contributions
  • Elections are free from foreign influence

Voting

  • All adult citizens have equal oppor­tu­ni­ty to vote
  • All votes have equal impact on election outcomes
  • Voter par­tic­i­pa­tion in elections is generally high

Rights

  • All adult citizens enjoy the same legal and political rights
  • Parties and can­di­dates are not barred due to their political beliefs and ideologies
  • Government protects indi­vid­u­als’ right to engage in unpopular speech or expression
  • Government protects indi­vid­u­als’ right to engage in peaceful protest
  • Citizens can make their opinions heard in open debate about policies that are under consideration

Protections

  • Government does not interfere with jour­nal­ists or news organizations
  • Government effec­tive­ly prevents private actors from engaging in polit­i­cal­ly-motivated violence or intimidation
  • Government agencies are not used to monitor, attack, or punish political opponents

Accountability

  • Government officials are legally sanc­tioned for misconduct
  • Government officials do not use public office for private gain
  • Law enforce­ment inves­ti­ga­tions of public officials or their asso­ciates are free from political influence or interference
  • Government sta­tis­tics and data are produced by experts who are not influ­enced by political considerations

Institutions

  • Executive authority cannot be expanded beyond con­sti­tu­tion­al limits
  • The leg­is­la­ture is able to effec­tive­ly limit executive power
  • The judiciary is able to effec­tive­ly limit executive power
  • The elected branches respect judicial independence

Discourse

  • 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
  • Political com­pe­ti­tion occurs without criticism of opponents’ loyalty or patriotism

To measure perceived demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance, the survey asked, “How well do the following state­ments describe the United States as of today?” Each respon­dent was then presented with 10 state­ments of principle, randomly drawn from the set above, and offered 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

To measure the perceived impor­tance of each principle, the survey asked, “How important are these char­ac­ter­is­tics for demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­ern­ment?” Each respon­dent was then presented with 10 state­ments of principle, randomly drawn from the set above, and offered the following response options:

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

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

Full description of events

  1. President Trump deploys federal law enforce­ment officers to Portland, Oregon and other cities.
  2. President Trump commutes the sentence of Roger Stone, who was convicted of seven felonies for obstruct­ing a con­gres­sion­al inves­ti­ga­tion into Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign.
  3. President Trump threatens to withhold funds from Michigan and Nevada for their use of mail-in ballots in primaries during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  4. President Trump fires Inspector General Michael Atkinson months after Atkinson raised concerns that even­tu­al­ly led to Trump’s impeach­ment in the House.
  5. The Justice Department moves to drop charges against former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn after he had already pled guilty to them in court.
  6. President Trump retweets a video of a supporter yelling “white power.”
  7. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion blocks the promotion of impeach­ment witness Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, leading him to resign from the Army.
  8. Law enforce­ment officers use chemical irritants against pro­tes­tors outside the White House, clearing a path for President Trump to take a photo outside St. John’s Church
  9. President Trump posts a tweet decrying protests against police violence in Minneapolis that includes the phrase “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
  10. President Trump defending par­tic­i­pants in a white-nation­al­ist rally in Charlottesville, VA, saying there were “very fine people on both sides.”
  11. President Trump encour­ages far-right political groups to protest social dis­tanc­ing restric­tions and calls on states to lift restrictions.
  12. President Trump threatens to “regulate” or “close” down social media platforms after Twitter added a fact-check to one of his tweets.
  13. President Trump tem­porar­i­ly suspends all immi­gra­tion to the United States in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  14. President Trump holds an indoor campaign rally in Tulsa against advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and requires attendees to sign a legal release.
  15. President Trump promotes Goya food products from the Oval Office.
  16. The captain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt is relieved of command for going outside the chain of command after an outbreak of the novel coro­n­avirus on board.
  17. President Trump repeat­ed­ly mentions his per­for­mance on a cognitive test.
  18. President Trump issues a tweet threat­en­ing the tax status of edu­ca­tion­al insti­tu­tions who engage in “indoc­tri­na­tion.”
  19. President Trump accuses former President Barack Obama of treason.
  20. The House and Senate approve and President Trump signs the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act).
  21. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion releases plan to freeze anti-pollution and fuel-effi­cien­cy standards for cars.
  22. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion attempts to bar visas to all inter­na­tion­al students whose classes have gone online.
  23. President Trump gives a Fourth of July speech at Mount Rushmore.
  24. President Trump holds a joint press con­fer­ence with Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador at the White House.