Bright Line Watch — Report on March 2019 Public and Expert Surveys

Prior to the release of the Mueller report and sub­se­quent esca­la­tion of conflict between the executive and leg­isla­tive branches, Bright Line Watch conducted a new wave of surveys on the quality of democracy in the United States. From March 12–21, 2019, we fielded our eighth survey of academic experts and sixth survey of the general public. Since we began these surveys in 2017, assess­ments of U.S. demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance had generally declined among both groups. In the March 2019 surveys, our first since the 2018 midterm elections, we iden­ti­fied a sub­stan­tial reversal of that trend (albeit one that is likely already eroding). This survey also includes our first expert ratings of the quality of democracy at the level of state gov­ern­ment. The key results from these surveys are:

  • Ratings of overall democratic quality increased among both experts and the general public between October 2018 and March 2019 (before the Mueller report’s release).

  • When we examined specific democratic principles separately, the biggest increases in perceived performance during the October 2018-March 2019 period were on items that include the effectiveness of judicial checks on executive authority, protections from political violence, and the impartiality of investigations.

  • Trump supporters and opponents continue to have starkly different views about the state of American democracy. Overall increases in performance ratings prior to the Mueller report were driven by those who disapprove of President Trump. Within this group, the biggest perceived improvement was on Congress’s ability to check the president. By contrast, Trump supporters believed that U.S. democratic performance on that principle had, in fact, declined since before the 2018 midterm elections.

  • Assessments from our expert sample showed substantial variance in democratic quality at the state level. States rated highest tend to cluster in New England and on the West Coast, whereas many of those ranked lowest are in the South.

Overall democratic quality rises

We asked survey respon­dents to rate the quality of U.S. democracy overall on a 100-point scale. The figure below shows mean ratings from the academic experts, the public overall, and the public dis­ag­gre­gat­ed by their approval of Donald Trump for each wave since we began con­duct­ing our surveys.[1] Ratings have generally declined over time among both experts and the public until the most recent surveys. Specifically, the mean rating of U.S. democracy dropped from 69 to 65 among experts from February 2017 to October 2018 and from 59 to 55 among the public between September 2017 and October 2018. In March 2019, those numbers bounced back up to their 2017 levels. Disaggregating the public sample between those who approve and those who dis­ap­prove of President Trump shows that both groups register increased ratings between October 2018 and March 2019, but the more pro­nounced improve­ment is among Trump’s opponents.

The heart of Bright Line Watch’s demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance survey instru­ment is a battery of ratings of how well 27 demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples are currently upheld in the United States. A full list of these prin­ci­ples is included in the appendix. To measure perceived demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance, we compare the per­cent­age of respon­dents who rated the United States as “fully” or “mostly” meeting a given demo­c­ra­t­ic standard with the per­cent­age saying the United States only “partially meets” or “does not meet” it.

We first analyze per­for­mance ratings from our academic experts. As the figure below illus­trates, we observe sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant increases in perceived per­for­mance on 19 of 27 demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples. The points in the graph show the increase in the pro­por­tion of respon­dents who rated each standard as “mostly” or “fully” met (as opposed to “partially” or “not at all” met). The line through each point rep­re­sents the 95-percent con­fi­dence interval.

These gains were led by belief in a lack of political violence and judicial checks on the executive (discussed further below), but are too broad to be attrib­ut­able to any single event or factor. They instead likely reflect the pre-Mueller report envi­ron­ment in which there appeared to be legal and political checks on President Trump, including the results of the 2018 election and ongoing inves­ti­ga­tions into the admin­is­tra­tion and the President’s asso­ciates by law enforce­ment officials and Congress.

As noted above, however, the improve­ment we observe only returns us to the levels of demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance observed in 2017. The figure below demon­strates that March 2019 expert ratings are largely indis­tin­guish­able from those measured in our September 2017 survey.

Compared to September 2017, experts rated U.S. democracy better in March 2019 on lack of political violence, inde­pen­dence of inves­ti­ga­tions of gov­ern­ment officials, and tol­er­a­tion of protest, but worse on sanctions for mis­con­duct, inde­pen­dence of the judiciary, and leg­isla­tive checks on the executive. Performance on other prin­ci­ples was not mea­sur­ably different.

Turning now to the public, when the point of com­par­i­son is our October 2018 survey, we find a similar pattern of perceived improve­ment in demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance across a number of demo­c­ra­t­ic principles.

We observe a sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant increase in perceived per­for­mance among the public on 13 of the 27 state­ments. By contrast, none shows a mea­sur­able decline.

The largest jumps in the public’s perceived per­for­mance are on the ability of the judiciary to check executive authority, pro­tec­tion against political violence from private actors, the right of all parties and can­di­dates to compete regard­less of political ideology, and the inde­pen­dence of inves­ti­ga­tions of public officials from political inter­fer­ence. On political violence, the improve­ment is a recovery from the prior survey. In October 2018, the Tree of Life synagogue attack in Pittsburgh and effort to send pipe bombs to Democratic politi­cians commanded headlines while our survey was in the field. The sharp improve­ment on this item by March 2019 is an artifact of that prior dip.

We believe the other improve­ments were driven by political devel­op­ments in early spring. For instance, the improve­ment in per­cep­tions that the judiciary can limit the executive may have reflected the indict­ments and/or sen­tenc­ing of Trump’s closest asso­ciates, such as Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, and Michael Cohen. The increase in per­cep­tions that “Parties and can­di­dates are not barred due to their political beliefs and ide­olo­gies” may reflect the rise to promi­nence since the 2018 midterm election of politi­cians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, as well as the early fundrais­ing successes of pres­i­den­tial candidate Bernie Sanders, all of who proclaim them­selves to be “demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ists.” With regard to the improve­ment on “Law enforce­ment inves­ti­ga­tions of public officials or their asso­ciates are free from political influence or inter­fer­ence,” the survey was completed just before the report of Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller was delivered to Attorney General William Barr in March 2019. At that time, per­cep­tions of the investigation’s integrity were at a peak. Events since late March, including Barr’s initial summary of the report and sub­se­quent battles with Democrats in Congress over his impar­tial­i­ty and com­mit­ment to rule of law, will undoubt­ed­ly diminish future ratings.

Disparate assessments across the Trump divide

Respondent ratings on most demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples diverge sharply between respon­dents who approve, and those who dis­ap­prove, of President Trump. Figure A3 in the appendix illus­trates that, con­sis­tent with previous surveys, approvers continue to rate per­for­mance higher than dis­ap­provers on almost all dimen­sions. Most note­wor­thy from the current survey is the narrowing of that gap as the president’s critics perceive improve­ments across most items in our battery. As the figure below illus­trates, Americans who dis­ap­prove of Trump perceived sig­nif­i­cant improve­ment on numerous demo­c­ra­t­ic principles.

For this subset of respon­dents, 18 of 27 demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples show sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant improve­ments from October 2018 to March 2019. We observe the single biggest gain for Congress’s effec­tive­ness in checking executive power, which likely reflected Democrats winning a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives in the 2018 midterm elections. (We again note, however, that our surveys were fielded prior to the release of the Muller report and thus pre-date the administration’s current obstruc­tion of con­gres­sion­al oversight.) This same group shows similarly increased optimism in the judiciary’s ability to limit the executive and that gov­ern­ment officials will be legally sanc­tioned for mis­con­duct, which may reflect con­fi­dence in the oversight capacity of the newly Democrat-con­trolled House and/or the legal pro­ceed­ings in which many Trump asso­ciates are currently enmeshed.[2]

In contrast to the surge in demo­c­ra­t­ic optimism among Trump opponents, the president’s sup­port­ers remained unmoved over the past half year, exhibit­ing a sta­tis­ti­cal­ly dis­cernible change on only one of our 27 prin­ci­ples — a slight decline on pro­tec­tions for free speech.[3] In short, the improved estimates of the per­for­mance of U.S. democracy between the fall of 2018 and spring of 2019 are driven by buoyancy among those who dis­ap­prove of President Trump that is not shared with the president’s supporters.

The dis­con­nect in how these groups perceive politics is under­scored by the fact that there is virtually no cor­re­la­tion in how these groups rated changes on indi­vid­ual demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples during the past half year.[4] In fact, on three items where Trump opponents saw the biggest improve­ments — leg­isla­tive checks on the executive, tol­er­a­tion of political protest, and free speech — the president’s sup­port­ers regarded per­for­mance as dete­ri­o­rat­ing. Perceptions of whether per­for­mance is improving or degrading are thus generally unrelated across the Trump divide.

Democracy in the states

Our March survey of academic experts also included a state democracy module cospon­sored by the Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School for Public Policy. The module asked expert respon­dents to rate the quality of democracy in their state. We received 713 responses. The figure below shows the mean democracy rating by state for the 47 states from which we received responses as well as the District of Columbia. As a point of reference, the graph also includes respon­dents’ mean rating for the quality of U.S. democracy overall.[5]

We first note the existence of sub­stan­tial variation in our expert respon­dents’ assess­ments of demo­c­ra­t­ic quality at the state level — mean values range from the 51 to 91 on a 100-point scale. It is also striking that the state-level estimates are almost equally dis­trib­uted around the overall rating for U.S. democracy, with 25 states rated above the U.S. mean value of 68, and 22 states and the District of Columbia rated lower.

The states ranked highest tend to cluster in the Northeast, par­tic­u­lar­ly in New England (for example, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Massachusetts) and on the West Coast (for example, California and Washington). By contrast, many of those ranked lowest are in the South (Arkansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas) and Mountain West (Utah and Arizona).[6]


As in recent surveys, we also asked experts to rate how (ab)normal and (un)important recent political events were, seeking to dis­tin­guish events that are truly abnormal and important from those that are important but normal or abnormal but unim­por­tant. The graph below plots the results for the set of events we asked about, which were iden­ti­fied using news coverage, timelines of events during the Trump admin­is­tra­tion, and events from The Atlantic’s set of “Donald Trump’s 50 Most Unthinkable Moments” that we had not pre­vi­ous­ly asked experts to rate.

In general, events that were rated by our experts as important were also rated as more abnormal. Many of Trump’s most prominent actions and positions were specif­i­cal­ly iden­ti­fied as abnormal and important, including the following:

  • Calling the press an “enemy of the people”
  • Declaring a national emergency to fund his border wall
  • Calling for political opponents to be impris­oned for treason
  • Announcing that US troops will be removed from Syria without con­sult­ing his aides
  • Deploying troops to the southern US border as midterm elections approached
  • Defending white nation­al­ists protest­ing in Charlottesville
  • Trying to revoke Jim Acosta’s press credentials
  • Tweeting that he has the “absolute right to pardon himself”
  • Refusing to release his tax returns
  • Discussing sensitive papers at Mar-a-Lago

Exceptions exist, however. Experts rated Trump ques­tion­ing a seven-year-old’s belief in Santa during the Christmas 2018 season and his claims about the size of the crowds at his inaugural as abnormal but not par­tic­u­lar­ly important. In addition, other events were rated as normal, including those that were rated as important (signing the USMCA trade deal that revises NAFTA) and unim­por­tant (attending George H.W. Bush’s funeral).

Looking ahead

With concerns about the rule of law and threats to democracy growing in the wake of the Mueller report, it is important to measure where public and expert opinion stood at the beginning of the period of divided gov­ern­ment under President Trump. Assessments of demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance in the United States improved between October 2018 and March 2019 among both academic experts and the public. However, the gains we iden­ti­fied in the brief inter­reg­num between the 2018 midterms and the Mueller report should not be inter­pret­ed to mean that American democracy is back on track. First, eval­u­a­tions of democracy generally declined in previous surveys; the increase observed in March 2019 only returned us to levels observed in 2017 (a period that experts rate as worse than 2015). Second, con­sis­tent with our previous surveys, deep polar­iza­tion over the state of our democracy persists. The overall increase in the quality of democracy we detected in early spring masks sustained dif­fer­ences in per­cep­tions between sup­port­ers and opponents of President Trump. Such divides threaten to undermine the potential for public consensus about threat to democracy, a key factor securing political account­abil­i­ty and the rule of law. Finally, the delivery of the Mueller report and sub­se­quent clashes over its inter­pre­ta­tion and impact are likely to reduce the levels of optimism we observed among respon­dents before the report was released. With battles looming over pres­i­den­tial oversight (possibly including impeach­ment) and concerns already appearing about Trump’s will­ing­ness to accept an unfa­vor­able election outcome in 2020, the recent upturn in perceived demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance may be poised for reversal.


Figure A1


Figure A2


Figure A3


Figure A4


Figure A5

Bright Line Watch surveys on the state of America’s democracy, March 2019

From March 12–26, 2019, Bright Line Watch conducted its eighth survey on the state of democracy in the United States. We conducted previous surveys in February (Wave 1), May (Wave 2), and September (Wave 3) of 2017, and in January (Wave 4), April (Wave 5), July (Wave 6), and October (Wave 7) of 2018. Waves 1 and 2 targeted expert respon­dents only. Waves 3–8 have paired the expert survey with a rep­re­sen­ta­tive survey of the American public. Details on the Wave 8 survey are provided below:

Expert: Between March 12, 2019 and March 21, 2019, we sent an email invi­ta­tion and two reminders to 10,992 political science faculty at uni­ver­si­ties in the United States. By March 26, 2019 our sampling process had yielded 677 complete responses, for a response rate of 6.2%.

Public: YouGov fielded the public survey from March 12–18, 2019, producing 2,000 complete responses.

Both the expert and public samples in Wave 8 responded to a battery of questions about demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance in the United States. Afterward, they were asked to evaluate the quality of American democracy overall on a 100-point scale. Experts were also asked to evaluate the quality of democracy in their state, on the same 0–100 scale.

Expert respon­dents were then asked to respond to a second battery in which they were presented with a series of state­ments about current political events and asked to rate them on normalcy and impor­tance. Both the per­for­mance battery and the (ab)normality and (un)importance battery are described in more detail above.

The data from both the expert and public surveys are available here. All analyses of the public data from YouGov incor­po­rate survey weights.

Performance battery

The foun­da­tion of Bright Line Watch’s surveys is a list of 27 state­ments express­ing a range of demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples. 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 what we intend to be a stable 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.

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 first rate the impor­tance of those state­ments and then rate the per­for­mance of the United States on those dimensions.

27 statements of democratic principles


  • 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


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


  • 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


  • 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


  • 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


  • 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


  • 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 14 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

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


[1] The first survey of academic experts was in February 2017 and the first wave to include a rep­re­sen­ta­tive public sample was in September 2017. Experts perceive an even greater decline over time. During a May 2017 survey, we asked the academic experts to rate the quality of U.S. democracy in past years. Experts ret­ro­spec­tive­ly rated the U.S. at 76 in 2015, much higher than the 69 rating they provided in February 2017.

[2] We suspect the perceived increase in the rights of protest are the result of a dip during the previous survey, which was conducted in a period when the Trump admin­is­tra­tion had proposed reg­u­la­tions to limit the rights of pro­test­ers near the White House and con­ser­v­a­tive media outlets were tarring political pro­test­ers with the meme “Jobs not mobs.”

[3] Figure A4 in the appendix shows that Trump sup­port­ers reg­is­tered declines on 15 items and improve­ments on 12 from October 2018 to March 2019. Across 27 items, it is not sur­pris­ing to find one on which the change falls outside the 95% con­fi­dence interval even if there is no sys­tem­at­ic pattern to the results.

[4] The cor­re­la­tion coef­fi­cient is 0.007; see Figure A5 in the appendix for a visualization.

[5] The marker sizes cor­re­spond to a log trans­for­ma­tion of the number of responses from each unit of gov­ern­ment to accom­mo­date the wide range, and the skew, of values. We received no responses from experts in three states (Alaska, Hawaii, and North Dakota) and the next thirteen states with the fewest responses returned just 32 responses among them. Our estimates for many smaller states are thus imprecise and should be inter­pret­ed cautiously.

[6] We note that states where reforms to adopt ranked-choice voting (RCV) have flour­ished in recent in recent years tend to rate high on demo­c­ra­t­ic quality. The one state that has adopted RCV for all statewide offices, Maine, ranks 12th, whereas other states where RCV had been adopted at the municipal level are ranked fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, and 28th.