Democratic transgressions and constitutional hardball: Bright Line Watch October 2019 surveys

From October 8–25, 2019, Bright Line Watch conducted its ninth survey of academic experts, and seventh of the general public, on the quality of democracy in the United States.[1] As in our previous surveys, we surveyed our respon­dents both on their overall eval­u­a­tions of demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance and on over two dozen specific com­po­nents of democracy.

The October surveys also provide insights into current chal­lenges to American democracy that we have not explored pre­vi­ous­ly. We presented both our public and expert respon­dents with a series of actions and behaviors and asked respon­dents to evaluate how demo­c­ra­t­ic, or unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic, they regard them to be. We also polled respon­dents on a range of practices that have come to be known as “con­sti­tu­tion­al hardball” — political actors seeking advantage through actions that are within the formal rules of politics but which trans­gress existing norms and practices. In both cases, we find consensus among respon­dents (expert and public, and across the partisan divide) on some issues, but also evidence of deeply divided attitudes on whether certain actions are accept­able and appropriate.

Some key results from these surveys are:

  • Perceptions of the overall performance of American democracy remain stable among both experts and the public since we began surveying each group, but assessments on certain specific democratic principles have declined substantially, erasing perceived gains observed in the period after the 2018 midterm elections. Especially sharp declines were observed for beliefs that government agencies are not used to punish political opponents, the presence of effective limits on the authority of the executive, the independence of investigations into wrongdoing by public officials, and keeping U.S. elections free from foreign influence — all topics that closely relate to the current impeachment inquiry in the House of Representatives.

  • Experts again rate numerous recent events that have taken place during the Trump presidency as both important and abnormal. President Trump’s effort to pressure Ukraine into investigating Joe Biden, a potential 2020 election opponent, scores especially high on this dual metric (comparable to Trump’s summit with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki).

  • The public and expert consensus on actions that uphold democratic principles is strong — both groups (and especially experts) overwhelmingly rate actions like allowing peaceful protest as “democratic” rather than “undemocratic.” Moreover, most of the public rates actions that experts regard as transgressions against democracy, such as blocking peaceful protest, as “undemocratic”. The extent to which transgressions are viewed as undemocratic, however, is asymmetrical between supporters and opponents of President Trump. Both groups tend to rate such actions as undemocratic, but Trump supporters are less likely to do so than opponents, particularly for actions that President Trump has taken or ones that favor GOP interests.

  • Both experts and the public view some “constitutional hardball” tactics as appropriate but see others as inappropriate. For example, impeachment, admitting Puerto Rico and Washington, DC as states, and determining the presidency by national popular vote are typically viewed appropriate. Conversely, gerrymandering, disenfranchising partisan opponents, and presidential self-pardons are all widely regarded as inappropriate.

US democracy since 2017: Stability in overall performance

The figure below shows public and expert eval­u­a­tions of the quality of U.S. democracy overall on a 100-point scale. Relative to our most recent survey, which was conducted in March 2019, we detect a slight decrease in ratings of U.S. demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance. In a broader sense, though, eval­u­a­tions have generally been stable since we first started col­lect­ing these measures among both experts and the public. As we show below, however, measures of per­for­mance on specific demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples reveal important changes over time.

Performance on 28 democratic principles

We start with eval­u­a­tions of 28 basic demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples and the degree to which they are currently upheld in the United States.[2] 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 U.S. as “fully” or “mostly” meeting a given demo­c­ra­t­ic standard with the per­cent­age saying the U.S. only “partially meets” or “does not meet” it.

The figure below shows per­for­mance ratings from our academic experts (green markers) and the public sample (purple markers). Consistent with previous surveys, the range of per­for­mance eval­u­a­tions is wider among the experts, which range from 9% to 90%, compared to the public, where the range of values runs only from 26% to 61%. Ratings in both groups are strongly cor­re­lat­ed, however. Among both experts and the public, prin­ci­ples asso­ci­at­ed with freedom of expres­sion (such as allowing all parties, freedom of speech, and peaceful protest) tend to be rated highest whereas those asso­ci­at­ed with norms of civility score at the bottom of the scale (such as seeking com­pro­mise and a common under­stand­ing of facts). Both groups also give low marks on elected officials not using public office for private gain. Finally, prin­ci­ples related to the quality of U.S. elections and insti­tu­tions that hold gov­ern­ment account­able fall between these extremes. In par­tic­u­lar, a new item measuring perceived per­for­mance in producing non­par­ti­san sta­tis­tics and data found more than 65% of experts but less than half of the public believes “Government sta­tis­tics and data are produced by experts who are not influ­enced by political considerations.”

The public and experts disagree espe­cial­ly dra­mat­i­cal­ly in two cases. U.S. per­for­mance on the principle that “All adult citizens have equal oppor­tu­ni­ty to vote” (60%) is rated rated second-highest among the public but only 13th among experts (41%). Similarly, 57% of the public believe that “Executive authority cannot be expanded beyond con­sti­tu­tion­al limits” but only 26% of experts share this view.

Compared to our most recent survey, which was conducted in March 2019, we find mea­sur­able declines on some demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples among our expert and public samples.

In the figure above, we see that among our expert sample, the largest decline in con­fi­dence were found for the principle that gov­ern­ment agencies are not used to punish political opponents (-34 per­cent­age points), which likely reflects the discovery of President Trump’s efforts to pressure the gov­ern­ment of Ukraine to inves­ti­gate Joe Biden. The other items on which the largest declines were observed are the presence of effective limits on the authority of the executive (by the judiciary, ‑21 points; from the Constitution, ‑24 points; or by the leg­is­la­ture, ‑26 points), the inde­pen­dence of inves­ti­ga­tions into wrong­do­ing by public officials (-26 points), and keeping U.S. elections free from foreign influence (-20 points). Assessments among the public declined less dra­mat­i­cal­ly from March to October but in the same direction. The largest declines were con­cen­trat­ed among many of the same items, including the political inde­pen­dence of inves­ti­ga­tions, and the effec­tive­ness of leg­isla­tive and judicial checks on executive authority. These declines reflect longer-term trends, as illus­trat­ed in the next two figures, which show per­for­mance assess­ments across 27 demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples since we first began surveying each sample.

Among experts, the largest changes we have seen in perceived per­for­mance on our 27 demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples over time are all negative. The figure above shows the tra­jec­to­ry of changes for all 27 items while high­light­ing the four items in which the change from February 2017 to October 2019 is the largest — con­straints on the executive from the Constitution (-27 per­cent­age points), the leg­is­la­ture (-31 points), and the courts (-23 points) and gov­ern­ment agencies not punishing their political opponents (-29 points). Some of these declines may be linked at least in part to recent rev­e­la­tions about the Trump administration’s efforts to use the State Department to pressure the Ukrainian gov­ern­ment to inves­ti­gate a political rival. Overall, perceived per­for­mance decreased by 10 per­cent­age points or more for seven items; only two increased by the same margin.

Assessments among the public follow a similar pattern to those of experts, though the range and magnitude of changes are more com­pressed. The figure above shows the trend lines for all 27 prin­ci­ples on which we have surveyed the public since October 2017, high­light­ing the four items on which demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance assess­ments declined by 10 per­cent­age points or more (none increased by this amount). We observe sub­stan­tial declines in perceived judicial inde­pen­dence (-14 per­cent­age points), freedom of the press from inter­fer­ence (-15 points), fraud-free elections (-12 points), and common under­stand­ing of facts (-13 points).

Assessment of recent events in the Trump presidency

Observers often worry that concerns over the Trump pres­i­den­cy lead to normal pres­i­den­tial actions being treated as aber­ra­tions or unim­por­tant events being treated as con­se­quen­tial. We therefore also asked experts to rate a series of recent events from the Trump pres­i­den­cy for both how important and how (ab)normal they are. Their ratings of these events are depicted in the graph below, which allows us to identify which events are both important and truly abnormal. (The full state­ments asso­ci­at­ed with each item are included in the appendix to this report.)

As in prior surveys, experts rate a number of recent events as both important and abnormal. For instance, the Trump administration’s efforts to prevent experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association from con­tra­dict­ing the President was seen as abnormal and of greater impor­tance than the alter­ation of a hurricane map with a marker. The three events that were seen as both highly important and espe­cial­ly abnormal, however, were the President accusing Adam Schiff, the Democratic member of Congress leading the impeach­ment inquiry, of treason, report­ed­ly promising to pardon officials who broke the law in building his desired border wall, and pres­sur­ing the gov­ern­ment of Ukraine to inves­ti­gate Joe Biden.

In par­tic­u­lar, our experts judge the Biden/Ukraine scandal to be the most important of the 93 Trump admin­is­tra­tion events they have rated in expert surveys conducted since August 2018. This may reflect judgments of the act itself as well as the role of the con­tro­ver­sy in serving as the basis for the ongoing impeach­ment inquiry. The Biden/Ukraine scandal also rates as the tenth most abnormal event our experts have rated. To put the scandal in per­spec­tive, we plot the most important and abnormal events from the Trump pres­i­den­cy to date — ones that experts have rated between “Mostly abnormal” and “Abnormal” and between “Mostly important” and “Important” on average in Bright Line Watch surveys. As the graph shows, expert eval­u­a­tions of the Ukraine/Biden scandal are most com­pa­ra­ble to Trump’s Helsinki summit with Vladimir Putin.

What’s democratic? What’s not?

Our October 2019 surveys of experts and the public included a new battery developed jointly with Elisabeth Gidengil and Dietlind Stolle of McGill University measuring the extent of the consensus on whether twelve specific actions by political leaders are con­sis­tent with, or trans­gress, demo­c­ra­t­ic practice. The actions fall into three broad cat­e­gories: the conduct of elections, treatment of political opponents, and limits on executive authority. For each, we listed a positive action that is con­sis­tent with liberal democracy and a cor­re­spond­ing negative action describ­ing a demo­c­ra­t­ic trans­gres­sion. For example, we measure civilian/military relations with the pro-demo­c­ra­t­ic, “A president respects estab­lished bound­aries between civilian and military authority” and the trans­gres­sion, “A president compels active-duty military officers to promote his or her political agenda.” This design allows us to evaluate whether eval­u­a­tions of these actions are con­sis­tent­ly applied or whether the strength of the consensus about demo­c­ra­t­ic practice varies between pro-demo­c­ra­t­ic actions and transgressions.

To minimize the cognitive burden on respon­dents, each expert or member of the public was randomly assigned a subset of items that were either pro-demo­c­ra­t­ic actions or trans­gres­sions of those norms. Respondents rated each as “Very demo­c­ra­t­ic,” “Moderately demo­c­ra­t­ic,” “Moderately unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic,” or “Very unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic.” (They could also answer “Not sure.”)

The full set of state­ments is listed below with items grouped by category. In each case, we list the pro-demo­c­ra­t­ic action first and the trans­gres­sive action second.

Elections and voting

TopicPro-demo­c­ra­t­ic actionTransgression
Ballot accessVoter reg­is­tra­tion and ballot access rules allow all groups equal access regard­less of race, ethnicity, or socioe­co­nom­ic status.Voter reg­is­tra­tion and ballot access rules place a greater burden on some racial, ethnic, and socioe­co­nom­ic groups.
Equal votesThe votes of every citizen carry equal weight in elections for Congress regard­less of the total pop­u­la­tion of their state.The votes of citizens in states with small pop­u­la­tions carry greater weight in elections for Congress than the votes of citizens in states with large populations.
Universal suffrageEvery citizen is allowed to vote regard­less of where they were born.Only native-born citizens are allowed to vote.

Rights, pro­tec­tion, and freedom

TopicPro-demo­c­ra­t­ic actionTransgression
Media outletsA gov­ern­ment agency renews the broadcast licenses of media outlets even though they are critical of a president’s performance.A gov­ern­ment agency refuses to renew the broadcast licenses of media outlets that criticize a president’s performance.
Critical jour­nal­istsA president engages respect­ful­ly with jour­nal­ists who are critical of his or her performance.A president threatens to imprison jour­nal­ists who are critical of his or her performance.
Peaceful protestsA gov­ern­ment allows peaceful protests by its political opponents.A gov­ern­ment blocks peaceful protests by its political opponents.

Institutions, account­abil­i­ty and rule of law

TopicPro-demo­c­ra­t­ic actionTransgression
Impartial pros­e­cu­tionsProsecutors decide whether to charge companies or indi­vid­u­als without inter­fer­ence from a president.A president inter­venes in pros­e­cu­tors’ decisions about whether to charge companies or individuals.
Independent inves­ti­ga­tionsA gov­ern­ment coop­er­ates with an inde­pen­dent inves­ti­ga­tion into its own staff or Cabinet members.A gov­ern­ment blocks an inde­pen­dent inves­ti­ga­tion into its own staff or Cabinet members.
Civilian-militaryA president respects estab­lished bound­aries between civilian and military authority.A president compels active-duty military officers to promote his or her political agenda.

Norms and behavior

TopicPro-demo­c­ra­t­ic actionTrangression
CriticismA president acknowl­edges the right of political opponents to criticize his or her leadership.A president says political opponents who criticize his or her lead­er­ship should be inves­ti­gat­ed and imprisoned.
Emergency powersA president respects insti­tu­tion­al restric­tions on his or her power.A president uses emergency powers to cir­cum­vent insti­tu­tion­al restric­tions on his or her power.
Electoral legit­i­ma­cyA president endorses the legit­i­ma­cy of an election in which he or she has been defeated.A president attacks the legit­i­ma­cy of an election in which he or she has been defeated.

The figure below presents responses for both versions of each statement, showing the per­cent­age who judge a pro-demo­c­ra­t­ic action to be mod­er­ate­ly or very demo­c­ra­t­ic and the per­cent­age who judge a cor­re­spond­ing trans­gres­sion to be mod­er­ate­ly or very unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic. The state­ments are presented in descend­ing order based on responses to the pro-demo­c­ra­t­ic action in the expert sample.

Encouragingly, the public largely regards pro-demo­c­ra­t­ic actions as demo­c­ra­t­ic and demo­c­ra­t­ic trans­gres­sions as unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic, but several points warrant attention. First, for every statement, a larger share of the public rates a pro-demo­c­ra­t­ic action as demo­c­ra­t­ic than rates a trans­gres­sion as unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic. This gap ranges from 3 per­cent­age points on gov­ern­ment treatment of critical jour­nal­ists to 25 points for unequal voting weights between states. Second, the share of the public that regards each of the trans­gres­sions as unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic is far larger than the share of experts. Third, relative levels of unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic ratings across items are similar within the expert and public samples. The items that the public con­sis­tent­ly rates as trans­gres­sions — the gov­ern­ment blocking peaceful protests, blocking broadcast licenses, and threat­en­ing to imprison jour­nal­ists — are also among those for which there was virtual unanimity among the experts. Items where larger minori­ties of the public did not rate a trans­gres­sion as unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic tend to be those on which there is less unanimity among experts, notably on electoral rules, including restrict­ing suffrage to the native born and affording different weights to the votes of citizens across states.

Perceptions of demo­c­ra­t­ic practice among the public sample are often highly polarized by respon­dents’ par­ti­san­ship or support for President Trump, however. The figure below breaks out assess­ments among the public by whether respon­dents support or oppose the president. The state­ments are presented in descend­ing order of overall public respon­dents who consider a trans­gres­sion to be undemocratic.

When we compare Trump approvers and dis­ap­provers among the public, we find much more divided judgments of actions that trans­gress demo­c­ra­t­ic norms and prin­ci­ples compared to those than affirm them.

President Trump’s sup­port­ers and his opponents largely share a consensus on pro-demo­c­ra­t­ic actions. With the exception of granting equal rights to vote to all citizens and equal weight for votes across all states, each one is over­whelm­ing­ly regarded as demo­c­ra­t­ic among both Americans who approve and dis­ap­prove of Trump’s per­for­mance in office.

But when we consider trans­gres­sions of the same demo­c­ra­t­ic norms, the apparent consensus falls apart. On each item, Trump opponents regard the violation as unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic at far higher rates with gaps ranging from 12 to 42 per­cent­age points. For example, 92% of Trump opponents regard the gov­ern­ment blocking “an inde­pen­dent inves­ti­ga­tion into its own staff or Cabinet members” to be unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic, but only 62% of the president’s sup­port­ers share this judgment. Among Trump opponents, 82% regard it as unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic for the president to use emergency powers to cir­cum­vent restric­tions on his or her power, but only 48% of Trump sup­port­ers agree. These results reinforce previous Bright Line Watch research showing far more cross-partisan consensus on positive demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples than on trans­gres­sions against democracy that would trigger broad public repudiation.

Constitutional hardball

The October 2019 survey also included a new set of questions intended to gauge support for a range of practices that have come to be known as “con­sti­tu­tion­al hardball.” The term was intro­duced by Mark Tushnet in a 2004 law review article describ­ing strate­gies by which political actors seek to extend their political power and gain advantage by actions that are within the formal bounds of con­sti­tu­tion­al doctrine but that break with long­stand­ing political practices. Debates over con­sti­tu­tion­al hardball have inten­si­fied in recent years, par­tic­u­lar­ly as pro­gres­sive critics have expressed outrage at perceived hardball tactics by President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and have urged Democratic politi­cians to embrace similar tactics.

Drawing from these debates, we iden­ti­fied political scenarios that might be regarded as con­sti­tu­tion­al hardball. The scenarios fall into five broad cat­e­gories: Congress, executive power, impeach­ment, the courts, and elections and rep­re­sen­ta­tion. The state­ments are listed below by category. Each survey respon­dent was asked, “Please indicate how appro­pri­ate or inap­pro­pri­ate you consider each scenario to be,” with response options: “Entirely appro­pri­ate,” “Mostly appro­pri­ate,” “Mostly inap­pro­pri­ate,” “Entirely inap­pro­pri­ate,” or “Not sure.”


  • A majority party in either chamber of Congress refusing to raise the limit on the amount of money the U.S. gov­ern­ment can legally borrow.
  • The majority party in the Senate abol­ish­ing the fil­i­buster rule so it can pass leg­is­la­tion without minority party support.
  • The minority party in the Senate routinely using the fil­i­buster rule to block leg­is­la­tion supported only by the majority party.

Executive power

  • A President pardoning himself or herself.
  • A President estab­lish­ing important new gov­ern­ment policy by executive order without passage of a law in Congress.
  • A President directing the Department of Justice to open inves­ti­ga­tions into political opponents.


  • A majority of the House of Representatives seeking to impeach a president because they believe he or she is unfit for office rather than because of specific evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors.
  • A majority of the House of Representatives impeach­ing a president they believe has committed a high crime or mis­de­meanor even if the Senate does NOT support removal.
  • A majority of the House of Representatives impeach­ing a president they believe has committed a high crime or mis­de­meanor when the Senate supports removal.


  • The majority party in the Senate refusing to consider any nom­i­na­tion by a President to fill an open seat on the Supreme Court.
  • The majority party in the Senate abol­ish­ing the fil­i­buster rule so they can confirm judges without minority party support.
  • A party that controls Congress and the pres­i­den­cy creating and filling new seats on the Supreme Court to change the partisan balance of power.

Elections and representation

  • A party that controls both chambers of Congress granting statehood to Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico.
    State gov­ern­ments signing a pact to guarantee that the popular vote winner is elected president.
  • A state political party drawing Congressional districts that ensure it will receive a share of seats much larger than its share of votes.
  • A state political party proposing measures that make it more difficult to vote, espe­cial­ly for members of the other party.

Most of the state­ments included in our list represent hardball scenarios that are inde­pen­dent from each other. However, we also admin­is­tered a battery of questions that sought to assess the bound­aries of support for impeach­ment. We asked whether respon­dents would support impeach­ment if the House majority simply regards the president as unfit for office; if a House majority believes the president committed a high crime or mis­de­meanor and does not antic­i­pate a con­vic­tion in the Senate; and if a House majority believes the president committed a high crime or mis­de­meanor and antic­i­pates a con­vic­tion in the Senate. These surveys were fielded soon after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeach­ment inquiry into President Trump on September 24 after rev­e­la­tions of a whistle­blow­er complaint about Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky. Debates over the con­di­tions that would justify impeach­ment were therefore prominent in the news media at the time.

The figure below shows the per­cent­age of respon­dents who rated each item on the list as mostly or entirely appro­pri­ate. Green markers show responses among our expert sample and purple show responses from our public sample. The items are ranked in descend­ing order of perceived appro­pri­ate­ness among the experts.

Perceptions of most con­sti­tu­tion­al hardball tactics were highly cor­re­lat­ed between experts and the public, though expert judgments vary more widely by item (as with per­for­mance eval­u­a­tions). For both groups, the highest rated item is impeach­ment when the House regards the president to have committed a high crime or mis­de­meanor and antic­i­pates removal by the Senate. Under these con­di­tions, impeach­ment is regarded as appro­pri­ate by nearly every expert and by 81% of the public. Absence of Senate support cuts the per­cent­age of the public who regard impeach­ment as appro­pri­ate by 20 per­cent­age points to 61% but barely affects expert ratings. Still, solid majori­ties in both groups believe impeach­ment is appro­pri­ate if the House believes the president committed a high crime or mis­de­meanor. By contrast, fewer than half believe impeach­ment is appro­pri­ate if the House merely regards the president as unfit for office (47% among experts and 39% among the public).

Other scenarios widely regarded as appro­pri­ate include granting statehood to Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia (88% among experts and 59% of the public) and an inter­state compact to guarantee that the popular vote winner is elected president (80% and 54%, respec­tive­ly). At the low end of the scale are scenarios that over­whelm­ing majori­ties of both groups rate as inap­pro­pri­ate. These include the president issuing a pardon for himself or herself (1% among experts and 18% of the public regards this as appro­pri­ate, respec­tive­ly), the refusal of the majority party in the Senate to consider con­firm­ing a president’s Supreme Court nominees (5% and 25%), and the president directing the Department of Justice to open inves­ti­ga­tions into political opponents (1% and 32%). There is also broad consensus against the appro­pri­ate­ness of two strate­gies asso­ci­at­ed with state-level politi­cians seeking advantage over their partisan adver­saries: laws that make it harder for sup­port­ers of opposing parties to vote (4% of experts and 15% of the public) and redrawing district bound­aries to their party’s advantage (9% and 19%). We find slightly greater tolerance for the president setting important policies by executive order (25% of experts and 32% of the public it regard it as appro­pri­ate, respec­tive­ly), although sub­stan­tial majori­ties among both groups regard the practice as inappropriate.

Two other prominent hardball strate­gies related to the courts are viewed skep­ti­cal­ly by majori­ties in both respon­dent pools. One is the majority party in the Senate abol­ish­ing the fil­i­buster rule so it can confirm judges without minority party support. This practice has a bipar­ti­san history. In 2013, a Democratic Senate majority abolished the fil­i­buster for federal court appoint­ments below the Supreme Court. In 2017, a Republican majority then removed the fil­i­buster for the nom­i­na­tion of Neil Gorsuch to the Court and main­tained this policy for Brett Kavanaugh’s nom­i­na­tion the following year. However, abol­ish­ing the fil­i­buster for federal court nom­i­na­tions is regarded as appro­pri­ate by only 39% of experts and 31% of the public. Both survey pools maintain similar cir­cum­spec­tion toward expanding the size of the Supreme Court to alter its partisan com­po­si­tion, a prospect endorsed by only 29% of experts and 38% among the public despite prominent adherents in both the media and the pres­i­den­tial race.

Experts and the public tend to diverge on hardball tactics related to leg­isla­tive obstruc­tion. Consider, for example, the refusal by a party that controls a chamber of Congress to raise the federal debt limit, which prevents the gov­ern­ment from borrowing to fund gov­ern­ment oper­a­tions. Stand-offs over the debt limit have led to gov­ern­ment shutdowns lasting between two and five weeks in 1995–1996, in 2013, and in 2018–2019. This practice is regarded as appro­pri­ate by only a minority of experts (48%) but by a majority of the public (64%).

Experts and public also hold different views about the appro­pri­ate­ness of how the fil­i­buster is used. 62% of experts regard it as appro­pri­ate for the minority party routinely to block majority party ini­tia­tives compared with just 41% among the public. However, more experts (47%) than members of the public (31%) approve majori­ties abol­ish­ing the fil­i­buster alto­geth­er in order to pass leg­is­la­tion over the minority party’s oppo­si­tion. The experts are more sup­port­ive than the public both of routine fil­i­buster use and of abol­ish­ing the fil­i­buster altogether.

Of course, con­sti­tu­tion­al hardball is con­sum­mate partisan politics. Scholarly and jour­nal­is­tic accounts trace its roots to increas­ing party polar­iza­tion in American politics. With this in mind, the figure below breaks out levels of public support for our sixteen hardball scenarios by whether respon­dents support or oppose President Trump. The figure groups scenarios by category and, within each, lists tactics by descend­ing order of overall support. We find wide variation in the degree to which assess­ments of con­sti­tu­tion­al hardball are polarized by party.

We find modest diver­gence in views of leg­isla­tive tactics. Trump sup­port­ers are more inclined than opponents to abide debt limit showdowns, but majori­ties on both sides regard the strategy as appro­pri­ate. Majorities on both sides find routine use of the fil­i­buster inap­pro­pri­ate, and the gap in opinion there is less than 8 per­cent­age points. There is a greater divide over a Senate majority abol­ish­ing the fil­i­buster, which only 20% of Trump opponents (pre­dom­i­nant­ly Democrats, who are currently in the minority in that chamber) regard as appropriate.

View vary more widely on electoral scenarios. On the one hand, Trump sup­port­ers and opponents express near consensus that ger­ry­man­der­ing and policies designed to dis­en­fran­chise political opponents are inap­pro­pri­ate. By contrast, the chasm between Trump opponents and sup­port­ers on the admission of Washington DC and Puerto Rico as states (77% and 40%, respec­tive­ly) and the National Popular Vote compact (74% and 30%) is vast. The latter two items might be expected to advantage Democrats by reducing existing Republican advan­tages in leg­isla­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tion and the Electoral College. However, one could say the same for state laws that increase barriers to voting and ger­ry­man­der­ing (in recent years), but neither generates similarly divergent opinions.

The most con­sis­tent diver­gence between Trump sup­port­ers and opponents is observed for items related to the use of executive authority and impeach­ment. Majorities of Trump sup­port­ers regard it as appro­pri­ate for the president to set important new policies by executive order or to direct the Justice Department to inves­ti­gate political opponents, whereas only 11–15% of the president’s opponents share this view. In addition, three in ten Trump sup­port­ers accept the prospect of a pres­i­den­tial self-pardon compared with only one in ten opponents. There is also a wide gulf on whether viewing the President as unfit is an appro­pri­ate grounds for impeach­ment or whether impeach­ment is appro­pri­ate in the absence of Senate support. Majorities of Trump opponents view impeach­ment as appro­pri­ate in each case whereas the president’s sup­port­ers do not. However, that gap narrows con­sid­er­ably if the Senate would convict the President and remove him or her from office. Under those con­di­tions, 70% of Trump sup­port­ers and 91% of opponents regard impeach­ment as appropriate.

We also find wide diver­gence in views of hardball tactics used to influence the courts, although the public is skeptical toward hardball tactics in this realm generally. More Trump sup­port­ers than opponents view the Senate refusing to consider a president’s Supreme Court nominees as appro­pri­ate. However, even though their party used this tactic to capture their current Court majority (via Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s audacious refusal to grant a hearing to President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland), only 36% of Trump sup­port­ers say such a move is appro­pri­ate. Similarly, we find a 29-point gap between pro- and anti-Trump respon­dents on abol­ish­ing the fil­i­buster for judicial appoint­ments, but even then less than half of Trump sup­port­ers regard the strategy as appropriate.

Finally, a narrow majority of pro-Trump respon­dents (55%) regard it accept­able to increase the size of the Supreme Court to alter its partisan balance, whereas only 22% of Trump opponents share this view. This last result is par­tic­u­lar­ly striking in that President Trump’s two appoint­ments secured a solid con­ser­v­a­tive majority on the Court, whereas the prominent voices currently advo­cat­ing for court packing are pro­gres­sives seeking to counter a perceived theft of the court. Our results suggest that broader public sentiment has not (yet) adjusted to the partisan tilt of this debate among elites.


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

From October 8–25, 2019, Bright Line Watch conducted its ninth 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; in January (Wave 4), April (Wave 5), July (Wave 6), and October (Wave 7) of 2018; and in March of 2019 (Wave 8). Waves 1 and 2 targeted expert respon­dents only. Waves 3–9 have paired the expert survey with a rep­re­sen­ta­tive survey of the American public.

Both the expert and public samples in Wave 9 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 (the list of events is provided below). Both the per­for­mance battery and the (ab)normality and /(un)importance battery are described in more detail above.

Respondents also rated pro-demo­c­ra­t­ic actions or trans­gres­sions of those norms (in either case, a random subset of one type only) on a scale from “Very demo­c­ra­t­ic” to “Very unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic” and/or potential con­sti­tu­tion­al hardball scenarios on a scale from “Entirely appro­pri­ate” to “Entirely inap­pro­pri­ate.” Experts were randomly assigned to either rate 9 pro-demo­c­ra­t­ic actions or demo­c­ra­t­ic trans­gres­sions (three randomly selected topics con­sti­tut­ing nine items; direction randomly assigned) or to rate 9 con­sti­tu­tion­al hardball scenarios (three randomly selected topics con­sti­tut­ing 9–10 items). The public rated twelve pro-demo­c­ra­t­ic actions or demo­c­ra­t­ic trans­gres­sions (type randomly assigned) and 12–13 con­sti­tu­tion­al hardball scenarios (four randomly selected topics). The order of the modules was ran­dom­ized for public respondents.

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

28 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
  • Government sta­tis­tics and data are produced by experts who are not influ­enced by political considerations


  • 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. President Trump repeat­ed­ly joking that he might stay in office for more than two terms
2. Attorney General William Barr refusing to comply with a subpoena to provide the full unredact­ed report by special counsel Robert Mueller
3. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion attempt­ing to add a cit­i­zen­ship question to the Census
4. President Trump telling four Democratic con­gress­women to go back to their country
5. President Trump using emergency powers to sell arms to Saudi Arabia despite con­gres­sion­al opposition
6. President Trump tweeting a high-res­o­lu­tion image of an Iranian missile site
7. President Trump report­ed­ly promising to pardon sub­or­di­nates who break the law to build a border wall
8. President Trump signing the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) along with the Canadian Prime Minister and Mexican President
9. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion announc­ing plans to roll back reg­u­la­tions on methane, a major green­house gas
10. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion pres­sur­ing the NOAA to reverse its statement con­tra­dict­ing the President on the threat Hurricane Dorian posed to Alabama
11. President Trump pres­sur­ing Ukraine to inves­ti­gate Joe Biden
12. President Trump giving the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Mariano Rivera, a former pitcher for the New York Yankees
13. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion banning flavored e‑cigarettes from the U.S. market
14. President Trump holding a Fourth of July cel­e­bra­tion in which he and the US military played a prominent role
15. The Senate con­firm­ing more than 150 of President Trump’s judicial nominees to the federal bench
16. President Trump or another admin­is­tra­tion official altering hurricane pro­jec­tions that were displayed during a public event
17. President Trump sug­gest­ing the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee should be pros­e­cut­ed for treason


[1] Our public survey was dis­trib­uted by YouGov, where we asked 2400 online respon­dents from October 8–18, 2019. Our experts survey was dis­trib­uted by Luth research, where we solicited responses from 10,454 political sci­en­tists in the U.S. Between October 8–25, 752 (7.2%) responded to the invi­ta­tion and 672 (6.4%) completed the survey.

[2] Previous Bright Line Watch surveys included 27 core prin­ci­ples. Beginning in this survey wave, we added a 28th statement: “Government sta­tis­tics and data are produced by experts who are not influ­enced by political con­sid­er­a­tions.” We were prompted to include this statement by the Trump administration’s pressure on sci­en­tists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association in September 2019 not to con­tra­dict erroneous state­ments the President had made about the projected path of a tropical storm. The direct con­se­quences of that incident were minimal (the storm stayed at sea), but the general phe­nom­e­non of public agencies releasing slanted infor­ma­tion that casts the gov­ern­ment in a favorable light has a long history among author­i­tar­i­an regimes. Degradations in U.S. gov­ern­ment per­for­mance on this metric would thus be a poten­tial­ly important sign of demo­c­ra­t­ic erosion.