Bright Line Watch
Survey Wave 8
On whose support does democracy depend? One answer is the public, which may be required to defend “bright line” violations of key democratic norms and principles. However, research indicates that political elites often play a key role in preserving — or undermining — democratic stability. In this report, we therefore assess the perceived importance of democratic principles and U.S. performance on those principles among two key sets of elites, political donors and government officials, and contrast their views with those of the public.
Our data come from parallel surveys conducted in March/April 2019 by Bright Line Watch. We specifically contrast results from a public survey conducted among a representative sample of Americans assembled by the survey firm YouGov with two novel samples of elites. The first elite sample consists of donors to federal campaigns whose total contributions are among the top one percent of all contributors in 2016. We identified them using public campaign finance records and recruited them to participate in our online survey by mail. These respondents are highly politically engaged and have substantial financial resources to devote to politics. They donated a median of $5,400 to federal election campaigns during the 2016 election cycle. Our second elite sample is a set of local public officials who took part in a survey on the CivicPulse survey platform. This group consists of local officials who make public policy at the county, municipal, and township levels. (See Appendix A for further details on how these surveys were conducted.)
The surveys that each group took included a battery of 27 statements articulating democratic values related to rights and protections for individuals, the quality and fairness of elections, mechanisms of accountability and checks on political officeholders, and norms of political behavior. Our respondents rated these items on their importance to democracy and on the degree to which the U.S. currently meets each standard (see Appendix A for the full list). We analyze these responses by group and also disaggregate them to see how attitudes differ depending on respondents’ feelings toward President Trump.
Our key findings are as follows:
Both campaign donors and local government officials regard almost all the principles on which we surveyed them as more important to democracy than does the public.
Local public officials rate U.S. democratic performance higher than does the public across the range of principles on our survey. By contrast, campaign donors rate performance as better on some items — especially related to the protection of individual rights — and worse on others, particularly those related to electoral fairness and civility.
Donors are frequently even more polarized by Trump approval than the public on U.S. democratic performance, highlighting the difficulty of forming bipartisan consensus on norm violations among politically influential elites.
Local officials have a different view. Perceptions of democratic performance in this group are often similarly divided to the public between those who view President Trump favorably and those who view him unfavorably. However, both those with a favorable and those with an unfavorable view tend to rate democratic performance as better than the public, suggesting that they see less reason for alarm.
Democratic priorities among the public and elites
We start by considering the democratic priorities of our respondents — their ratings of the importance of each principle to democracy. The figure below shows the percentage of respondents in our representative sample of the American public who rate each principle as either essential or important, as opposed to unimportant or merely beneficial, to democracy.
More than half of the public sample holds each of the 27 democratic principles to be important or essential, but some are more widely valued than others. Clean elections are at the top, followed closely by two other values associated with electoral fairness — equal voting rights for all citizens, and equal impact of all votes on electoral outcomes. Also near the top are two principles critical for the exercise of individual political liberty — equal political and legal rights for all citizens, and protection of the right to peaceful protest. Finally, two principles critical to the accountability of those who hold high office are highly valued: the independence of the judiciary, and of investigations into wrongdoing by public officials, from political influence.
At the bottom of the list are behavioral norms associated with political civility such as not impugning the patriotism of one’s political adversaries, seeking compromise with political opponents, and protection from political violence by private actors. Also near the bottom are the principles that the district boundaries from which legislators are elected are not biased toward one party, that electoral participation is high, and that campaign funding is transparent.
The figure below contrasts the importance placed on each of the 27 principles by the public with how those principles are viewed by donors and local officials. Each marker shows the percentage of a given group that rates the indicated item as essential or important to democracy. The items are listed in descending order of their democratic priority among the public. The most noteworthy items are those on which a given group’s importance ratings differ sharply from those of the public (the purple markers).
We find that elite campaign donors rate most principles as more important to (or essential for) democracy than the public. For instance, donors rate our two campaign finance-related principles — that large contributions should not determine policy and that sources of campaign funding should be transparent — as substantially more important than the public does. The pattern is similar for public officials, who also tend to place greater importance on these principles for democracy than the public. They especially value the political neutrality of government agencies, the protection of free speech, and seeking compromise with political opponents.
Comparing perceptions of democratic performance
We now consider how evaluations of democratic performance vary between the public and our elite samples of donors and local officials. The markers show the percentage of respondents in each group that rate the United States as currently “fully” or “mostly” meeting each democratic standard as opposed to “partly” or “not” fulfilling it. As above, items are listed in descending order of the public’s ratings.
Ratings of performance show far greater variance, both within groups and across them, than ratings of importance. We first consider donors. Unlike on importance, where our elite samples rate almost every item higher than the public, donors rate U.S. performance lower than does the public on many items. This finding likely reflects the partisan imbalance in response rates to our donor survey, which yielded 424 Democrats (73%), 126 Republicans (22%), and 29 independents (5%). (We therefore disaggregate donors by Trump approval below.)
Donors rate performance higher than does the public on openness to all parties, on protection of peaceful protest, of free speech, and from political violence, and on fraud-free elections. But the donors rate performance as worse than the public on a number of principles related to electoral fairness. These include voter participation, equality of voting rights and of the impact of all votes, and electoral district bias. Notably, donors also rate U.S. democratic performance low relative to the public on the transparency of campaign finance and on large contributions not determining public policy. Finally, donors rate performance lower than the public on principles that reflect norms of civility in politics: seeking compromise, reaching a common understanding of facts, and acknowledging the patriotism of political adversaries.
By contrast, local officials tend to provide higher ratings than the public across the board. They rate U.S. democratic performance as significantly higher than the public on 22 of 27 principles. These differences do not cluster around any clear theme, though we note that the largest gap we observe is on whether citizens are able to make their voices heard on important policy issues. Local officials overwhelmingly believe that citizen voices are heard (perhaps reflecting and projecting their personal experiences), whereas citizens themselves are less assured.
Polarization in perceptions of democratic performance
The analysis of perceived democratic performance among the public and our samples of donors and local officials may mask important differences, however. Prior Bright Line Watch surveys have demonstrated substantial polarization in views. We therefore consider the extent of polarization in performance ratings between the public and our elite samples using feelings toward/approval of President Trump to distinguish people’s political viewpoints.
We first consider polarization between donors and the public in the figure below, which contrasts ratings for Trump approvers and disapprovers among donors and the public, in order of preferences among Trump approvers in the public.
As the figure indicates, Trump approvers tend to rate U.S. democratic performance higher than disapprovers in general. This polarization is frequently magnified among donors. On equal voting rights, for instance, 94% of Trump approver donors believe the U.S. is “fully” or “mostly” meeting the standard of equal voting rights, compared to only 26% of donors who disapprove of the President. This polarization exceeds the already wide gap between Trump approvers and disapprovers (82% and 45%, respectively). We observe similar patterns on votes having equal impact, people having equal political/legal rights, legislative checks on the executive branch, and the transparency of campaign funding. The pattern is not universal, however. Donors who approve of the president rate U.S. democracy worse than their public counterparts on political participation and agencies not punishing political opponents. Similarly, donors who disapprove of the president rate U.S. democracy higher on principles including toleration of protest, allowing parties to compete politically, and a lack of interference with the press.
We found similar results in a conjoint experiment we conducted on separate samples of donors and the public simultaneously with these surveys. In that experiment, we asked respondents to choose between a series of paired hypothetical candidates in an upcoming election who varied on a series of characteristics, including partisanship, two policy positions, and their stances on four democratic values (voting rights, independent investigations, judicial deference, and compromise). Similarly to our performance ratings, the conjoint experiment revealed partisan polarization on the principle of equal access to the ballot, with Republicans favoring laws that restrict access to the franchise and Democrats opposing them, especially among donors. However, our results also showed that donors and regular citizens of both stripes punish violations of the other three democratic values we examined, which suggests that principles related to accountability and checks and balances are the “bright lines” that citizens might be most willing to defend. (This finding is consistent with what we report elsewhere.)
Responses from local officials differ substantially from those of donors. We frequently see a comparable divide among officials between Trump supporters and opponents to the one seen among the public, but with officials in both groups rating performance higher than their counterparts in the public (consistent with the findings reported above for local officials as a whole).
On equal voting rights, for instance, the percentage of local officials who rate the U.S. as “fully” or “mostly” meeting the standard is between 10 and 20 percentage points higher than among the public for both groups. We observe similar patterns on checks on the executive by the judiciary, equal political/legal rights, and a lack of foreign influence. However, exceptions exist; for some principles like toleration of protest and opinions being heard on policy, even officials who disapprove of Trump rate performance as better than the public.
Parallel surveys of the public, elite campaign donors, and local government officials provide insight into the democratic values within each of these groups as well as the potential, and challenges, to establishing consensus among them. All three groups indicate widespread belief in the importance of the democratic principles included in our surveys. Priorities vary across the items, but all 27 are regarded as important or essential by majorities of the public and by even higher proportions of our donor and public official samples. This consensus runs contrary to the familiar populist line that elites hold values that differ from those of “regular” people (Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser 2013). On democratic values, at least, Americans seem to have similar views to both financial and political elites.
However, we also find important differences, both across these groups and within them, in perspectives on American democracy. Campaign donors rate U.S. democratic performance higher than does the public on some items — especially related to the protection of individual rights, such as openness of participation, protection of free speech and the right to protest, and lack of political violence. Yet these same donor elites rate U.S. democratic performance lower than the public does on many counts, notably on the insulation of public policy from the influence of donors themselves. An exception is that elite donors — Republicans and Democrats alike — are far more likely than the public to regard U.S. elections as free from fraud.
Local officials rate U.S. democratic performance higher than does the public across the range of principles measured on our survey. It is possible that the responses from these officials reflect their experiences at levels of governance where the stark polarization that has characterized national politics in recent decades is less pronounced (Fallows and Fallows 2018). A less sanguine interpretation is that the performance assessments of the public officials are characterized by a complacency that is not shared by the citizens they represent.
On the whole, our findings do not suggest that a consensus is emerging on violations of standards of democratic performance. More striking than differences across groups — that is, between the public and elites, whether financial or political — are the profound divisions within each group between those who approve and those who disapprove of President Trump. With few exceptions, assessments of U.S. democratic performance across the Trumpian divide are fundamentally at odds. Absent such a consensus, elites may be no more likely than the public to police these violations.
Appendix A: The Bright Line Watch survey, March-April 2019
In March and April of 2019, Bright Line Watch conducted its eighth survey on the state of democracy in the United States. Throughout 2017 and 2018, we had conducted surveys of the general public (as well as academic experts, the results of which we report here). In the March-April wave, for the first time, we also added samples of elite campaign donors and of local officials from around the United States. Details on the Wave 8 survey are provided below:
Public: YouGov fielded the public survey from March 12–18, 2019, producing 2,000 complete responses.
Campaign donors: We drew inspiration from Broockman and Malhotra (2018) to recruit a sample of campaign donors to our survey. This sample comes from publicly available Federal Election Commission data on U.S. campaign donors. These data are maintained for research use online in the Database on Ideology, Money in Politics, and Elections (DIME). Several of the datasets in this database include individual-level data on the names and addresses of all campaign donors in federal election cycles since 1980. Using data on all campaign contributions in the 2016 election cycle, we identified individuals in the top 1% for total amount donated to federal election campaigns. We then drew a random sample of 20,000 donors from the top 1% by total giving to the party to which they gave the most. We created a letter inviting people to participate in our survey that provided instructions for how to access it online. Specifically, the letter told potential participants that they had been selected at random from publicly available lists of people who participate in democracy, and directed them to a website at which they could follow a link to take the online survey. Each letter was addressed to each potential participant by name, and included a unique access code that the participant had to enter in order to take the survey after following the link at the website. Partnering with a company that prints and distributes commercial and non-profit mail, we sent the letters to our 20,000 donors at the addresses listed in the dataset. The letters were dropped at the post office on March 15, 2019, and we closed the survey on April 17, 2019. We collected a total of 584 responses, for a response rate of 5.8%.
Local officials: We partnered with the CivicPulse survey platform to recruit a sample of local officials, which includes county officials, municipal officials, and township officials. We collected a total of 1,032 complete responses from March 12, 2019 to April 13, 2019.
All of the samples in Wave 8 responded to batteries of questions about the importance and performance in the United States of our 27 democratic principles. Afterward, they were asked to evaluate the quality of American democracy overall on a 100-point scale.
The data from the surveys are available here. All analyses of the public data from YouGov incorporate survey weights.
Importance and performance batteries
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 to 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 importance to democracy, the survey asked, “How important are these characteristics for democratic government?” Respondents rated each principle on the following scale:
Not relevant. This has no impact on democracy.
This enhances democracy, but is not required for democracy.
If this is absent, democracy is compromised.
A country cannot be considered democratic without this.
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 the same statements they had just rated in terms of their importance to democracy, 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
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.
Appendix B: Stability of democratic priorities over time among the public
Appendix C: Comparisons of the public to donors and local officials
The figures below compare the political values of both elite groups, as measured by our battery of 27 democratic principles, against those of the public. These figures help clearly differentiate the principles on which the respective elite group has measurably different democratic values from the public from those where views are statistically indistinguishable.
We also contrast assessments of U.S. democratic performance between both of our elite samples and the public below.
Appendix D: Ratings of importance to democracy by Trump approval/favorability
Appendix E: Ratings of U.S. democratic performance by Trump approval/favorability
Fallows, James and Deborah Fallows. 2018. Our Towns: A 100,000-mile journey into the heard of America. New York: Penguin.
Mudde, Cas, and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser. 2013. “Exclusionary vs. Inclusionary Populism: Comparing Contemporary Europe and Latin America.” Government and Opposition 48 (2):1–28.
 These democratic priorities are largely stable over time (see Appendix B). Among the public, we detect a statistically significant change in importance on only one item of the 27 (willingness to seek compromise with political opponents) from September 2017 to March 2019.
 See Appendix C for graphs that identify which differences in ratings of importance or democratic performance are statistically significant between donors or officials and the public.
 As we show in Appendix D, there is relatively little polarization among either the public or these elite groups by feelings toward President Trump in the perceived importance of the 27 democratic principles. These findings are consistent with our past surveys of the public.
 We grouped individuals by a unique identifier included in the DIME dataset, the party to which they donated, their name, and their address. In order to avoid sending multiple letters to a small percentage of individuals who gave to both parties, had multiple addresses listed under the same unique identifier, or had multiple spellings of their name under the same unique identifier, our sample includes only individuals who made donations at the same address to one party and are listed under the same name.
 Approximately half of the individuals who followed this link were sent to a different, unrelated survey we conducted simultaneously with this one; hence, we calculated response rates by dividing the total number of responses by 10,000, rather than 20,000.
 Due to time constraints, respondents to the survey of local officials were shown a randomly selected subset of 9 statements.