Impeachment and the state of U.S. democracy: Bright Line Watch March 2020 survey

President Trump’s impeach­ment riveted the country in late 2019 and early 2020, but the con­se­quences of his trial and acquittal for American democracy remain unclear. Bright Line Watch’s Wave 10 surveys, which were fielded March 12-April 15, 2020, reveal that the expert and public per­cep­tions of the health of American democracy declined during the period in which the events of impeach­ment took place. These surveys also examined expert assess­ments of impeach­ment-related events and the con­se­quences of impeach­ment for Trump and future presidents.

We report a number of key findings from these surveys below:

      • Experts rated American democracy as performing worse in March 2020 than they had in March 2019, our last survey before the impeachment process began. The decline was sharp and reversed the improvements in experts’ ratings that our surveys revealed after the 2018 midterm elections.

      • Among experts, ratings of performance declined on a number of specific democratic principles that were mainly related to impeachment. Compared to one year ago, experts were more skeptical that investigations of public officials were free of political interference, saw fewer checks on executive power, and perceived government agencies as more prone to punishing the government’s political opponents.

      • Turning to our survey of the general public, Americans remain divided in their evaluations of the performance of U.S. democracy. The views of those who approve of President Trump have remained stable over the past year; those who disapprove of the president perceive a decline in democratic performance. The gap between the two is widest on principles of citizen equality and on checks on executive authority.

      • Experts do not regard impeachment as constraining President Trump. To the contrary, they identify many actions he and his allies took during the impeachment process as important and abnormal and indicate that the process as a whole will embolden Trump substantially, an effect they expect will extend to some extent to future presidents as well.

It is important to note, however, that our survey was fielded under unusual cir­cum­stances while the novel coro­n­avirus dominated national attention. Our results are largely con­sis­tent with past surveys but it is not yet known how the pandemic affected the responses we received. (We discuss the process by which the survey was fielded further in the Appendix.)

Experts see decline in the state of U.S. democracy since 2019; public divided

Our most recent survey records the worst overall rating of US demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance on a 0–100 scale among our expert respon­dents since Bright Line Watch began asking this question in 2017. The ratings match lows recorded in 2018 in surveys fielded during heated con­tro­ver­sies over the sep­a­ra­tion of families at the southern border, President Trump’s ques­tion­ing of U.S. intel­li­gence during a press con­fer­ence with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the nom­i­na­tion and con­fir­ma­tion of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Expert ratings rebounded after the 2018 midterm election. Comparing the most recent survey with the one from a year ago, experts rated US democracy lower on 15 of 27 demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples. We found improve­ment on none of the prin­ci­ples. The biggest drops in per­for­mance were on items related to account­abil­i­ty, insti­tu­tion­al checks and balances, and rights and pro­tec­tions of indi­vid­u­als. As we discuss further below, the prin­ci­ples for which we observe declines closely align with the content of the impeach­ment inquiry. Thus, while we cannot establish a causal rela­tion­ship, our results are con­sis­tent with the claim that the impeach­ment had important con­se­quences for expert assess­ments of the quality of US democracy.

Ratings of US democracy by experts and the public on a 0–100 scale. Public sample is also dis­ag­gre­gat­ed by Trump support. Figure shows average values across survey waves.

As the figure above indicates, expert ratings of the quality of US democracy have fallen by almost five points on our 100-point scale since our March 2019 survey, declining from 68.2 to 63.4. Ratings among the public show a similar decline, dropping from 54.3 in March 2019 to 49.3 in March 2020. Both expert and public eval­u­a­tions mark sub­stan­tial declines from a peak after the 2018 elections, which we attrib­uted to an apparent increase in legal and political checks on President Trump following the 2018 midterm election (including inves­ti­ga­tions into the admin­is­tra­tion and the President’s asso­ciates by law enforce­ment officials and Congress). The recent declines continue the trend observed in our October 2019 survey, which showed a decline in the perceived per­for­mance of US democracy after the dis­clo­sure of the whistle­blow­er report on Trump’s Ukraine phone call. The decrease in public ratings of U.S. democracy is driven by Americans who dis­ap­prove of Trump; for this group, assess­ments of democracy declined between March and October 2019 and remained low in our most recent survey. By contrast, ratings were stable among Trump approvers.

The decline observed in overall ratings of U.S. democracy since Wave 8 (March 2019) extends to expert ratings of demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance on specific demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples. The pro­por­tion of experts saying the U.S. “mostly” or “fully” meets the standard in question declined sig­nif­i­cant­ly over the last year for 15 out of the 27 prin­ci­ples Bright Line Watch tracked. By contrast, as noted, none improved in any mean­ing­ful way (see figure above). These declines range from a small negative shift on sharing a common under­stand­ing of facts (-6.4%) to a dramatic decline in per­cep­tions of the judiciary’s ability to limit the executive (-35.3%).

To illus­trate this point, the figure below shows the change in the per­cent­age of experts who rate the US as “fully” or “mostly” meeting the standard in question for the 27 demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples measured in our most recent three surveys: March 2019 (Wave 8), October 2019 (Wave 9), and March 2020 (Wave 10). We separate the prin­ci­ples into seven cat­e­gories that Bright Line Watch has employed since the beginning of its surveys: Accountability, Discourse, Elections, Institutions, Protections, Rights, and Voting. Only prin­ci­ples that see a sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant change between waves 8 and 10 are labeled and drawn in bold lines.

Figure shows changes between surveys conducted in March 2019, October 2019, and March 2020 in the per­cent­age of experts who rate the United States as fully or mostly upholding specific demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples. Principles are grouped the­mat­i­cal­ly in each panel. The per­cent­age included in each label indicates the total change from March 2019 to March 2020 for prin­ci­ples where per­for­mance changed significantly.

 

Principles unrelated to impeach­ment, such as those in voting and elections (other than the obviously related principle of pre­vent­ing foreign influence), do not see sig­nif­i­cant changes across the three waves. On the other hand, numerous prin­ci­ples of account­abil­i­ty (the inde­pen­dence of inves­ti­ga­tions into wrong­do­ing by public officials, sanctions for mis­con­duct by gov­ern­ment officials, and pre­vent­ing private gains from office), insti­tu­tion­al checks and balances (leg­isla­tive, con­sti­tu­tion­al, and judicial checks on the executive), and rights and pro­tec­tions (agencies not punishing political opponents) that are closely related to the content of the impeach­ment inves­ti­ga­tion and trial declined substantially.

The changes we observe are not simply a reversion to pre-midterm levels. When we compare per­for­mance on demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples in Wave 10 to our Wave 6 survey, which was fielded in July 2018 and showed the lowest overall ratings of U.S. democracy we have measured, we still find sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant declines in the 2020 survey on three prin­ci­ples closely related to impeach­ment: the leg­is­la­ture can limit the executive (-10.2%), the judiciary can limit the executive (-13.8%), and agencies do not punish political opponents (-15%). These results suggest that impeach­ment had a lasting effect on expert assess­ments of U.S. democracy; the recent downturn is not simply the erosion of post-midterm gains.

The public also rated per­for­mance worse than in March 2019 on many of the same demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples, though the declines were typically smaller than among experts. But the decline is typically smaller than among experts. The figure below shows that the muted response is driven by the polar­iza­tion we observe in ratings among Trump approvers and dis­ap­provers. We observe sub­stan­tial declines in perceived per­for­mance on prin­ci­ples related to impeach­ment such as the leg­is­la­ture limiting the executive and the Constitution limiting the executive among dis­ap­provers. However, these decreases are not mirrored among Trump’s sup­port­ers. (Notably, both parties see decline in inves­ti­ga­tions not being com­pro­mised, which may reflect dis­sat­is­fac­tion on both sides over how rules and pro­ce­dures related to impeach­ment were enforced.)

Ultimately, Trump approvers and dis­ap­provers continue to see American democracy through different lenses, but the degree to which they do varies across demo­c­ra­t­ic values. The next figure compares per­for­mance assess­ments on each of our 28 prin­ci­ples across respon­dents in our public sample who approve or dis­ap­prove of President Trump. The dots represent the per­cent­age in each group rating the United States as mostly or fully upholding each standard.

Polarization is most stark in two areas: checks on the executive and equality among citizens. In both, Trump sup­port­ers rate per­for­mance as high and opponents rate it as low. The top seven items by per­cent­age gap between Trump approvers and dis­ap­provers are the principle of pre­vent­ing foreign influence on elections, three prin­ci­ples related to equality among citizens (voting rights, vote impact, and legal and political rights), and three prin­ci­ples related to con­straints on the executive (by the courts, the leg­is­la­ture, and the Constitution)[1]. Relative consensus exists on some items, but largely reflects shared negative eval­u­a­tions of demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance — for instance, on items related to civil discourse (not ques­tion­ing opponents’ patri­o­tism, seeking common under­stand­ing of facts, and seeking com­pro­mise) and malfea­sance by public officials (whether they use office for private gain, are sanc­tioned for mis­con­duct, disclose infor­ma­tion about their policy decisions, manip­u­late sta­tis­tics, and use public agencies to punish opponents).

Impeachment events mostly abnormal

To better under­stand impeach­ment, we asked political science experts to evaluate a number of specific events that occurred during the process as part of our standard battery asking respon­dents to rate the impor­tance and normalcy of a number of recent events. We note that these items raise important mea­sure­ment chal­lenges — eval­u­at­ing normalcy during a his­tor­i­cal­ly unusual event like impeach­ment is difficult (a point raised by many experts). However, among the events we asked respon­dents to evaluate, the impeach­ment-related events (high­light­ed in red) were con­sis­tent­ly rated as the most important and abnormal. Within those, numerous actions taken by Trump and his allies were rated between mostly abnormal and abnormal on average (refusing subpoenas, the Senate declining to call witnesses, Trump’s attacks on Schiff, Alan Dershowitz’s con­sti­tu­tion­al inter­pre­ta­tion during the trial, and firing/removing witnesses). By contrast, actions taken by non-Trump actors were generally rated between bor­der­line normal and mostly abnormal or between bor­der­line and mostly normal (House impeaches, Pelosi holds back impeach­ment articles, Romney’s vote to convict). These findings highlight how the pattern of norm vio­la­tions during the Trump pres­i­den­cy continued even during impeach­ment itself.

Impeachment and an emboldened presidency

The impli­ca­tions of impeach­ment continue to be debated. As a final module, we asked our experts about how they think impeach­ment will affect the con­straints faced by President Trump and future pres­i­dents. Specifically, we prompted respon­dents to recon­sid­er broad, competing arguments about the possible effects of impeach­ment — that it would reassert pres­i­den­tial account­abil­i­ty to Congress or that impeach­ment without a Senate con­vic­tion would instead weaken limits on the presidency:

Impeachment is often described as a con­sti­tu­tion­al power given to Congress to assure checks and balances between the leg­is­la­tor and executive, but its con­se­quences following acquittal are less clear. Some say that the fact of impeach­ment still con­strains the President’s future actions. Others say that the acquittal effec­tive­ly emboldens current and future holders of the office to further challenge limits on its powers. Now that the impeach­ment and trial are complete, we would like to know your view.

We then asked respon­dents to “consider the House inquiry and the Senate trial as a whole” and to assess whether the process con­strained or embold­ened both President Trump and future pres­i­dents (the order, whether respon­dents were asked first to assess effects on Trump or on future pres­i­dents, was ran­dom­ized). The results are shown in the figure below, where black points show the mean answer for each category with 95% con­fi­dence intervals and the observed response dis­tri­b­u­tion across cat­e­gories is plotted in grey.

Our results demon­strate strong consensus among our expert sample that impeach­ment will embolden President Trump (79%) and sub­stan­tial concern that the effect will be to embolden future pres­i­dents (59%). As one expert wrote, “Whether [impeach­ment] will embolden future pres­i­dents depends on whether future pres­i­dents have author­i­tar­i­an ten­den­cies. If they do, like Trump they will likely see this as assurance that they can undermine liberal democracy with impunity, so long as their political party remains loyal to them.” In total, 58% of experts answered that impeach­ment would embolden both Trump and future pres­i­dents, though many indicated the effect would be greater for Trump. For instance, 42% of experts indicated Trump would be embold­ened sig­nif­i­cant­ly compared to only 17% who said the same of future presidents.

Notes

[1] The appendix includes a variant of this figure, with items presented in descend­ing order of the gap between Trump sup­port­ers and opponents.

Appendix

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Bright Line Watch surveys on the state of America’s democracy, March 2020

From March 12–April 5, 2020, Bright Line Watch conducted its tenth survey of academic experts, and eighth of the general public, on the quality of democracy in the United States. Our public sample consisted of 2400 survey par­tic­i­pants from the YouGov sample who were selected and weighted to be rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the U.S. adult pop­u­la­tion. We also surveyed 650 political science experts across a diverse range of subfields (6.2% of solicited invi­ta­tions). Our email list was con­struct­ed from the faculty list of U.S. insti­tu­tions rep­re­sent­ed in the online program of the 2016 American Political Science Association conference.

We conducted a soft launch of our surveys starting on March 12, 2020 but delayed outreach to the full expert and public samples until March 23 due to the uncer­tain­ty and adjust­ments affecting uni­ver­si­ties – and thus our expert survey pop­u­la­tion – at that stage of the COVID pandemic response. Response rates were similar to recent waves, but the salience of the subject matter of our surveys had been eclipsed by COVID in an unprece­dent­ed manner. We still do not know how this envi­ron­ment affects our results and will assess the per­sis­tence of the changes in expert and public ratings we observe in future survey waves.

All estimates shown in the report used weights provided by YouGov. Our expert sample is tra­di­tion­al­ly unweight­ed because we do not collect demo­graph­ic data to protect anonymity. Error bars in our graphs represent 95% con­fi­dence intervals. Data are available here.

Both the expert and public samples in Wave 10 responded to a battery of questions about demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance in the United States (see below). 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).

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 state­ments (14 for the public, 10 for experts) and asked to rate the per­for­mance of the United States on those dimensions.

Elections

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

Voting

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

Rights

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

Protections

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

Accountability

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

Institutions

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

Discourse

      • Even when there are dis­agree­ments about ideology or policy, political leaders generally share a common under­stand­ing of relevant facts
      • Elected officials seek com­pro­mise with political opponents
      • Political com­pe­ti­tion occurs without criticism of opponents’ loyalty or patriotism

To measure perceived demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance, the survey asked, “How well do the following state­ments describe the United States as of today?” Each respon­dent was then presented with 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.

Events

1. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi delays sending articles of impeach­ment to the Senate
2. US carries out airstrike in Iraq that kills Iranian general Qasem Soleimani
3. Trump pardons Eddie Gallagher, a Navy SEAL charged with war crimes
4. Senate votes against con­vict­ing Trump and removing him from office
5. The President tweets that Adam Schiff, the lead House impeach­ment manager, is “a very sick man” and “has not paid the price, yet, for what he has done to our Country”
6. The President’s lawyer Alan Dershowitz argues “if a president did something that he believes will help him get elected — in the public interest — that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment”
7. Senate votes to not subpoena addi­tion­al witnesses in the impeach­ment trial
8. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion refuses to cooperate with subpoenas from the House impeach­ment inquiry
9. U.S. and China agree to Phase 1 trade deal
10. Congress votes to raise the smoking age to 21
11. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion bars foreign nationals who recently visited China from entering the U.S. due to the coro­n­avirus threat
12. President Trump makes unan­nounced Thanksgiving Day visit to military base in Afghanistan
13. Congress passes new law that encour­ages 401(k)s to offer guar­an­teed payment
14. Department of Justice officials override pros­e­cu­tors’ sen­tenc­ing rec­om­men­da­tions to recommend a lesser sentence for Roger Stone
15. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion removes Alexander Vindman from the National Security Council and fires Gordon Sondland as ambas­sador to the European Union, who were both witnesses in the House impeach­ment trial
16. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion and its allies creates lists of disloyal gov­ern­ment officials and lists of loyal pro-Trump figures who could replace them
17. President Trump names a political ally as the new acting Director of National Intelligence who pre­vi­ous­ly served as ambas­sador to Germany
18. Trump awards Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh
19. The House votes to impeach President Trump for abuse of power and obstruc­tion of justice
20. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer says, “Justice Kavanaugh and Justice Gorsuch, you have unleashed a whirlwind, and you will pay the price” in reference to a pending Supreme Court case on abortion
21. Senator Mitt Romney votes to convict President Trump in the impeach­ment trial for abuse of power
22. President Trump calls for Justice Sotomayor and Justice Ginsberg to recuse them­selves from cases related to the Trump administration