Results from the Bright Line Watch U.S. Democracy Survey

BLW conducted its first U.S. Democracy Survey from February 13–19, 2017. We invited 9,820 political science faculty at 511 U.S. insti­tu­tions to par­tic­i­pate and received 1,571 responses (a response rate of 16 percent).

The set of invitees was con­struct­ed from the list of U.S. insti­tu­tions rep­re­sent­ed in the online program of the 2016 meeting of the American Political Science Association con­fer­ence. We then collected email addresses for regular, adjunct, and emeritus faculty from the political science depart­ments at each of these institutions.

Survey design and rationale

The survey had two broad goals. The first was to learn what qualities our respon­dents regard as most essential to democracy. Democracy is a complex, contested concept whose def­i­n­i­tion has been debated for centuries. We wanted to know which char­ac­ter­is­tics pro­fes­sion­al political sci­en­tists regard as the most important for democracy and which elements they regard as less essential. Our second purpose was to use that same set of char­ac­ter­is­tics to assess how our respon­dents rate the current state of democracy in the United States.

At the core of the survey were two batteries of questions organized around the following nineteen statements:

  1. Elections are conducted, ballots counted, and winners deter­mined without pervasive fraud or manipulation.
  2. Government protects indi­vid­u­als’ right to engage in unpopular speech or expression.
  3. Government agencies are not used to monitor, attack, or punish political opponents.
  4. Government does not interfere with jour­nal­ists or news organizations.
  5. All citizens have equal oppor­tu­ni­ty to vote.
  6. All citizens enjoy the same legal and political rights.
  7. The elected branches respect judicial independence.
  8. Executive authority cannot be expanded beyond con­sti­tu­tion­al limits.
  9. Government effec­tive­ly prevents private actors from engaging in polit­i­cal­ly motivated violence or intimidation.
  10. Parties and can­di­dates are not barred due to their political beliefs and ideologies.
  11. Government officials are legally sanc­tioned for misconduct.
  12. The judiciary is able to effec­tive­ly limit executive power.
  13. The leg­is­la­ture is able to effec­tive­ly limit executive power.
  14. Elections are free from foreign influence.
  15. Government officials do not use public office for private gain.
  16. All votes have equal impact on election outcomes.
  17. In the elected branches, majori­ties act with restraint and reciprocity.
  18. Government leaders recognize the validity of bureau­crat­ic or sci­en­tif­ic consensus about matters of public policy,
  19. Political com­pe­ti­tion occurs without criticism of opponents’ loyalty or patriotism.

In the first battery, par­tic­i­pants were asked, “How important are these char­ac­ter­is­tics for demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­ern­ment?” They rated each of the nineteen state­ments on the following scale:

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

The second battery asked, “How well do the following state­ments describe the United States as of today?” Each respon­dent was then asked to rate the same nineteen state­ments using 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 each battery was ran­dom­ized for each respon­dent so there should be no priming or ordering effects in how they were assessed.

After these two extensive batteries, we asked respon­dents to rate democracy in the United States today on a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 is least demo­c­ra­t­ic and 10 is most democratic.

In devel­op­ing this list, we attempted to capture a range of char­ac­ter­is­tics that are prominent in both min­i­mal­ist and expansive def­i­n­i­tions of democracy. The state­ments describe both insti­tu­tions and practices, including elections, citizens’ rights, checks on political authority, mech­a­nisms of account­abil­i­ty, and behav­ioral norms.

Of course, our list of attrib­ut­es is not com­pre­hen­sive. However, it includes many — though certainly not all — of the insti­tu­tion­al char­ac­ter­is­tics that foster com­pe­ti­tion and par­tic­i­pa­tion. As such, it arguably speaks more to electoral and liberal con­cep­tions of democracy, such as the insti­tu­tion­al guar­an­tees outlined in Robert Dahl’s seminal work or the Madisonian vision of limited gov­ern­ment, than to more delib­er­a­tive or majori­tar­i­an con­cep­tions. We also tried to select attrib­ut­es that are central to public debate about the status of con­tem­po­rary democracy in the U.S. Again, however, the list is nec­es­sar­i­ly incom­plete. It does not include, for instance, questions about party strength, campaign finance, turnout, or political engagement.


What matters for democracy

The figure below shows the dis­tri­b­u­tion of responses on the impor­tance to democracy battery for each of the state­ments. The state­ments are ordered from top to bottom on the y‑axis by the pro­por­tion of responses that deem a principle important or essential to democracy.  (Summary sta­tis­tics in tabular form are here.)

Analysis Post - FIG1 - DEM stacked bar

Respondents regarded some char­ac­ter­is­tics of elections as far more central to democracy than others. Although political sci­en­tists regularly warn against simply equating elections with democracy, they over­whelm­ing­ly rated elections that are free of wide­spread fraud and manip­u­la­tion as the most important single element of democracy among the nineteen on our list. Fully 92% of respon­dents rate elections without wide­spread fraud as essential, which is far higher than for any other principle, and another 7% regard them as important.

Besides clean elections, respon­dents identify a series of char­ac­ter­is­tics related to basic indi­vid­ual rights as highly important, including free speech (#2), equal access to the vote (#5), and equal political and legal rights for all citizens (#6).

Also toward the top of the list is a group of char­ac­ter­is­tics that focus on safe­guards for political oppo­si­tion and dissent: no sur­veil­lance and harass­ment by gov­ern­ment agencies (#3), a free press (#4), gov­ern­ment pro­tec­tion against private political violence (#9), and guar­an­tees for parties to compete regard­less of ideology (#10).

A group of items in the middle of the dis­tri­b­u­tion pertain to mech­a­nisms of account­abil­i­ty: judicial inde­pen­dence (#7), restraints on the expansion of executive power (#8), guar­an­tees that mis­con­duct by public officials will be sanc­tioned (#11), the ability of the judiciary (#12) and the leg­is­la­ture (#13) to check executive authority, and that gov­ern­ment officials do not use public office for private gain (#15).

Nearer to the bottom are two char­ac­ter­is­tics of elections that have been con­tro­ver­sial of late in the United States — that they should be free from foreign influence (#14) and that all votes should have equal impact on election outcomes (#16). The contrast with respon­dents’ emphasis on elections free of fraud (#1) and equal voting rights (#3) is note­wor­thy. Perhaps reflect­ing the knowledge that there is no neutral way to aggregate pref­er­ences, the responses to our survey display a sharp dis­junc­ture between insis­tence on equality in citizens’ right to vote and the level of impor­tance given to those votes having equal impact.

Clustered at the end of the list are some behav­ioral norms that are not codified in statutes or the Constitution, but that have been the subject of dis­cus­sion in the past year — that elected majori­ties should act according to norms of restraint and reci­procity (#17), that politi­cians should campaign without dis­parag­ing their opponent’s patri­o­tism or loyalty (#18), and that public officials should recognize sci­en­tif­ic or bureau­crat­ic consensus (#19). It is important to note that roughly 90% of respon­dents still ranked such norms as at least ben­e­fi­cial to democracy.

Performance of democracy in the United States

Shifting from theory to practice, we now present the dis­tri­b­u­tion of responses on the battery assessing U.S. democracy today. The state­ments are again ordered ver­ti­cal­ly according to the combined share of responses indi­cat­ing that the United States fully or mostly meets the standard (as opposed to partly or not at all).  (Summary sta­tis­tics in tabular form are here.)

Analysis Post - FIG2 - US stacked bar

The picture here is mixed. On only 10 of the 19 attrib­ut­es did half or more of all respon­dents judge the United States to mostly or fully meet the standard in question. At the high end, 86% said the country mostly or fully meets the standard that elections are free from wide­spread fraud and manip­u­la­tion. Likewise, the U.S. performs quite well in terms of open party com­pe­ti­tion, pro­tect­ing free expres­sion and media, judicial inde­pen­dence and checks on executive authority, and pro­tec­tion from private political violence and gov­ern­ment harass­ment. By contrast, respon­dents gave rel­a­tive­ly low marks to the U.S. on the remaining char­ac­ter­is­tics. For example, more than half of the political sci­en­tists surveyed estimated that the U.S. does not meet or only partly meets the standard that elections are free from foreign influence. Similarly, more than two-thirds said that the U.S. did not meet the standard of gov­ern­ment officials refrain­ing from using public office for private gain and votes having equal impact. And more than three-quarters responded neg­a­tive­ly to U.S. per­for­mance on basic norms of debate and deliberation.

Comparing impor­tance to democracy with U.S. performance

It is espe­cial­ly inter­est­ing to consider how political sci­en­tists rank the U.S. in terms of the char­ac­ter­is­tics that they regard as espe­cial­ly important to democracy. This rela­tion­ship is captured in the figure below, which plots the combined share of responses that rate the U.S. as fully or mostly meeting each standard against the share of responses that rate a principle as essential and important to democracy.



There is a clear positive cor­re­la­tion between assess­ments of impor­tance to democracy and perceived US per­for­mance. Perhaps most reas­sur­ing­ly, respon­dents rate the U.S. highest on the char­ac­ter­is­tic they view as most essential to democracy — clean elections. The contrast with President Trump’s narrative of rampant voter fraud is stark on this count. Using data from the 2016 election and prior contests, scholars have closely examined claims that voter fraud is wide­spread and have con­sis­tent­ly found no evidence to sub­stan­ti­ate them. Political science faculty at large appear to have accepted these findings and accord­ing­ly rate U.S. elections highly. The U.S. also fares well on other important dimen­sions ranging from party com­pe­ti­tion and free speech to the judiciary’s check on the executive and limiting private political violence.

There are, nev­er­the­less, multiple important attrib­ut­es on which half or more of respon­dents regarded the U.S. to be falling far short of demo­c­ra­t­ic standards. Most notably, respon­dents rate the U.S. rel­a­tive­ly low on the qualities held to be second- and third-most important for democracy — equal legal and political rights and equal voting rights for all citizens. These eval­u­a­tions likely reflect concerns about racial dis­par­i­ties in the appli­ca­tion of criminal law and the poten­tial­ly disparate effects of voter reg­is­tra­tion and iden­ti­fi­ca­tion laws and changes to voting pro­ce­dures on minority voters.

The United States rated even lower on some norms of behavior that, although less critical, are still regarded as either essential or important to democracy by around half of our respon­dents. On the state­ments about civil political discourse, majority restraint, and deference to non-political sources of infor­ma­tion, more than 80%  regarded the United States as failing. Some prominent observers (here and here) regard erosion of behav­ioral norms along these lines as an early warning sign of demo­c­ra­t­ic backsliding.

Overall rating

The next figure shows how respon­dents rated democracy in the United States on a 1–10 scale (where 1 is least demo­c­ra­t­ic and 10 is most demo­c­ra­t­ic). The responses skewed toward the favorable end of the rating scale. Almost seven in 10 respon­dents (69%) rated the U.S. at 7 or better and 36% at 8 or better, while only 1 in 6 respon­dents rated it at 5 or below.


We are hesitant, for now, to interpret these scores without points of com­par­i­son both across time and cross-nation­al­ly. We hope to provide such com­par­isons in future work. At this point, though, it fair to conclude that expert opinion among political sci­en­tists views the state of democracy in the U.S. rel­a­tive­ly favorably, though they also recognize some serious flaws.


These findings provide mixed news. Despite an atmos­phere of pessimism or panic among many observers and public intel­lec­tu­als, the political science community holds a rather nuanced view of demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­er­nance in the United States as of February 2017. They rate the U.S. as per­form­ing well on many of the criteria that they say are most important for democracy. For instance, 86% say the United States fully or mostly meets the standard that elections are free and fair and approx­i­mate­ly 80% say the same for the standards of pro­tect­ing free speech and the judiciary limiting executive power.

The results, however, also provide sig­nif­i­cant reason for concern. Fewer than two-thirds (66%) are as confident that jour­nal­ists can operate unimpeded by the state, that the elected branches respect judicial inde­pen­dence (65%), or that gov­ern­ment agencies are not used to monitor and harass political opponents (60%). Only the barest majori­ties are confident that Congress can effec­tive­ly check the executive or that executive authority can be con­strained within con­sti­tu­tion­al limits (52% and 51%, respectively).

With regard to equal rights, both in voting and more generally, our respon­dents assess U.S. per­for­mance even more dismally, probably reflect­ing long-standing insti­tu­tions of electoral exclusion and wide socioe­co­nom­ic inequal­i­ties that have been matters of concern for many years. Finally, respon­dents’ eval­u­a­tions of basic behav­ioral norms related to civil discourse, reci­procity, and the recog­ni­tion of common standards of facts and analysis rate worst of all.

Ultimately, these findings provide an essential baseline measure of how political science experts view the status of American democracy in early 2017. As part of our continued effort to track what a wide range of pro­fes­sion­al political sci­en­tists think about democracy in con­tem­po­rary America, we welcome input on these surveys going forward. We plan to conduct addi­tion­al waves of the survey each quarter that will include new questions and com­par­isons with other time periods and other parts of the world. We invite critical feedback on our initial design and also encourage col­leagues to use the data from our survey to examine our results further. In all of these ways, we hope to foster informed debate among our pro­fes­sion and in the country at large about the health of American democracy.


Appendix: Critical Evaluation of the First Bright Line Watch U.S. Democracy Survey

Our goals in designing the BLW U.S. Democracy Survey were to measure which char­ac­ter­is­tics our respon­dents regard as most critical to democracy and to assess the per­for­mance of democracy in the United States and elsewhere against that set of ideals.

Creating a survey instru­ment that can fulfill all of these goals proved to be a chal­leng­ing task.  We recognize and appre­ci­ate the comments we have received so far and welcome further feedback. To explain the moti­va­tion for the survey design, we offer some obser­va­tions here about the choices we made in the process. (We also welcome comments on our analysis of the survey data, which we have made available online.) 

Distinguishing the most essential char­ac­ter­is­tics of democracy

We first wish to report that our efforts to design a survey that allowed respon­dents to make dis­tinc­tions among different char­ac­ter­is­tics of democracy appears to have been successful. 

For this survey to provide useful results, it was important that respon­dents did not simply equate democracy with every nor­ma­tive­ly desirable char­ac­ter­is­tic of politics and gov­ern­ment. If they had simply rated each char­ac­ter­is­tic as essential, the survey would have provided no infor­ma­tion about their relative importance. 

The histogram below shows the dis­tri­b­u­tion of all responses on the impor­tance to democracy scale across all nineteen statements: 

Critique Post FIG1 - DEM_overall_response_distrib_histogram

Respondents effec­tive­ly used three of the four response options and those answers skewed toward the highest scale value. However, the dis­tri­b­u­tion of responses varied tremen­dous­ly at the statement level. Consider the first bar graph showing the dis­tri­b­u­tions of responses for each statement about impor­tance to democracy. The combined share of responses indi­cat­ing that a given principle is either important or essential runs from 99% for clean elections to below 50% for respect­ing political opponents. The pro­por­tion of respon­dents rating a char­ac­ter­is­tic as essential varies even further (11% to 92%). We find these results reas­sur­ing. They suggest that respon­dents regarded our state­ments as relevant to democracy, but sharply dis­tin­guished among them in terms of their relative priority.

The next figure shows the cor­re­spond­ing dis­tri­b­u­tion of responses on the U.S. democracy battery. Reassuringly, respon­dents used the whole scale in rating the per­for­mance of the U.S. The dis­tri­b­u­tions of responses also varied dra­mat­i­cal­ly across the statements.

Critique Post FIG2 - US_overall_response_distrib_histogram

In the second bar graph, showing the dis­tri­b­u­tions of responses for each statement with respect to US per­for­mance, note in par­tic­u­lar the dis­crep­an­cies between the shares of “Fully meets this standard” (red) and “Mostly meets this standard” (pink). We expected many respon­dents to be reluctant to render a judgment of full com­pli­ance with almost any standard. (After all, there are are always devi­a­tions from demo­c­ra­t­ic ideals.) We therefore regarded the combined share of “Fully meets” and “Mostly meets” responses to be par­tic­u­lar­ly infor­ma­tive in showing that respon­dents were dis­crim­i­nat­ing between statements.

Political bias

Some of the critical responses to the survey ran along the lines of:

  • Seems driven by a political agenda.”
  • Given the timing of the request, it’s easy to assume that you aim to char­ac­ter­ize the political science pro­fes­sion as believing the Trump admin­is­tra­tion to be a threat to American demo­c­ra­t­ic institutions.”

First, our aim with the first survey was to assess how political sci­en­tists define democracy and how they rate its per­for­mance in the United States. In sub­se­quent surveys, we plan to ask respon­dents to assess U.S. democracy in other time periods and to assess democracy in other countries. In other words, we sought to design the survey to be flexible and gen­er­al­iz­able. In crafting the state­ments in our batteries, we sought to reflect prin­ci­ples that are salient cross-nation­al­ly and across time periods. The first survey estab­lish­es some baseline results that will be useful for com­par­isons going forward.

It would be disin­gen­u­ous, however, not to acknowl­edge that our own level of interest in these issues was elevated by recent events in the United States. The election that brought Donald Trump to the pres­i­den­cy was unprece­dent­ed in recent history in numerous respects. Many of the actions and behaviors for which Trump is crit­i­cized are reflected in the state­ments included on our survey. Furthermore, political science faculty, like the pro­fes­so­ri­ate more generally, tend to identify with the Democratic Party and a number of political sci­en­tists have published com­men­tary (here, here, and here) arguing that the Trump pres­i­den­cy rep­re­sents a threat to American democracy.

With all that in mind, we note that, if respon­dents were engaging with our survey as a vehicle to bash President Trump, we would expect them to pri­or­i­tize the state­ments that most closely reflect the actions on which Trump has been most widely criticized:

  • Attacking Clinton’s character during the campaign;
  • Making factual claims con­tra­dict­ed by author­i­ta­tive sources;
  • Failing to separate his private financial interests from official business;
  • Inviting foreign influence over the U.S. election.

Respondents did rate the U.S. low on the state­ments most closely related to those con­tro­ver­sies, but they also ranked these char­ac­ter­is­tics among the least important to democracy (#19, #18, #15, and #14, respec­tive­ly). These results suggest that respon­dents were not merely using the survey as a vehicle for anti-Trump venting, which is welcome news.

Summing up

There is certainly more to say about the first BLW survey. We will monitor feedback carefully and invite thought­ful crit­i­cisms of the survey, par­tic­u­lar­ly those that suggest ways to improve going forward. We are open to pub­lish­ing such con­tri­bu­tions on this blog in an effort to generate a sustained dis­cus­sion about how best to evaluate what matters to democracy and how to measure it in practice.

For now, we are gratified with our initial survey on a number of counts. First and foremost, we appre­ci­ate that so many of our col­leagues were willing to take the time to offer their views and expertise. Second, the state­ments we included in our batteries appeared to resonate with respon­dents, but also allowed them to dis­tin­guish prin­ci­ples according to impor­tance. We think these results tell us quite a bit about which char­ac­ter­is­tics political sci­en­tists regard as central to democracy and which they regard as more periph­er­al. Finally, our respon­dents appear to have answered these questions in a rel­a­tive­ly dis­pas­sion­ate manner. At the least, they did not appear to engage in reflexive expres­sions of dismay at the new admin­is­tra­tion — an encour­ag­ing sign for the validity of this new research enterprise. 


8 thoughts on “Results from the Bright Line Watch U.S. Democracy Survey

  1. Chau T. Phan, prof. emeritus of Political Science

    The per­cent­age of respon­dents is way too low, even though the the relevance of the eval­u­at­ing criteria is very good. Maybe a followup aiming at a more robust response rate seems to be in order.

  2. A. Batestrom

    I appre­ci­ate this work very much, espe­cial­ly how it teased out many facets of a func­tion­ing democracy. I am very concerned about the response rate, as 16% is not rep­re­sen­ta­tive of anyone or anything. A demo­graph­ic analysis of respon­dents would be inter­est­ing, and I want to know who is missing eg a non­re­sponse analysis. It is vital to increase the numbers to keep this survey relevant going forward. That said, great work!

    1. Howard Charles Yourow, S.J.D.

      I, too, salute your important ini­tia­tive, and am about to studyour initial survey in detail.

      However, beforen­gag­ing in the substance I must echo Batestrom’s concern over the { somewhat ? } { very ? } { extremely ? } low response rate :
      for if it is so that ” … 16% is not rep­re­sen­ta­tive of anyone or anything … ” then with what authority can the survey speak ? 

      Further, per Batestrom, a demo­graph­ic analysis of respon­dents, as well as a non­re­sponse analysis, would be most illuminating :
      what kind of response rate assures greater cred­i­bil­i­ty by rep­re­sent­ing a ’ true ’ national consensus ? 

      Finally, per Batestrom, the work is indeed to be com­pli­ment­ed, regard­less of the initial disappointment :
      perhaps more response time is in order ?

  3. Lee Sakellarides

    I, too, read of your study in The Washington Post. Thank you for providing a data-driven source of infor­ma­tion in this climate of emo­tion­al­ly charged rhetoric. I look forward to following your work as these troubled times unfold.

  4. Jane Iddings

    I am so excited! I just read about your site in the Washington Post. What you’re doing is incred­i­bly valuable because our American democracy is very much at risk with the Trump admin­is­tra­tion. I am creating a course “But Can It Happen Here?” based on the book by Sinclair Lewis “It Can’t Happen Here.” It’s scheduled for summer session at Yavapai College’s Osher Lifelong Learning Program (OLLI) in Sedona, Arizona. Right now the president of the League of Women Voters is facil­i­tat­ing back-to-back classes on “Healing the Heart of Democracy” (Parker J. Palmer). Our class this term is quite fearful about Trump. My class will follow these two classes. While I have a stack of books I’m reading, I always welcome sug­ges­tions for books to read. Thank you for your new site; it could help save our democracy. 

  5. John Van Doorn

    This is a vitally-important survey, and con­tin­u­ing to re-run it lon­gi­tu­di­nal­ly in the future will give us more con­fi­dence in the results. Hopefully, you will have a higher response rate in the future. In addition, I think you do need to include questions about public financing of cam­paign­s/­cam­paign-finance reform, and the re-dis­trict­ing process (ger­ry­man­der­ing) in your list of “essential” attrib­ut­es. Without these rules, it is con­ceiv­able that U.S. democracy may reach a tipping point towards violence as the vast majority of the voiceless and powerless reject Madisonian norms. Still, great job, and thank you.

    1. Howard Charles Yourow, S.J.D.

      Van Doorn affirms the <> pro­ce­dur­al concerns, supra :
      continue to re-run the survey lon­gi­tu­di­nal­ly in the future in order to bolster cred­i­bil­i­ty and authority ;
      a higher response rate is essential. 

      { Expanding question base to include both campaign finance and dis­trict­ing issues as essential attrib­ut­es is an excellent suggestion ! }

  6. Anne Pitcher

    I appre­ci­ate the work you have done here. It will be inter­est­ing to see how these responses may change or not change over time as political con­di­tions vary.

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