Bright Line Watch Survey — Wave 4

American Democracy After Trump’s First Year

Bright Line Watch
February 8, 2018

In January 2018, as Donald Trump completed his first year as president, Bright Line Watch conducted its fourth expert survey on the state of U.S. democracy. At the same time, we conducted an identical public survey – our second – with a nation­al­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tive sample of Americans. This approach allows us to assess whether experts and/or the public believe the quality of democracy has changed in the U.S. during President Trump’s tenure. We also asked respon­dents to rate the overall quality of democracy in a dozen other countries, including Canada, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela, allowing us to assess how experts and the public believe America stacks up against other countries. Finally, we dis­ag­gre­gate results from our public survey to see how changes in these per­cep­tions vary by approval of Trump.

The overall picture is sobering. Though the public rates American democracy more neg­a­tive­ly than our experts do (as in our previous survey), both experts and the public agree that the per­for­mance of U.S. democracy has declined. This per­cep­tion of decline is mirrored for many specific demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples, though in some cases we observe sig­nif­i­cant diver­gence between Trump approvers and disapprovers. 

In com­par­a­tive per­spec­tive, U.S. democracy still rates rea­son­ably high among both experts and the public, but it is not the most highly regarded democracy among either group. We also find the American public’s assess­ments of democracy abroad track strongly with their domestic political attitudes, par­tic­u­lar­ly for some countries. Respondents who approve of President Trump rate Russia, the Philippines, Turkey, and Israel as more demo­c­ra­t­ic than do Trump’s opponents, while those who dis­ap­prove of him have more favorable assess­ments of Canada and Mexico. 

The expert survey was conducted from January 10–22, 2018. We received 1,066 responses from faculty in political science depart­ments at uni­ver­si­ties in the United States. The public survey was fielded from January 10–18, 2018 and generated responses from a rep­re­sen­ta­tive sample of 2,000 Americans drawn from the YouGov online survey panel.

U.S. demo­c­ra­t­ic performance

The core of the Bright Line Watch survey is a battery of 27 state­ments about demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples. Each respon­dent is presented with a random subset of these prin­ci­ples and asked to rate whether the U.S. “fully meets,” “mostly meets,” “partly meets,” or “does not meet” the standard.

The figure below illus­trates the dis­tri­b­u­tion of responses on each principle among experts. The responses are listed in descend­ing order of the per­cent­age who regard the U.S. as fully or mostly meeting the standard. As with past survey waves, there is wide variation across prin­ci­ples in the share of experts who regard the U.S. as per­form­ing well. More than 80% regard U.S. elections as free of overt fraud, but fewer than 10% regard our electoral districts as unbiased or perceive our elected officials as seeking com­pro­mise with their opponents.

Most notably, however, we observe a broad decline in appraisals of how well American democracy is per­form­ing in both our expert and public samples. On 21 of 27 prin­ci­ples, the per­cent­age of experts rating U.S. per­for­mance as high has declined over time. This pattern is illus­trat­ed in the figure below, which compares the per­cent­age of “mostly meets” and “fully meets” responses for each principle among experts in the Wave 4 survey (dark blue diamonds) with the per­cent­age of those responses we received when we first measured the principle in a survey.

The only principle on which respon­dents saw sub­stan­tial improve­ment is the one that states, “Law enforce­ment inves­ti­ga­tions of public officials or their asso­ciates are free from political influence or inter­fer­ence.” That statement was first included in Bright Line Watch’s May 2017 survey, which took place soon after President Trump fired FBI director James Comey, prompting an exceed­ing­ly low initial rating on the principle. Evaluations increased in our Wave 3 survey, which took place after the appoint­ment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, before again declining somewhat to the present level. (The survival and inde­pen­dence of the Mueller inves­ti­ga­tion remains pre­car­i­ous. Just days after we concluded our Wave 4 survey, news sources revealed that President Trump attempted to fire Mueller in June 2017 and was only deterred from doing so when White House Counsel Don McGahn threat­ened to resign.)

The following figure presents another way to visualize the recent erosion in perceived demo­c­ra­t­ic quality, showing our prin­ci­ples in descend­ing order of the change from Wave 3 to Wave 4 in “fully meets”/“mostly meets” responses. Between September 2017 and January 2018, we observe a sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant improve­ment in ratings among experts on just one principle (that campaign con­tri­bu­tions do not determine policy). By contrast, experts perceived sig­nif­i­cant degra­da­tion on thirteen prin­ci­ples. The areas of greatest change are telling. All four of our prin­ci­ples related to insti­tu­tion­al checks and balances expe­ri­enced large declines. Expert judgment in the ability of Congress, the courts, or the Constitution to constrain the power of the executive all eroded by 8–10 per­cent­age points, and con­fi­dence in judicial inde­pen­dence from the elected branches plummeted by 16 per­cent­age points. The last four months also saw sub­stan­tial declines (greater than 10 per­cent­age points) in con­fi­dence that all citizens enjoy equal legal, political, or voting rights, and that gov­ern­ment agencies are not used to punish political opponents.

This broad decline between our September 2017 survey and our January 2018 survey coincided with numerous rev­e­la­tions from the Russia inves­ti­ga­tion, including the indict­ments of two Trump advisors (Paul Manafort and George Papadapolous) in October; a guilty plea by Trump’s former National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, for lying to the FBI; and confirmed reports about Donald Trump Jr.’s email exchanges with WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign in November. During this same period, Trump has also continued to assert his right to open an inves­ti­ga­tion into Hillary Clinton; repeat­ed­ly sought to undermine the cred­i­bil­i­ty of the Mueller inves­ti­ga­tion and the FBI; and attacked a circuit court ruling blocking the end of DACA on Twitter, calling the court system “broken and unfair.”

The changes we observe in public assess­ments of U.S. democracy over the same period were even more con­sis­tent­ly negative than those of the experts. No sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant increases in per­for­mance were found, but we see sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant declines on 17 of 27 prin­ci­ples tested. Largely coin­cid­ing with our experts, assess­ments that the courts, the leg­is­la­ture, or the Constitution, can effec­tive­ly check executive power dropped by 7–8 per­cent­age points, and con­fi­dence that the elected branches respect judicial inde­pen­dence fell by 17 per­cent­age points. The public results also show sub­stan­tial declines (greater than 10 per­cent­age points) in the belief that the gov­ern­ment does not interfere with the press, protects free speech rights, that opinions on policy are heard, and that can­di­dates disclose information. 

Were these perceived declines limited to one segment of the public or were they widely shared? Because President Trump is such a con­tro­ver­sial and polar­iz­ing figure, we divided our respon­dent pool between those who approve of Trump’s job as president and those who dis­ap­prove. We then tested whether, on each of our 27 prin­ci­ples, the change in per­for­mance assess­ments between September 2017 (Wave 3) and January 2018 (Wave 4) was sta­tis­ti­cal­ly different between Trump approvers and dis­ap­provers. Interestingly, the downturn in perceived per­for­mance was widely shared. On 22 of the 27 state­ments, the change in per­for­mance ratings was not mea­sur­ably different between sup­port­ers and opponents. 

On five prin­ci­ples, we did find sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences across the groups. The changes between September 2017 and January 2018 among Trump approvers (red) and dis­ap­provers (blue) are illus­trat­ed in the next figure. Trump opponents perceived pre­cip­i­tous drops of between 10 and 22 per­cent­age points on whether executive power can be expanded beyond con­sti­tu­tion­al limits, whether the gov­ern­ment protects the rights of indi­vid­u­als to engage in peaceful protest (likely reflect­ing the recent con­tro­ver­sy about N.F.L. players kneeling during the national anthem), and the freedom of news orga­ni­za­tions from gov­ern­ment inter­fer­ence, whereas the president’s sup­port­ers saw little or no dete­ri­o­ra­tion. Trump’s rhetor­i­cal attacks on the media seem to have vexed his opponents far more than his sup­port­ers. Conversely, Trump approvers perceived sharp downturns in whether elections are free from foreign influence and rates of voter par­tic­i­pa­tion, while dis­ap­provers held fast. These results suggest that the president’s sup­port­ers may be moving toward rec­og­niz­ing the legit­i­ma­cy of concerns about foreign inter­fer­ence, though it should be noted that these results remain highly polarized:  53% of Trump sup­port­ers believe that elections are free of foreign influence, vs only 22% of Trump opponents. The results on par­tic­i­pa­tion may be sug­ges­tive of a feared or perceived dis­en­gage­ment heading into the midterm elections.

Comparing democracy in the U.S. to other countries

The Wave 4 surveys also asked respon­dents to rate democracy in the United States overall on a 100-point scale and then presented each respon­dent with six addi­tion­al countries (randomly selected from a set of twelve) to rate on the same scale. The next figure jux­ta­pos­es the mean ratings of the expert and public samples. Though the rank orderings of experts and the public were nearly the same, experts perceived wider diver­gence in the quality of demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­er­nance between countries. Experts’ mean scores ranged from 1 for North Korea to 86 for Canada, while the public’s mean scores were more com­pressed (17 to 72).

Both experts and the public rated Canada and Great Britain higher than the United States. The United States’s closest “demo­c­ra­t­ic neighbor” is Israel, which falls below the United States according to the experts, but just barely above it among the public. The full set of ratings indicates that the experts and the public largely see the world the same way (on average). 

These country ratings cor­re­spond closely with other expert judgments:  Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2018 report and The Economist’s Intelligence Unit’s 2017 Democracy Index. Both largely cor­rob­o­rate our cross-country com­par­isons. The Freedom House report rates every country on a 100-point scale as well. The figure below contrasts our mean expert survey score for each country with Freedom House’s rating. The indices track closely. Among non-demo­c­ra­t­ic regimes, the numbers match nearly perfectly, though our experts are more cir­cum­spect about demo­c­ra­t­ic quality at the high end of the scale than is Freedom House. We observe a similarly strong cor­re­la­tion between the Economist Intelligence Unit’s scores and our expert ratings, though in that case our expert ratings are lower across the board (see appendix Figure A2).

What about the public’s assess­ments of democracy around the world? The next figure breaks out ratings from President Trump’s approvers and dis­ap­provers on our public survey. For many countries — including Great Britain, Turkey, China, Venezuela, and North Korea — the two groups’ ratings are essen­tial­ly the same. For others, they diverge sharply. Trump sup­port­ers rate democracy in Israel 16 points higher than do his critics. They also rate the United States, the Philippines and Russia higher by about 10 points, and Saudi Arabia higher by seven. Trump’s critics, by contrast, rate U.S. neighbors Canada and Mexico higher than the president’s sup­port­ers do. Perhaps it is not sur­pris­ing that Trump’s sup­port­ers view American democracy as stronger than his critics.  But, when Trump speaks favorably of autocrats like Russian President Vladimir Putin, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and den­i­grates the gov­ern­ments of America’s closest allies, his sup­port­ers at home also appear to adjust their per­cep­tions accordingly.

Is American democracy eroding?

Preoccupation about American democracy is gen­er­at­ing a literary boom. A long list of prominent com­men­ta­tors, from David Frum to Michael Wolff to Yale psy­chi­a­trist Bandy Lee, worry openly that Donald Trump’s pres­i­den­cy rep­re­sents a threat to American democracy. Others, including William Galston, Yascha Mounk, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, and E.J. Dionne, Thomas Mann, and Norman Ornstein, regard Trump’s pres­i­den­cy as a man­i­fes­ta­tion of trends that predate his political rise and that have reached countries beyond the U.S. Yet even those who regard Trump as a symptom of larger trends have raised alarms about his open contempt for demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions and behav­ioral norms. 

These fears are seemingly justified. Freedom House recently declared that 2017 “brought further, faster erosion of America’s own demo­c­ra­t­ic standards than at any other time in memory, damaging its inter­na­tion­al cred­i­bil­i­ty as a champion of good gov­er­nance and human rights.” The Economist rated the U.S. as a “flawed democracy” for the second year in a row, and the Economist Intelligence Unit warned that further slippage is likely if polar­iza­tion increases further. Bright Line Watch’s newest data echoes these more negative assessments.

This sense of alarm has also attracted critical pushback. On New Year’s Day, the Wall Street Journal derided those (including Bright Line Watch) who warned of potential peril to democracy over the past year as “pro­gres­sive elites” who must be dis­ap­point­ed that Trump had not imme­di­ate­ly revealed himself as a new Mussolini. Noting Trump’s policy frus­tra­tions on health care and the border wall, the Journal pro­nounced checks and balances to be robust and vowed to call out the president should he ever attempt to “exceed his con­sti­tu­tion­al power.”

The Journal’s com­mit­ment to pro­tect­ing our democracy is heart­en­ing, but the results from our Wave 4 survey suggest that vigilance over the past year has been not misplaced. The downward trends on many of our 27 prin­ci­ples parallel the concerns raised in How Democracies Die, a new book from the political sci­en­tists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. The authors provide abundant evidence that, when democ­ra­cies around the world have eroded, the demise began when political leaders abandoned two critical behav­ioral norms — mutual tol­er­a­tion and for­bear­ance. The first requires that politi­cians acknowl­edge the political legit­i­ma­cy of their adver­saries, while the second demands that those who hold the levers of state power refrain from using them to their fullest extent at every oppor­tu­ni­ty. By Levitsky and Ziblatt’s account, tol­er­a­tion and for­bear­ance are the pillars on which all other demo­c­ra­t­ic practices rest. Once those “master norms” cease to restrain political behavior, the broader array of demo­c­ra­t­ic practices and prin­ci­ples comes under threat. 

An emerging counter-argument to the Levitsky-Ziblatt thesis is that Trump’s incom­pe­tence and other personal foibles makes concern about actual demo­c­ra­t­ic erosion unwar­rant­ed.  As the Weekly Standard put it in their review of How Democracies Die, “The president certainly lacks a moral compass, is blinded by mind-boggling nar­cis­sism, has weak spots for despots, and is unfit for his job.  But he is almost comically unfocused and pathetic. Does it make sense to call such an obviously weak leader a strongman?” 

Can our surveys cast light on this debate? Although we do not measure per­cep­tions of Trump’s fitness for office or his personal traits, the Bright Line Watch prin­ci­ples related to political discourse do speak directly to the master norms of tol­er­a­tion and forbearance:

  • Political com­pe­ti­tion occurs without criticism of opponents’ loyalty or patriotism.
  • Elected officials seek com­pro­mise with political opponents.

If Levitsky and Ziblatt are correct, then erosion on these two prin­ci­ples bodes ill for U.S. democracy. On this point, Bright Line Watch surveys provide only limited leverage, but also little reas­sur­ance. Our leverage is limited because, although changes on survey items cor­re­spond­ing to the master norms have been small, the scores on those items are so low across all survey waves that they could hardly have declined further. Among both the experts and the public, neither statement ever ranked higher than 20th out of 27 in per­for­mance on any survey. Indeed, all the prin­ci­ples we associate with informal behav­ioral norms — tolerance, for­bear­ance, and common recog­ni­tion of facts — con­sis­tent­ly rank at the bottom among Bright Line Watch measures. Our surveys, then, might fail to detect the erosion Levitsky and Ziblatt warn against because the norms in question had collapsed long before our first survey in 2017. 

How Democracies Die further suggests that erosion in other aspects of democracy could well follow a decline in the master norms. It would be premature to make strong con­clu­sions about the fate of U.S. democracy, but the patterns we observe in this report hint at possible insti­tu­tion­al decline.  If scholars are right that erosion proceeds on a piecemeal basis, and that the first steps often entail targeting democracy’s “referees,” then our results regarding declines in judicial inde­pen­dence and support for a free press are espe­cial­ly disturbing. 

The assess­ments of democracy outside the United States are similarly inaus­pi­cious. Levitsky and Ziblatt emphasize that partisan polar­iza­tion is a key factor under­min­ing mutual tol­er­a­tion. If we come to regard political adver­saries not as prin­ci­pled opponents with whom we share a love of country but as dis­hon­or­able and possibly trai­tor­ous, then it is a small step to reject com­pro­mise alto­geth­er and to see accom­mo­da­tion within estab­lished demo­c­ra­t­ic channels as a betrayal of one’s core prin­ci­ples. Polarization alters our per­cep­tion of conflict and reduces our ability to see common ground. Unfortunately, it now pervades not only our respon­dents’ assess­ments of U.S. demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance, but even their assess­ments about democracy elsewhere. Trump’s sup­port­ers and opponents render divergent judgments on strongman rule in places like Russia and the Philippines and on our more demo­c­ra­t­ic neighbors, Canada and Mexico. Americans now see the world, and democracy in the world, quite differently. 


Appendix: Survey method, data, and instru­ment reliability

Bright Line Watch surveys on the state of America’s democracy, January 2018

From January 10–22, 2018, Bright Line Watch conducted its fourth 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. Wave 1 and Wave 2 targeted expert respon­dents only. Wave 3 and Wave 4 have paired the expert survey with one drawing on a rep­re­sen­ta­tive public sample. 

  • Expert: On January 10, we sent email invitations to 9,423 political science faculty at universities in the United States. By January 22, after two reminder emails, we had complete responses from 1,066 (a response rate of 11%).

  • Public: YouGov fielded the public survey from January 10–18, producing 2,000 complete responses.

Participants in each Wave 4 survey responded to identical batteries of questions about demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance in the United States and in a dozen other countries. The data from both the expert and public surveys are available here. All analyses of the public data from YouGov incor­po­rate survey weights.

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 and Wave 4 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 nine state­ments and asked to first rate the impor­tance of those state­ments and then rate the per­for­mance of the United States on those dimensions.

27 state­ments of demo­c­ra­t­ic principles


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


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


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


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


  1. Government officials are legally sanc­tioned for misconduct
  2. Government officials do not use public office for private gain
  3. Law enforce­ment inves­ti­ga­tions of public officials or their asso­ciates are free from political influence or interference


  1. Executive authority cannot be expanded beyond con­sti­tu­tion­al limits
  2. The leg­is­la­ture is able to effec­tive­ly limit executive power
  3. The judiciary is able to effec­tive­ly limit executive power
  4. The elected branches respect judicial independence


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

The Wave 4 survey consisted of two main parts. In the first, each respon­dent was 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 each battery was ran­dom­ized for each respon­dent so there should be no priming or ordering effects in how they were assessed.

After com­plet­ing the battery on U.S. per­for­mance, we asked respon­dents to rate the overall quality of democracy in the United States today on a scale from 0 to 100, where 0 is least demo­c­ra­t­ic and 100 is most democratic. 

We then presented respon­dents with a set of six countries, randomly selected from the list of 12 below, and asked them to rate the quality of democracy in each on the same 100-point scale they had just used to rate the United States. 

  • Canada
  • China
  • Great Britain
  • Iraq
  • Israel
  • Mexico
  • North Korea
  • Philippines
  • Russia
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Turkey
  • Venezuela

While rating the six other countries, the score they had given to the United States was listed as a point of com­par­i­son on each respondent’s screen.

For the experts only, after they rated the other countries, we followed up by asking — for the six countries they had been selected to rate — whether they had ever taught about or conducted research on each country. This step allows us to identify experts with country-specific expertise.

For the public only, after rating the other countries, the survey concluded with a series of standard questions about demo­graph­ics, political attitudes, and political knowledge.

Figure A1: U.S. democracy per­for­mance — public

Figure A2: Bright Line Watch expert assess­ments versus The Economist

Figure A3: Bright Line Watch public survey results by Trump approval