Bright Line Watch — Wave 7 Report — October/November 2018

Our mission at Bright Line Watch is to dis­tin­guish what is novel and unprece­dent­ed from politics as usual in the United States — a difficult task in the current news envi­ron­ment. To do so, we conducted our seventh expert survey, and fifth public survey, in October 2018. Our goal was to assess the state of American democracy just before the first midterm elections of President Trump’s admin­is­tra­tion.[1]

The main results are the following:

  • Our expert and public samples show stability in their overall ratings of U.S. democracy from Wave 6 (July 2018) to Wave 7 (October 2018). 

  • Experts perceive a significant decline in the U.S. government’s performance at protecting individuals’ right to engage in peaceful protest
 and preventing politically-motivated violence. 

  • Experts rate a number of recent events as both highly abnormal and highly important.

Between October 24 and 31, 2018, we surveyed an expert sample of 747 political sci­en­tists at American colleges and uni­ver­si­ties and a nation­al­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tive public sample of 2,000 American adults. As in previous waves, respon­dents in both surveys assessed the degree to which 27 demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples (listed in the appendix to this report) are currently upheld in the United States. They also evaluated the overall quality of American democracy on a 100-point scale. In addition, par­tic­i­pants in our expert sample rated a set of 27 recent political events on two separate scales—how important or unim­por­tant they are and how normal or abnormal they are in the context of U.S. politics. 

Ratings of U.S. democracy, 2015–2018

We first explore expert and public ratings of the overall quality of American democracy on a 100-point scale. The figure below shows changes in per­cep­tions of democracy since we began con­duct­ing our surveys.[2] We show the democracy ratings for our expert sample, the public overall, and the public dis­ag­gre­gat­ed by their approval of Donald Trump.

Consistent with previous Bright Line Watch surveys, expert ratings of American democracy are higher than those of the public. The average score for experts is 64.5 on a 100-point scale. The mean rating for the public is 54.7, but Trump approvers rate U.S. democracy higher than dis­ap­provers (61.3 versus 49.4, respec­tive­ly) — a pattern that closely mirrors the one observed in our last survey almost precisely (62.9 versus 49.5 in July 2018). Although we see slight increases in democracy ratings among experts and slight decreases among the public compared to our Wave 6 survey, these shifts are not sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant. Overall, the trend between July and October 2018 indicates stability.[3]

Performance on demo­c­ra­t­ic principles 

Next, we unpack respon­dents’ ratings of how well 27 demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples are currently upheld in the United States. A full list of these prin­ci­ples is included in the appendix. To measure perceived demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance, we compare the per­cent­age of respon­dents who rated the United States as “fully” or “mostly” meeting a given demo­c­ra­t­ic standard with the per­cent­age saying the United States only “partially meets” or “does not meet” it. The figures below compare ratings from the public (purple) and experts (green) in our July and October 2018 surveys.

Consistent with the overall ratings of U.S. democracy, we see rel­a­tive­ly small shifts in the public’s ratings of per­for­mance on our demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples. Only four are sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant: slight increases in perceived per­for­mance on sup­port­ing free speech, equal political/legal rights, can­di­dates dis­clos­ing infor­ma­tion, and campaign funds being trans­par­ent. These increases may be the result of the salience of the midterm election that was pending when the survey was in the field.

Among our expert respon­dents, by contrast, we observe just two sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant changes, but they are notable — declines in perceived per­for­mance on tol­er­a­tion of protest and a lack of political violence. The share of experts agreeing that the U.S. “fully” or “mostly” meet the standard for tol­er­at­ing peaceful protest declined from 83% in July 2018 to 76% in October 2018. Similarly, 60% of experts said the U.S. “fully” or “mostly” met the standard of not having political violence in July, but this figure dropped to 49% in October. We speculate that these declines are the result of recent, high-profile events that brought protests and violence into the spotlight.

With regard to protests, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s inves­ti­ga­tion into Brett Kavanaugh and the lead-up to his con­fir­ma­tion as a Supreme Court justice sparked large protests in Washington, D.C., and the arrest of more than 300 pro­tes­tors (including prominent comedian Amy Schumer). Moreover, in early October, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion proposed new reg­u­la­tions to dras­ti­cal­ly limit the rights of pro­test­ers near the White House. Additionally, the viral spread of the “Jobs not mobs” meme and Twitter hashtag used by con­ser­v­a­tive media outlets, Republican can­di­dates in the midterm elections, and Donald Trump himself sent a strong message against indi­vid­u­als engaging in peaceful protest.

Political violence has also grabbed headlines in recent months. Beginning on October 22, fifteen packages con­tain­ing pipe bombs were sent to Democratic politi­cians and critics of Donald Trump, including Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Hillary Clinton. While the packages were inter­cept­ed before reaching their intended recipient, they indicated a troubling esca­la­tion in polit­i­cal­ly-motivated violence. In addition, on October 27, a gunman motivated by anti-Semitism and fears of immi­grants opened fire at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA, killing eleven and injuring seven. Commentators have called the midterm elections a “rallying point” for far-right extrem­ists to organize anti-semitic efforts against Jews in the United States.[4]

What’s (ab)normal and (un)important in the Trump era

Finally, we consider how experts perceive recent events, including many recent actions by President Trump, by asking them to evaluate each item’s impor­tance and the degree to which it fits with normal political practice. We focus primarily on events that took place between our last expert survey, in July 2018, and the current round. A full list of the events is included in the appendix to this report. In the figure below, the markers indicate the mean values of the expert responses on five-point scales of impor­tance and (ab)normality. Consistent with the July survey, the items are more dispersed across the normalcy scale (the hor­i­zon­tal axis) than the impor­tance scale (the vertical axis).

We first consider what is not both new and sig­nif­i­cant. Developments in the judiciary were con­sid­ered important but rel­a­tive­ly normal by experts; these include Anthony Kennedy’s retire­ment from the Supreme Court, the appoint­ment of new appeals court judges, Brett Kavanaugh’s con­fir­ma­tion as a Supreme Court justice, Christine Blasey Ford tes­ti­fy­ing against Kavanaugh, and a judge blocking the admin­is­tra­tion from deporting reunited families who had been separated. Other standard pres­i­den­tial events such as rallies, speeches, travel, and meetings were con­sid­ered both normal and unimportant.

However, of the 27 events included in our list, 15 were rated as both sig­nif­i­cant and unusual in the context of U.S. politics (i.e., above the midpoint for both impor­tance and normalcy). Looking at the top right corner of the chart, many of the events that our experts rate as the most important and abnormal concern speech acts that are unrelated to pres­i­den­tial authority or public policy — a trend we also observed in our Wave 6 survey. Specifically, Trump’s vocal criticism of the media, his praise of a Republican congressman’s physical assault on a reporter, his denial of the death toll from Hurricane Maria, and his calling the European Union a foe were all rated as both abnormal and important by experts.

Also rated high on both impor­tance and abnor­mal­i­ty were items related to Trump’s critics or disputes between Trump and his critics, including explo­sives being sent in the mail to prominent Democrats, Michael Cohen’s impli­ca­tion of Trump as a co-con­spir­a­tor in his guilty plea, the ongoing feud between Trump and his (now former) Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, and Trump’s revo­ca­tion of former CIA director John Brennan’s security clearance. 

Finally, experts con­sid­ered it both abnormal and important that a White House aide report­ed­ly took a letter off President Trump’s desk to prevent him from with­draw­ing from a trade agreement with South Korea and that the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has proposed limits on the right to demon­strate near the White House and on the National Mall. 



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

From October 24–31, 2018, Bright Line Watch conducted its seventh 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, and in January (Wave 4), April (Wave 5), and July (Wave 6) of 2018. Waves 1 and 2 targeted expert respon­dents only. Waves 3–7 have paired the expert survey with a rep­re­sen­ta­tive survey of the American public. Details on the Wave 7 survey are provided below:

  • Expert: On October 24, we sent email invitations to 10,747 political science faculty at universities in the United States. By November 4, after two reminder emails, we had complete responses from 747 (a response rate of 7.0%).

  • Public: YouGov fielded the public survey from October 24–31, producing 2,000 complete responses. 

Both the expert and public samples in Wave 7 responded to a battery of questions about demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance in the United States. Afterward, they were asked to evaluate the quality of American democracy overall on a 100-point scale. 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. Both the per­for­mance battery and the (ab)normality and /(un)importance battery are described in more detail below. The data from both the expert and public surveys are available here. All analyses of the public data from YouGov incor­po­rate survey weights.

Performance battery

The foun­da­tion of Bright Line Watch’s surveys is a list of 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 7 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


  • 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 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.

(Ab)normality and (un)importance battery

Our (ab)normality and (un)importance battery, which we admin­is­tered to our expert sample only, is based on similar surveys conducted by the New York Times Upshot blog in February and May 2017. This battery asks respon­dents to assess a series of recent political events on their impor­tance and on the degree to which they fit with normal political practice. We designed this battery for our Wave 6 expert survey in July 2018, but updated our list of events to cover the political context of the last few months. The list included the following 27 items:

  • President Trump being implicated as a co-conspirator in his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen’s guilty plea. 

  • President Trump publicly feuding with Attorney General Jeff Sessions. 

  • Federal judge blocking the Trump administration from deporting reunited families who were separated under the “zero tolerance” prosecution policy. 

  • President Trump threatening Canada with auto tariffs.

  • President Trump proposing the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement.

  • President Trump revoking the security clearance of former CIA director John Brennan.

  • President Trump repeatedly calling the press an “enemy of the people.” 

  • President Trump claiming the official death toll from Hurricane Maria was wrong and made up by Democrats to make him look bad.

  • The Senate Judiciary Committee holding a hearing in which Christine Blasey Ford accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault. 

  • World leaders laughing at President Trump’s remarks during his United Nations speech.

  • Judge Brett Kavanaugh being confirmed to the Supreme Court. 

  • President Trump calling the European Union a “foe.”

  • President Trump saying the government of Saudi Arabia (KSA) was being treated as “guilty until proven innocent” in the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

  • A White House advisor reportedly taking a letter off President Trump’s desk to prevent him from withdrawing from a trade agreement with South Korea.

  • The Trump administration proposing limits on the right to demonstrate near the White House and on the National Mall.

  • President Trump inspecting damage from Hurricane Florence in Florida and Georgia. 

  • Senate confirming Robert Wilkie as Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs.

  • President Trump appointing numerous judges to federal appeals courts.

  • Justice Anthony Kennedy retiring from the Supreme Court. 

  • President Trump raising more than $100 million for his 2020 reelection campaign. 

  • President Trump speaking at the Flight 93 National Memorial to commemorate the 17th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. 

  • President Trump meeting with Chilean President Sebastián Piñera at the White House. 

  • President Trump threatening to support a government shutdown if Democratic lawmakers do not vote for border security, including “the Wall.”

  • President Trump holding rallies across the country to campaign for Republican Congressional candidates.

  • President Trump meeting with Kanye West at the White House. 

  • President Trump praising a Montana congressman’s physical attack on a reporter.

  • Explosive devices being sent to prominent Democrats and critics of President Trump.

Each respon­dent was asked to rate nine items that were randomly selected from the list above on two separate five-point scales according to the following instructions:

  • Normal or Abnormal, where 1 is business as usual for a presidential administration, like vetoing a bill or appointing a cabinet, and 5 is highly unusual for American democracy, like Iran-Contra or ordering newspapers to halt the publication of the Pentagon Papers.

  • Unimportant or Important, where 1 has limited or no consequences for the federal government, like the first family’s pets or the menu for a state dinner, and 5 creates a significant or lasting change, like the establishment of Social Security or the Voting Rights Act.

Once again, the order in which the events were presented in the battery was ran­dom­ized for each respon­dent to prevent priming or ordering effects.

Expert ratings of democracy his­tor­i­cal­ly and today

In our May 2017 survey, we asked the expert sample to rate the quality of U.S. democracy currently and ret­ro­spec­tive­ly at nine his­tor­i­cal dates: 1800, 1850, 1900, 1950, 1975, 1985, 1995, 2005, and 2015. We have asked for the same rating today in each of our seven expert surveys (February, May, and September 2017; January, April, July, and October 2018). 

In the figure below, the black line with dots shows the average ratings from the Bright Line Watch expert sample for each his­tor­i­cal date plus the May 2017 and October 2018 ratings. It is measured on a 0–100 scale. For com­par­i­son, the grey line shows the Liberal Democracy Index from the Varieties of Democracy Project (V‑Dem), rescaled to the same 0–100 scale, which extends back to the rat­i­fi­ca­tion of the Constitution in 1789. V‑Dem is a scholarly con­sor­tium that evaluates the quality of democracy around the world and over time using con­sis­tent methods and standards to aggregate the opinions of experts in 170 countries.

The tra­jec­to­ries sketched by V‑Dem and by the Bright Line Watch experts are remark­ably con­sis­tent over time, though the Bright Line Watch assess­ments are a bit more tempered (slightly higher than V‑Dem from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th, slightly lower since). Notably, both indices drop sharply in the last few years of the series. V‑Dem’s data end in 2017 but Bright Line Watch experts perceive further decline in 2018 (from 76 in 2015 to 69 in 2017 to 64 now). We interpret this decline as a response to the events of the 2016 U.S. pres­i­den­tial election and the Trump presidency.



[1]  At the same time, we also conducted a novel survey exper­i­ment on candidate choice in con­gres­sion­al elections, which estimates the degree to which voters are willing to pri­or­i­tize demo­c­ra­t­ic values in selecting can­di­dates even when such choices might entail trade-offs against partisan or policy interests. Our report on this exper­i­ment is here.

[2]  The 2015 estimate comes from a May 2017 survey in which we asked experts to rate the quality of U.S. democracy ret­ro­spec­tive­ly at nine his­tor­i­cal dates. 

[3]  We note that although expert ratings of U.S. democracy have been stable in recent months, they declined sharply after Donald Trump was elected president. The appendix to this report includes a chart showing expert ratings of U.S. democracy his­tor­i­cal­ly from Bright Line Watch surveys alongside ratings from Varieties of Democracy Project (V‑Dem)’s Liberal Democracy Index. 

[4]  See the Anti-Defamation League report, “Computational Propaganda, Jewish-Americans and the 2018 Midterms: The Amplification of Anti-Semitic Harassment Online.”