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Political scientists monitor threats to US democratic institutions

April 11, 2018
looking at the Constitution with the words WE THE PEOPLE through a magnifying glassIn their latest quarterly survey of political science scholars and the general public, the researchers at the Bright Line Watch project has discovered reason to be concerned about the state of US democratic institutions. (Unsplash photo / Anthony Garand)

“One of the greatest threats to democracy is the idea that it is unassailable.”

That’s the tagline of Bright Line Watch, which neatly sums up the group’s motivation. Made up of four political scientists—Gretchen Helmke of the University of Rochester, Brendan Nyhan and John Carey of Dartmouth College, and Susan Stokes of Yale University—the non-partisan initiative set out to monitor democratic practices in the United States and potential threats to those practices.

The group focuses on democratic institutions such as free and fair elections, checks and balances, and freedom of the press. In their latest quarterly survey of political science scholars and the general public, they’ve discovered reason to be concerned.

Born in late 2016, Bright Line Watch found its raison d’être in the widespread concern over the possible erosion of those institutions in this country, says Helmke.

“Our goal was to bring what we know as academics—what we’ve learned from our scholarly work—and bring that perspective to public debates about the quality of democracy in the United States, its vulnerabilities as well as its sources of resilience,” says Helmke.

‘Sobering results’

There are several factors that the scholarship indicates would protect American democracy, says Helmke, adding that the chances of a complete breakdown of democracy in the US—the kind that occurred in the 20th century in parts of Latin America, for example—are slim.

“A military coup style breakdown is highly unlikely,” she notes. Scholars who have studied the statistical likelihood of that type of breakdown look at such factors as the relationship between levels of wealth in the US—where wealth is comparatively high—and also the age of this country’s democracy. Research shows that the age of a given democracy serves to protect it.

Basically, the longer—the stronger.

But don’t exhale quite yet, cautions Helmke who notes the group’s concern about the gradual and slow erosion of democracy in this country. “That process—where it’s a slow kind of piecemeal challenging of different institutions that support democracy—is something that we see in several parts of the world, and something that we are now seeing in the United States today. It’s very early on so I don’t know what the long-term prospects are, but yes, I think there are reasons to be concerned,” she says.

Explaining their impetus to be watchful, the scholars write that “at a time of potential danger to American democratic norms and institutions, it is more urgent than ever for scholars to highlight the risks to our system of government.” That’s why together they compile quarterly reports, based on careful scientific polling of more than 1,000 political experts and a nationally representative sample of 2,000 members of the public.

The results are “sobering,” says the team, sounding nuanced alarm bells.

While the public assesses the state of American democracy more negatively than the polled experts, both groups agree that the performance of US democracy has declined since President Trump took office just over a year ago, the quartet concludes in its latest report.

At the core of their regular surveys is a battery of 27 measures, ranging from free speech and an unimpeded press, to constitutional limits on executive powers, to vote representation, and the independence of the judiciary. On 21 of these 27 democratic principles, the survey finds that the experts’ rating has declined over time.

For example, the latest survey finds that more than 80 percent of the polled experts rate US elections free of overt fraud. Yet, fewer than 15 percent of the expert believe that political leaders generally share a common understanding of relevant facts, or think that elected official try to compromise with their political opponents.

Read the findings from the latest Bright Line Watch survey.

The only principle on which the team saw substantial improvement is that “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 had fired FBI director James Comey—prompting a very low initial rating on the principle, the group reasoned. However, the evaluations improved in the third survey. The team ascribes the rising evaluation to the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, before again declining somewhat to the present level in the fourth survey. The quartet writes that the survival and independence of the Mueller investigation remains precarious, citing President Trump’s attempted firing of Mueller in June 2017.

Overall, the political experts rated 13 democratic principles significantly lower, all of them related to institutional checks and balances. Bright Line Watch found that the expert judgment in the ability of Congress, the courts, or the Constitution to reign in the power of the executive all eroded by 8 to 10 percentage points. The polled experts’ confidence in judicial independence from the elected branches plummeted by 16 percentage points. Results from the general public survey were even more consistently negative.

Why does it matter what the public believes about the state of our democracy?

While experts may have a more acute understanding of certain violations, and conversely, of built-in checks and balances, the public’s view remains essential.


“You can define democracy in a lot of different ways, but all of those involve a connection between the public and the government,” says Mitch Sanders, who received his PhD in political science from the University in 1997 and now manages the survey methodology for Bright Line Watch. “So, understanding what the public sees as important for democracy, understanding what the public perceives as the extent to which the United States is fulfilling or not fulfilling certain standards—I think that’s a vital part of understanding democracy today.”

The weakening of democracy, Sanders argues, would be recognized by the public.

Meanwhile, the survey results have not fallen on deaf ears. National media outlets from the New York Times, and Washington Post, to the Wall Street Journal, Vox, and Politico have taken notice, following the group’s reports closely.

Helmke says her work made her think of a sentence uttered by President Abraham Lincoln in one of his first speeches, given roughly thirty years before the Civil War. At the time, the 16th President talked about threats to the rule of law and political institutions in the US:

“We hope all dangers may be overcome, but to conclude that no danger may ever arise would itself be extremely dangerous.’”

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Category: Society & Culture