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Quadcast transcript: Political scientists monitor threats to US democractic instituions

April 11, 2018

You are now listening to the UR Quadcast, the official Quadcast of the University of Rochester.

Sandra Knispel: “One of the greatest threats to democracy is the idea that it is unassailable.” That’s the tagline for Bright Line Watch, a non-partisan group of political scientists. The scholars monitor US-American democratic practices, the resilience of the system, and threats to the US democracy. That’s why Bright Line Watch releases a report every three months… and leading national media such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Politico, Wall Street Journal, they all have taken notice. Joining us today is one of the group’s four scholars— Gretchen Helmke, a professor of political science at the University of Rochester and Bright Line’s methodologist, Mitch Sanders, who graduated from the University with a PhD in political science and is now a partner at the Rochester-based research firm Meliora.

Welcome to both of you.

Gretchen Helmke: Thank you so much for having us. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Mitch Sanders: Yes, thank you for having us.

SK: Let’s start with your tagline. You said, “The greatest threats to democracy, or one of the greatest threats, is the idea that it is unassailable.” Gretchen, how did this tagline come about, what’s the story behind it?

01:12 GH: Well, when we were in the process of writing grants to fund Bright Line Watch, a lot of the other professors that I work with contributed to that process and I think that tagline was developed by Susan Stokes who’s one of the founding members of Bright Line Watch. And I think it’s really meant to refer to this idea that the eternal price of liberty is vigilance. The other day I was reading something written by Abraham Lincoln—one of his first speeches—and he’s talking about thirty years before the Civil War but he’s talking about threats to the rule of law and to political institutions in the United States and he had a line in there that reminded me very much of our tagline and that line is: “We hope all dangers may be overcome, but to conclude that no danger may ever arise would itself be extremely dangerous.”

2:02 SK: Gretchen, let me back up a little bit. Is it okay if I call you Gretchen and Mitch?  Now you joined forces with three colleagues in the field, that’s Brendan Nyhan and John Carey at Dartmouth College, and Susan Stokes at Yale University. How did you four find each other? How was Bright Line Watch born?

02:20 GH: I had actually known Sue since I was in graduate school. I started at the University of Berkeley and then I transferred to the University of Chicago in my second year and Sue Stokes at that point was an assistant professor in political science at the University of Chicago. And she became my advisor and my mentor so I have worked with her for more than twenty years. She also studies Latin American politics which is my main area of expertise. John Carey actually had the job at the University of Rochester in political science as their Latin Americanist before I came to Rochester. He subsequently moved on to the University of Washington in St. Louis and then Dartmouth, but John and I had been in touch for many years, I’m very familiar with his work. Both he and Sue are sort of leading experts in Latin America politics that I’ve really looked up to my whole career. And as the election was proceeding, we put together a statement of concern about some of the things that we saw during the campaign. And because of their sort of reputations and their connections they were the first people that I reached out to to try to figure out whether this was a statement that we should circulate and how to go about doing that. So, they were instrumental and then after the election we came together and formed Bright Line Watch. Brendan Nyhan, whom I did not know before this personally, is one of John’s colleagues and is an expert in American politics. He has done a lot of work on fake news, has worked a lot with the media. [He] has a lot of experience studying democracy in the United States, so it was just very natural that we would bring him on board as well.

04:09 SK: Let me back up a little bit. You just mentioned the statement that political scientists put together. Very briefly—if you could just explain what that was about.

04:18 GH: Sure. So, about a week before the election, there was a statement that came out from several economists and Nobel prize winners, expressing concern over some of the things that had taken place during the course of the 2016 campaign. And it occurred to me that political scientists also had a similar kind of duty to warn… Particularly people who had studied other parts of the world where democracy had eroded, or where threats to it had emerged. Unfortunately, you know, some of the things that took place in the 2016 campaign were unprecedented here, but sounded very familiar—the script sounded very similar—to political scientists who studied other parts of the world. So, for example statements about not necessarily accepting the election results, a major candidate issuing threats against the press, talking about the fact that the judiciary was not independent, threatening to lock up an opponent. These were things that had been, you know, unprecedented in American politics at least at this sort of level of American politics. But these things were very, very familiar to those of us who study other parts of the world. So, we put together a statement that basically outlines several of those principles, said we were concerned and the statement was circulated I believe in a little less than 48 hours. It garnered about 300 to 400 signatures, almost all of the past living presidents of the American Political Science Association signed it, and then the statement gained some media attention as well, right before the election took place.

06:01 SK: What’s the primary concern you all share at Bright Line Watch?

06:05 GH: The primary concern is really with threats to democratic institutions. It’s not so much with, you know, particular policy differences that we may have. It’s not about sort of the state of the president’s mental health or his incompetency, or things that have been raised by other scholars and other fields. Our main concern has really been with the institutions of democracy. So, basic things like free and fair elections, whether checks and balances are operating, whether there is respect for things like freedom of the press. Our concern is really with sort of regime-level institutions as opposed to particular policies, and our goal was to really bring what we know as academics—what we’ve learned from our scholarly work—to bring that academic perspective to public debates about the quality of democracy in the United States. Its vulnerabilities as well as its sources of resilience.

07:04 SK:  Now Bright Line Watch puts out a so-called wave report. You do that every three months. It’s based on polling data. Tell me more about whom you survey. How you do it? At this point I want to bring in Mitch Sanders. You’ve been waiting patiently. Thank you. You are of course the group’s methodologist and you’ve jokingly referred to yourself as the fifth Beatle. Tell me what exactly that you do for Bright Line and why the fifth Beatle?


07:26 MS: I realize I should have been more cautious about that metaphor. We’re here in the recording studio surrounded by musical instruments—and none of which I play—but the metaphor made sense at the time. I’m mostly involved in the survey, research that we do both among political science experts and among the general public, so getting that arranged and implemented and then working on analysis and reporting, also, contributing my perspective. I do have a PhD in political science from 20 years ago or so from the University of Rochester. Since then I’ve worked about half of the time in academia and about half of the time in a research role in the private sector, so I think that sort of perspective I found to be helpful—even as I think about the sorts of scholarly issues that Bright Line Watch is considering.

08:17 SK: So, tell me as you go about assembling the data, you said you ask on one hand the experts and then you ask the general public. How do you go about doing this?

08:25 MS: So, the, the survey actually began as an expert survey. That was the very first thing we did as the organization was getting going in early 2017. All of these surveys are implemented online. That’s the state of the art these days and you can reach a large number of people in a very straightforward way using that approach. So, we did two implementations of the expert survey. We compiled a list of almost 10,000 political scientists at institutions around the country. Emailed all of them and in the first wave we got a response of about 1,500 professors to our survey. And we’ve gotten about a 1,000 every time since then, so a nice robust sample. And we asked them a series of questions. The questions are organized around 27 principles of democracy. For example, that elections are conducted, ballots counted, and winners determined without pervasive fraud or manipulation. Another example—all adult citizens enjoy the same legal and political rights. There are a number of these statements about rights and political activity as it relates to American democracy, or democracy in general, and we ask our survey respondents either one or two questions about that list of statements. The first question, which we ask sometimes but not all the time, is how important this characteristic is for democracy on a scale that ranges from “this has no impact on democracy,” to “this enhances democracy,” to “if this is absent democracy is compromised,” or “a country cannot be considered democratic without this.” So, we ask how important these characteristics are for democracy. We don’t do that all the time because we believe empirically [that] we’re finding beliefs about what’s important. And the relative degree of importance of those beliefs is pretty stable over time so that’s not something that needs to be asked on an ongoing basis, but in addition. And we do ask this next set of questions every time for the same statements: we ask how well the United States is doing compared to the standard, whether the United States does not meet the standard, partly meets, mostly meets, or fully meets the standard. So we implement the survey. We ask the experts and then in the last two waves—we’ve done four waves in total—in the last two of them we’ve also asked a public sample to respond to the same questions.

10:49 SK: Now, as a long time journalist I also believe in full disclosure. So, we should mention here that you happen to know Gretchen quite well. You’ve been married to each other for nearly a dozen years… So, two political scientists—I just have to ask I’m curious—what do you guys talk about at your dinner table?

11:07 MS: Well it’s not always as lofty as you might imagine. [Childcare and family issues] That’s probably 90 to 95 percent of the conversation and then the other 5 to 10 percent is public affairs. Our daughter has a lot of opinions about politics and democracy, but it’s mostly, at least at dinner time, typical family stuff.

11:29 SK: Now, you compare the opinion and the assessment of political experts, as you said, with that of the American public. Is there something that is particularly tricky about gathering this data and then why these two groups? Why is it important that you break out the experts from the general public?

11:44: MS: Well, there’s a long tradition of doing both of these things—surveying experts, as well as surveying the public. There are any number of pretty generously-sized handfuls of expert surveys of democracy in different countries around the world— different elements of democracy, different components of democracy— but this model is fairly standard. What we’ve done is we’ve taken the core of that idea but modified it, I think, in an important way where most expert studies will have a large number of experts in general or in total, but each country—and they would evaluate a large number of countries—each country might be evaluated by a small number of people. So, it is broad-scope geographically for a typical expert study, a broad population that’s being sampled, but for anyone country a significantly smaller sample. We’ve taken that and I would say inverted it—in that we ask a very broad sample of political scientists, but we’re only asking really about one country. We do sometimes get into international comparisons, but the primary focus of what we’re asking about is the core of these 27 principles of democracy, as they’re implemented, or to what degree they’re implemented in the United States. Surveying the public, of course, is done very broadly and what we wanted to do is ask our questions of the public for a similar reason—to understand what the public believes about democracy, about the state of democracy, about what’s important for democracy—because that’s really what democracy is. You can define democracy in a lot of different ways, but all of those ways involve a connection between the public and the government. 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 the state of American democracy today.

13:44 SK: So, if you’re all wondering like me—let’s cut to the chase directly here and this is a question for both of you: Is the US democracy in peril?

13:53 GH: I think that is sort of the question of our generation and a lot of different scholars are looking at this question. There have been several books that have come out just in the last month that look directly at this question. On the one hand, I think that the chances of a complete breakdown—the kind that we have seen for example in the 20th century in Latin America—a military coup style breakdown, I think that’s highly unlikely. Scholars who have studied this statistically looking at the relationship between levels of wealth and likelihood of a democratic breakdown would basically—because of the wealth of the US—put the chances of something like that happening here at approximately zero. Another factor that I think really helps the United States, according to the scholarship, is just the age of our democracy. There’s been a lot of research showing that just how long a democracy has been in place serves to protect it. On the other hand, I do think—and our surveys show this—that there are reasons to be concerned about the sort of gradual or slow erosion of democracy. And I think 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, but I think 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.

15:29 SK: In the report, actually, you direct your readers’ attention and you say “pay attention to the targeting of democracy’s so-called referees.” If you could talk a little bit about this: who are these referees? What’s particularly disturbing to you?

15:41 GH: The scholarship on democratic erosion, as opposed to democratic breakdown, is relatively young. It’s a relatively new scholarship, but I think one of the sort of common patterns that seems to be emerging is that usually democracy happens at the hands of someone, an executive leader who is elected by the people and has some legitimacy. And the issue is that they often campaign on, you know, precisely this idea of draining the swamp and getting rid of different institutional elites. And in this case the referees would be anything from the media who are an ongoing check on what the administration is doing, to bureaucracies—so, we saw the firing, for example, of the FBI director James Comey—to the courts. So, the referees are basically those people operating in those institutions that have the power to set constitutional limits on the government.

16:42 SK: Mitch, I want to go back to you and if I may refer to it this way—to the sausage making. Clearly, you’re asking the public “Do you believe. Do you think—ranging from judicial independence—is it working, to checks and balances, to limiting executive power?” Have you found that these have declined across the board? Is public faith really a good indicator of what’s actually happening? In other words, why does it matter what the public believes?

17:07 MS: I think that’s important because the fundamental essence of democracy is that there’s a connection between the public and the government and some elements of that connection are based on politics and political parties. We have elections and as a result of elections there is a change in public policy, but some elements of government are meant to be politically neutral, like who’s allowed to vote or who’s prosecuted for potential crimes and for what reasons. So, the distinction between the elements of democracy that are supposed to vary with partisanship and the parts of democracy that are not intended to vary with partisanship—because democracy is fundamentally about the connection between citizens and the government understanding any weakening of that—I think is vital, and if there is to be a weakening of that—it would be something that would be perceived.

18:03 SK: So, if you would take me back, why are we asking? Why are you asking the public these questions?

18:09 MS: Well, the connection between the public and government is so essential for democracy that we feel that that’s very important to assess beliefs among the public about how well the United States is performing, especially juxtaposed against the factors that are considered to be most important. So, here’s one example from the last two waves of our survey. We ask about different characteristics of democracy, how important are they, and then how well is the United States performing? And so, with those figures we can identify where is there a substantial gap, so to speak, between expectations and fulfillment? What are the elements of democracy that are considered to be very important but are not considered to be fulfilled in a very strong way? And if we look at the results from our last two waves of the survey among the public there are three factors that I think stand out as being important but not being highly fulfilled. One is that investigations are not politically compromised. Another is that there are sanctions for government officials who engage in misconduct, and another is that there are no private gains from office. So, I think if we think about what the past 12 plus months have shown the public in the headlines, to me these are natural things for the public to be thinking about. And what we’re seeing in these results is that these are the things they are thinking about. So they’re important but there not being widely fulfilled. The public is perceiving that, and I think that’s an important fact as we think about the state of democracy.

19:44 SK: Let’s go to the weakening. So, for example, in your last wave report you found that the public’s belief that the government protects free speech, does not interfere with the press, and also that political candidates do not withhold information—that that belief has dropped. How do you explain that?

20:03 GH: So, our goal at this point has not necessarily been to explain particular trends in responses. It has really been too sort of establish that the perceptions are shifting, or just establish what they are for the public and for experts, and especially, I don’t know if this has come out yet, but especially within different groups within the public. So, one of the things that we do in these public surveys is we break out Trump supporters—those who say that they support the current administration—and opponents of the administration. And part of what our survey is able to do is detect a kind of polarization in perceptions across these two groups in a wide range of areas. So, it’s not just—“Is democracy good or bad?” or “Is it operating poorly or well?” It’s really a much more nuanced, fine-grained assessment across these two different groups.

21:03 SK: So, what happens? For example, in the report you write that the public basically agrees—and I’m quoting here—“that the performance of US democracy has declined during Trump’s now one-year tenure in office.” When you then look across the political spectrum and you look at the Republicans, Democrats, Independents—do they largely agree on this or do they not at all? How does this work?

21:22 GH: So, we are in the middle of writing a more academic version of the survey report that we put out last month. And the theoretical framework that we’re drawing from is something that was developed by Stanford political scientist Barry Weingast. And his basic idea, which goes back to John Locke, is that in order for a democracy to continue, in order for the rule of law to continue, two basic conditions must be met in the public. The first is that the public must basically agree on what the limits of government are—so consensus around democratic priorities. And in our surveys we see that. We see a fair amount of consensus over how these different groups in the public rank democratic priorities. Where we’re starting to see a problem—and this is the second condition of the theory—is the idea that once you share democratic priorities, you also have to share a view of when those priorities are being violated or upheld, and here is where we do find quite a bit of difference between these two groups in the public. So, on sort of all of the principles we see slight declines for Trump supporters and large declines for Trump opponents, but we see polarization across some of the most important principles—for example constitutional limits. We see growing polarization— where the opponents of Trump see it in decline in terms of performance, [and] the supporters of Trump see it as actually improving. So, we do see some polarization within certain principles.

23:01 SK: Let me be a little bit of a devil’s advocate here. You are, Gretchen, a comparatist. Your specialty lies in Latin America, specifically Argentina and Ecuador. Doesn’t the US democracy look stellar by comparison to some of its Latin American counterparts?

23:14 GH: I think, by comparison, the United States does look very, very good compared to Latin American. However, I think a lot of the things that were said in the campaign and some of the rhetoric since the campaign unfortunately is very reminiscent of some of the leaders who have come to power in Latin America and subsequently trampled democratic institutions.

23:38 SK Going back now to 1811. We’re really going back. Joseph de Maistre—the French philosopher and diplomat—he wrote that “every nation gets the government it deserves.” Does the US no longer deserve democracy? Has the American public simply become too complacent? Where’s the problem?

23:52 Gretchen: So, I think I would amend his statement to say something like “every nation gets the government it demands.” And I think one of the things we are trying to look at with the Bright Line Watch surveys is to see what the priorities are. So, does the public continue to value these various components of democracy? And for the most part our answer is “yes,” but I think there are scholars who are finding that there has been a decline in support for democratic government worldwide. There’s a new book coming out by Yascha Mounk that makes exactly this point. There was a recent survey published in the Washington Post by one of my colleagues, Susan Stokes, that looks at some increasing support for military solutions as opposed to democratic government. So, I think there is reason to be concerned, but I think it’s not so much [a question of] what the public deserves as what it demands from its government.

24:48 MS: I think the question of what is deserved is probably best left to the philosophers, but I do think that democracy is not something that just simply happens. It doesn’t operate on autopilot or at least doesn’t always operate on autopilot, and democracy needs to be reviewed and evaluated for an assessment of the degree to which we are really fulfilling these principles that are considered to be important. We do see in our public surveys and the expert surveys so many of the statements that we are presenting are considered to be quite important. And so, in a time like ours to make sure that we’re paying attention to the extent to which they’re being fulfilled or not fulfilled, I think, is essential for what we end up getting as a democracy and as a political system.

25:35 SK: As a last question I want to get to something that is very specific and we haven’t really seen that before. Correct me if I’m wrong. If you have a president and those around him who repeat the view that there’s no such thing as objective truth even calling outright lies quote, “alternative facts” —doesn’t that also really hurt our democracy?

25:56 GH: It’s hard to imagine that it wouldn’t hurt democracy. If democracy is about citizens’ having information and using that information to hold governments accountable then a government that consistently lies to the citizens is, just by definition, a problematic thing. There are different statistics floating around out there but one that I saw was about 2,000 lies during the first year of the administration. I think the danger that other people have pointed to—is normalizing this. This is not something that is normal. And I think the other problem is that—again I think this is a terrain more for psychologists than political scientists—but the idea is that the more lies that are told the more overwhelmed the public becomes. And it’s very difficult for people to continue to process and sort of fight against these lies and violations of the truth over and over again. And so, I think it potentially erodes public interest in politics, let alone public resistance, too, and this is some of the work my colleague Brendan Nyhan has done his research on as well.

27:10 SK: I want to ask both of you with all the problems we’ve talked about, what gives you hope? How do you sleep at night?

27:16 MS: I think about our daughter who’s seven and a half. And I’m not saying I do this every night to help me get to sleep, but it is on my mind that I think about what we’re doing in general. She’s seven and a half and I envision her as an old woman maybe she’s 75 years old. I’ve left the scene a long time ago and someone asks her what it was like to live in the times we live in now. And when she’s 75 she will know how it all turns out and we don’t know that now. But I envision someone asking her this question about what it was like to live in our times, and I envision her telling a story about how the times were very challenging and very dangerous but that our country came through it— and not only came through it, but came through it stronger than before. That’s the hope that I have and that’s a very important motivator. And so as a parent, as a person, as a part of Bright Line Watch my goal is to do everything I can to make sure that that happy outcome is achieved.

28:19 GH: I think from my part, there is certainly a lot of reasons to be concerned, but I think that there’s also a lot of resilience that we see with our institutions—for example, the voter commission that was put together on very spurious allegations of voter fraud. The states pushed back against that and that commission was disbanded. I think the courts have been relatively good about upholding rights. I think the press has done an outstanding job covering the administration. I remember talking to one journalist and she talked about covering the news is like drinking from a fire hose. The pace of news is so fast and, you know, sort of following the bright shiny objectives is tempting but it’s also important to pay attention to the stories that really matter and the changes that are really happening. So, you know, just as a final thing, I think that citizens are becoming much more engaged. I think voter turnout will rise in the coming election. I think more and more candidates are running, more and more elections are being contested, so I do have some hope.

SK: Thank you so much to both of you for coming into our studio today!

GH, MS: Thank you so much for having us.

29:36 SK: You were listening to Gretchen Helmke, a professor of political science at the University of Rochester, who’s one of the four political scientists behind the quarterly report Bright Line Watch—that’s of course the report that tracks the health of the US political system—and Mitch Sanders, who is the group’s methodologist and who is a partner at the Rochester-based research firm Meliora.

30:00 Thank you for listening. For the University of Rochester’s Quadcast I’m your host Sandra Knispel.




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