It’s hard to have an optimistic conversation about US politics. Recent surveys confirm widespread negativity among the American public. Results from Bright Line Watch (BLW) surveys demonstrate that many people think our democracy is eroding. Regardless of whether these survey respondents are “right,” we have good reason to worry that more and more people are developing negative views of the state of our democracy. In fact, as BLW’s data reflects, those with negative views of democracy in the US are more likely to lose faith in democracy as the best system of government.
After the 2016 election, BLW surveyed two groups—American experts in the field of democracy studies and the general American public—to better understand how people perceive our democracy. Experts, they saw, consistently rate the current state of democracy in the United States better than the public does, across a range of dimensions like free speech, electoral integrity, and more.
In its analysis, BLW focuses on how and why experts disagreed with the public. In a line or two, the authors of the study bring up an interesting and quite important observation: not only do experts tend to rate democracy better, but they also tend to value democracy more. Are their values and their ratings connected? What would that tell us about why we rate democracy the way we do—or better yet, why we care about democracy in the first place?
Values and ratings are in fact connected. Just look to BLW’s own data. In its survey of the American public, BLW asked over 3,000 respondents how much they value living in a democracy on a scale of 1 to 10. A 1 means living in a democracy is not important at all, whereas a 10 means it is highly important. Alternatively, they asked respondents how well they would rate the current state of US democracy on a scale of 0 (worst) to 100 (best). As it turns out, those who rate US democracy at a 0 value democracy over 10% less on average than do those that rate it at a 100. Conversely, those who value democracy at a 1 will on average rate U.S. democracy 15 points lower than those who value democracy at a 10. The same relationships hold true within the expert group. Experts who rate the performance of democracy in the US worse also tend to value democracy less than their more optimistic colleagues.
In short, pessimists about the state of democracy often believe that it’s less important to live in one at all. Why is this the case? One approach is to ask how values affect ratings. In this case, the results might be unintuitive. Shouldn’t those who care more about democracy be more concerned about preserving it? Shouldn’t they be more attuned to anti-democratic threats?
But it is limiting to approach it just this way. Instead, think of it the other way around: does one’s rating of democracy influence how much they value democracy as a whole? Supposing it does, then these findings confirm a dismal theory: that people who become less optimistic about the state of democracy in their country are more likely to lose support for democracy as a type of government. If this is the case, as I argue it is, then BLW’s survey should raise a red flag.
In his seminal book, The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes, Juan Linz offers an explanation for this relationship. According to Linz, a democracy is strongest when the government “adheres to the rules of the game,” and when the citizens “trust . . . the government’s commitment to uphold [those rules].” People will support democracy more when they think their government is adhering to its rules—or in the case of BLW, when they think the government is keeping its promise of competitive elections, accountability, and civil liberties.
Legitimacy, Linz points out, does not always depend on how a political system actually meets the needs of citizens. What often matters is that citizens perceive that a political system has failed. This can be influenced by actual events, but it could also be that citizens lose or gain support regardless. When we look at ratings of democracy, it is important to consider not only what they reflect, but also how they themselves affect democracy.
This is not to say that pessimists about the state of democracy always abandon the system. According to Linz, whether or not you lose support for democracy depends on whether you think there is another system better suited to your needs. A pessimist can thus be either a “loyal” or a “disloyal” opponent, meaning that if they do not support the current government, they can either take that as a problem with the regime or as a problem with the entire system of democracy. This would explain why, by BLW’s data, those with negative views of democracy vary the most in their ratings of US democracy. The important takeaway here is that democratic values are strongest amongst those who think their democracy is functioning well.
A number of experts have demonstrated this relationship in practice. The strength of democratic values, they observe, often depends on the quality of democratic institutions in a particular country. Wagner et al. (2009), for example, find that overall satisfaction with democracy increases with lower corruption, higher participation, and better checks and balances in one’s home country. This is still true when controlling for economic variables like growth and inequality. Alternatively, Aarts and Thomassen (2008) show that democratic values are more likely to erode if people perceive their government to be unaccountable and unrepresentative. If citizens perceive a threat to their ability to influence their own government, they are less likely to be satisfied with democracy as a whole. This is consistent with the findings in the BLW survey. People who believe that the US is performing poorly on measures like free speech and electoral integrity tend not to value democracy as highly, because democracy is failing to deliver on its promises of equal representation, and people believe alternative regime types may do a better job.
Political scientists are understandably concerned with the state of our democracy. Experts and even the public can be a useful look into what is going on. But when the public becomes pessimistic about the performance of American democracy, we should be concerned right then and there. A growing number of studies point to lower ratings of democratic performance, and alongside this, a growing number of studies point to the erosion of democratic values. We must start asking ourselves if these trends are in fact connected. The last thing we want is a country jumping off a savable ship.
*Photo by Stephen Melkisethian, “Democracy Spring At The US Capitol 40”. Flickr. April 13, 2016. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)