In February 2017, a group of political scientists founded Bright Line Watch, a group focused on surveying experts and the public to assess their perceptions of the state of American democracy. The data from the October 5th survey is here.
Bright Line Watch found one result that surprised them, and one that didn’t: they were surprised that experts are less concerned than the public about American democracy, and unsurprised that Trump supporters rate democracy higher than Trump detractors
However, I think it makes sense that experts are less concerned because of a broader concept they have of democracy. I also find it surprising that Trump supporters rate democracy higher than detractors, because of how fundamental voter disillusionment was to his election. My disagreements illustrate a broader point: that the public and experts view democracy differently, making it hard to disentangle threats to democracy with disapproval of the current government. If these two ideas can’t be disaggregated, then we need to rethink our conclusions from Bright Line Watch’s data. To see why, let’s look at each of the two claims above individually.
First is the idea that experts having a higher opinion of the state of American democracy than the public does is surprising. The Bright Line Watch team sees this as surprising because of the common perception that academics are “apocalyptic with respect to Trump and quick to declare his presidency an existential threat to American democracy.” It’s worth noting that professors are more liberal than the population at large, played an integral role in organizing at least one rally against Trump, and are reliant on the ideas of science and objectivity that Trump so regularly attacks. These might plausibly lead academics to have a low opinion of American democracy after Trump’s victory and time in office.
Yet this overlooks a fundamental reason why experts could have confidence. Plenty of voters (on the left and right) think Trump is threatening to democracy; academics’ perceived distaste for Trump does little to explain why their confidence in democracy is surprising. A more plausible explanation considers that experts and the public might simply have a different idea of what democracy is – a difference which accounts for the discrepancy in the survey data. The survey authors acknowledge this by suggesting that experts might be thinking more about international norms and comparison. However, this is only briefly mentioned, whereas I think it’s the core reason for the difference and should be explored further.
Experts on democracy, by definition, have put a lot of thought into what democracy means in theory and how it looks in the real world: it’s their job to do so. The general public, on the other hand, has no such professional obligation. And with the dearth of civics education in America, most Americans have likely never been presented with different complex theories of democracy: Robert Dahl and Joseph Schumpeter aren’t staples on the typical American bookshelf. What’s more likely is that people view democracy in terms of dictionary definitions like “government by the people” or “rule of the majority.” Further, it’s engrained in American political culture that America is a democracy, so to some extent, how they view democracy is tied up with what the American government is doing.
The survey tries to get around differences in how experts and the public understand democracy by asking what characteristics are most important to democracy. But this is only a meaningful remedy if the public and experts are answering the question with the same definition of democracy in mind. If the public is thinking of democracy in general as what they think comprises good government in America, then their answers will really be about which factors are good for a government to do, not which are most important to an abstract idea of democracy. This would mean that the expert and public subgroups are functionally answering different questions: thus, what looks like experts having a more optimistic picture of democracy shouldn’t actually be interpreted that way.
Second, consider Bright Line Watch’s lack of surprise that Trump supporters think our democracy is doing better than Trump detractors do. On a surface level, this makes sense: the person who these voters wanted to be president is now the president, so they are “represented” in government.
But this doesn’t consider some of the important reasons for Trump’s original support. Though Trump voters fit into many categories, one important group Trump appealed to was the alienated voters who felt marginalized in an ever-shifting economic and cultural landscape. In fact, Trump’s entire campaign was premised on the notion that something was wrong with America (and thus, implicitly, with American democracy): if his goal was to “Make America Great Again,” then America must not have been great already.
Yet even considering this anger, they still do rate American democracy well, indicating one of two possibilities: first, that the survey is functioning more as an opinion poll than an analysis of democratic quality; or second, that perceptions of democracy are quite malleable, and Trump supporters distaste for democracy was reversed once their man took power. In either case, the public’s thoughts on democracy are contingent on the current regime – not on a theoretical conception that’s consistent across all administrations. If this is true, the survey isn’t telling us what Bright Line Watch thinks it is – how the public views democracy– but is really just presenting a snapshot of partisan support for the current administration.
Bright Line Watch’s interpretation of its survey results thus doesn’t fully consider how citizens’ views on democracy are affected by whoever happens to be in power. Unfortunately, without survey data from before the election to see how Trump supporters’ views on democracy changed after the election, we won’t know which possible interpretation is more accurate.
The two discrepancies in interpretation discussed in this article show how the very act of interpretation can be affected by differences in shared understandings of terms. In order for Bright Line Watch to provide an accurate understanding of difference in opinion on the state of American democracy, there needs to be a shared understanding of what democracy is, writ large. But with so many competing definitions of democracy among academics and the possibility that the public is mostly just assessing its opinion of the current government, even attempts to pin down what characteristics make up a democracy don’t do enough to address the general gap in definition.
In other words, Bright Line watch does an excellent job showing how different groups of people are thinking about the strength of certain components seen as important to democracy (or good government). But in a country as big, diverse, and variably educated as the US, it will be impossible to tell whether the proverbial ‘bright line’ of democratic collapse has been passed until we can distinguish between threats to democracy and disapproval of the current government.