November 9th, 2016. I woke up, read the news, and was convinced our country was deteriorating to shambles. From my perspective, democracy in the United States was failing, but was it really? The system worked the way it has for years. The electoral college and the people voted and unfortunately, in a rare but not unheard of instance of disunity, the electoral college voted differently than the public. However, the system still did what it was created to do. The big difference now though, my side lost and it was not just any loss, it was an embarrassing and appalling one. I did not understand what people saw in Trump, and still do not. However, certain sources show that as embarrassing and frustrating as the current administration is, the United States’ democracy has yet to show signs of true authoritarianism.
There are certain issues that have caused the United States to be moved down from full democracy, per sites like The Economist, Freedom House, and Polity. Some of the main issues that have caused this drop are foreign influence in elections, gerrymandering, lack of trust in the government and discreditation of the media. Bright Line Watch decided to test factors that influence democracy and how important they are to people. The people at Bright Line Watch surveyed both experts in politics and the general public. The results showed interesting comparisons between Trump supporters and not, as well as between experts and the public.
The Bright Line Watch data from October 2017, revealed two important pieces of information to me. The first one that stood out to me was that experts in political science were much more confident about our current state of democracy than the public in most categories. There were certain categories where it was the opposite and the public voted much more strongly for it than the experts, but in general there is more faith held by the experts. The median rating of the experts was a 72 versus the public which was 59. These ratings were interesting to compare because it made me wonder if any of the answers are skewed due to party loyalty. This was made more clear when the data analyzed the differences between the Pro-Trump and Anti-Trump public.
The second important piece of information that stood out to me were the main points that Trump supporters and Trump disapprovers disagreed on. The data analyzed both U.S. democratic performance and the rating of importance of certain factors to democracy. I found it striking that both backers and detractors of Trump found similar importance in most of the categories. However, in the categories where Trump is faltering, they voted that it was of less importance. These categories included no foreign influence, votes have equal impact, and that the legislature and judiciary can limit the executive. These votes do not surprise me because people do not want to admit when the president they support is failing or acting out of his given limits.
A later Bright Line Watch survey, released February 2018, compared the United States’ democratic performance on an international scale. Again, they took the opinions of both experts and the general public. We found ourselves being rated lower than both Canada and the United Kingdom. This survey analysis tried to answer the question about whether democracy is eroding. The issue is that there are too many ‘what ifs’ to answer the question thoroughly. Their response talks about polarization which has become a huge issue in U.S. politics. The polarization has caused parties to often not think for themselves or think about this questions deeply, but rather they follow their party alignment. This can create issues in the survey and can be seen as a threat to our democracy. However, I think the most important takeaway from data like that provided by Bright Line Watch, is that there are many factors at play that affect the state of our democracy, not solely who the commander-in-chief is.
While some of the graphs were hard to interpret, the main points from the Bright Line Watch data gave me a better sense about what is working in our country, where do people differ the most from one another, and what is the future going to look like. While we cannot know what is coming, the most comforting information for me was that while we are seeing a blip in some of our democratic principles, the structure is holding itself up pretty well. Yes, it is true that we are hearing about scary things happening in the news and, for me, I am disappointed with actions being made in Washington, but I have more confidence that the systems in place are and will continue to make it hard for drastic changes to be made in the next few years. For me, the biggest changes necessary are adjusting voter laws and voter lines to make all votes matter the same. But, until Trump starts trying to change term-limits, I am going to try to assume the best.