In today’s polarized political time, there is division about everything relating to democracy, including the state of our democracy itself. A large part of this viewpoint centers on one’s political alignment, and by extension how one feels about the direction the current Trump Administration is moving in. The political consortium Bright Line Watch was created on the basis of these concerns, providing reliable data from those who both support and oppose Trump about their view of our democracy. It also collects data from those deemed experts in the field, consisting of academics holding a PhD in Political Science. Bright Line Watch has also managed to track and record data beginning from February 2017, right after Trump’s inauguration. Their latest release of data was just at the end of January 2018, allowing for the comparison of viewpoints about the state of democracy over the first year of Trump’s democracy and therefore an opportunity to see how general perceptions change over time.
The first two surveys focused on responses from experts, who were first surveyed in February 2017, and then again in May 2017. The first survey showed fraud-free elections, equal legal/political rights, and equal voting rights as the three traits most important to democracy. For fraud-free elections a little over half of those surveyed replied that the United States fully met that standard. Equal legal/political rights scored much more poorly, with only about ten percent believing the US fully met that standard. The majority of responders instead stated the US partly or mostly met it instead. Less than ten percent believed the US fully met the standard of equal voting rights, with about thirty percent stating the US does not meet the standard for equal voting rights, and about the same amount for partly or mostly meeting the standard as well. Looking at the same three traits several months later in the second survey, fraud-free elections dropped slightly to below fifty percent of responders stating they believed the US fully met the standard. Equal legal/political rights also dropped, scoring below ten percent for fully meeting the standard, with the rest of the respondents fairly evenly divided between does not meet, partly meets, and mostly meets. Lastly, equal voting rights stayed essentially the same, likely due to the fact that is a topic most relevant either immediately before or after an election, and this survey did not take place during either time.
The third survey took place in September 2017, and included feedback from both experts and the public, allowing for a comparison of the two viewpoints well into Trump’s first year amidst clear changes made by the Trump Administration. The survey results from the public also included information about whether or not the responder supported or opposed Trump, which unsurprisingly showed those who approve of Trump viewed the current state of democracy in the US more favorably than those who disapprove of Trump.
Looking at the same three traits of fraud-free elections, equal legal/political rights, and equal voting rights, the difference in general opinion between the experts and public varied significantly. In the case of fraud-free elections, the public was much more pessimistic, with only about fifty percent of the public believing the US has fraud-free elections. In contrast, experts rated it as being over eighty percent. Equal legal/political rights ranked at essentially the same for both groups, at right about fifty percent. And finally equal voting rights was the complete opposite of fraud-free elections. The public rated it at about sixty-five percent, while less than fifty percent of the experts felt there were equal voting rights in the US. As a result of these particular focuses as well as the others covered, this survey is fairly inconclusive on whether experts or the public have more favorable opinions on the current state of democracy in the US, as the response seems to vary significantly based on the question being asked.
Another important aspect of Bright Line Watch’s work globalizes the data. In their latest survey they asked Americans to rank aspects of other countries democracies to gain a sense of how citizens feel our state of democracy compares to other countries. In general, the experts surveyed ranked democracies higher than the public. The top three countries, Canada, Great Britain, and the United States, were rated at 86, 80, and 67 respectively by experts, while public ranked them at 72, 64, and 54. However, the opposite was true for the three lowest countries, China, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea. Experts scored these three countries at 14, 9, and 1, while the public gave the same three counties a 28, 26, and 17.
These opposite trends are interesting for several different reasons. There is a similar gap between the expert and public opinions, the only difference being in which direction their opinion differed. It is also revealing about the general population’s awareness about certain countries. As Americans we tend to think of both Canada and the United Kingdom as being similar to us and as places we are fairly familiar with. It is less likely many Americans feel that same sense of familiarity with China, Saudi Arabia, or North Korea, as they are all countries more geographically distant and with more obvious differences in term of both government and common ideals. With something we feel confident in our knowledge of, if one does not feel confident in their knowledge of something it is much more difficult to critique it.
The data Bright Line Watch has provided through their work has created a wealth of information from a variety of different perspectives, whether that be the public opinion versus an expert opinion or a responder who supports Trump versus a responder who doesn’t support Trump. In contrast to some other reports, Bright Line Watch is important in the sense it provides very clear and user-friendly reports based off their data that makes the information easily accessible to anyone interested. Although they do not provide any information about views prior to the Trump presidency, as more time passes it will be very interesting to see if and how both expert and public opinions of the US democracy continue to change.
Photo by Mel Zieger for “A Living Thing – Flag Exchange” at Federal Hall, Creative Commons Zero License.