After the release of their 4th wave of survey results, Bright Line Watch, a “democracy watch-dog” of sorts, has compiled some extensive data concerning the state of the American democracy. The results of the survey are hardly conclusive on the functioning of our democracy; the survey does not predict any sort of democracy “score” for the U.S. either, like Freedom House or the Economist Intelligence Unit might do. The survey does, however, give insight into what the public perception of the American democracy is, seeking to answer questions like if the democracy is improving or declining, or how well people believe the U.S. executes in democracy from one measurement to the next. As more and more waves of survey data are piled up, Bright Line Watch will ultimately have developed a catalogue of democratic perception over a length of time, and trends would begin to appear. However, Bright Line Watch has yet to reach that level. As of now, there is only data from the past year, covering just the first quarter of the Trump presidency thus far, and has no data relating to the Obama administration which preceded it. Additionally, due to the limitations on time travel, there is no data to analyze any changes after the Trump presidency is finished.
Creating a historical database of this data is necessary to make sweeping assertations about the state of American democracy. Because Bright Line Watch’s survey data is related specifically to the perception of American democracy, it is subject to speculation and reaction on behalf of the American people. Ideally, the survey data would span multiple presidencies, in order to account for short-term, reactionary responses. Using the Wave 4 data as an example, it is shown in the public survey that democracy is declining, as people gave statistically lower responses in Wave 4 versus Wave 3. This is echoed, although to a lesser extent, in the expert survey where most, but not all, of the 27 categories received worse grades in Wave 4 than in prior waves. Altogether, the initial assertion would be that, based on public and expert perception, democracy is backsliding. The issue is that there is no context for these responses. There is no way to identify it as part of a larger trend, and there has been no large legislative event which has altered the American democracy. This leaves us with three possible outcomes: the perceived decline in the democracy is part of a larger pre-Trump trend, the trend is starting with Trump now, or the results are a reaction to the Trump presidency, which will be corrected in the future.
There is evidence to support that these statistics could be emblematic of a larger trend. One of the lowest overall scoring sections was that districts are not biased, with over 50% of respondents having a negative response. This is likely a response to gerrymandering, which is the manipulation of voting districts in ways which benefit or hinder certain parties. A common trend over the past decade, gerrymandering is not new to the American democracy, but has entrenched political divides and enforced partisan polarization. These characteristics are not inherently anti-democratic, but are at the root of many political and social issues that the nation faces regularly, and thus hurt the function of the democracy. Other low-ranking categories include participation levels and seeking compromise, both problems which persisted well before Trump was elected. One category which sunk the farthest was the limits that were put on the executive. This decline could be traced to the increased use of executive orders which, while completely legal, often give the sense that the executive can levy much more power than traditionally held, without checks from the legislative branch.
There is also evidence to suggest that Trump-related issues are spurring an increase in this perception. Both experts and the public ranked judicial independence much lower in Wave 4, in addition to other measures of transparency and independence. Recent news surrounding the Russia investigation, and an increasingly dire perspective on the outcome, has resulted in a slew of remarks and actions taken by the Trump Administration to undermine or derail the investigations. In addition to the investigations, the amount of general destabilizing rhetoric from the president has generated plenty of angst, suspicion, cynicism, and distrust. While most of this attention has been directed at the media, with an obvious tilt towards anti-Trump related news, what might potentially be more concerning is the general distrust Trump has sowed amongst voters of the system itself. Repeated remarks about “draining the swamp”, reducing corruption, and voting fraud accusations serve to undermine the legitimacy of the democracy. While it may be true that Congress is slow, lobbying has reached extreme levels, and that voting reform would be a welcome sight, addressing the issues in such a negative light delegitimizes the democratic system which Bright Line watch is seeking to protect. Therefore, much of the negative statistics in the survey can be attributed to the growing skepticism of our government’s effectiveness.
Ultimately, some combination of Trump-related actions and past trends have resulted in the perceived growing decline in the American democracy, but it is impossible to nail down any specific causes without compiling a historical database, which would be less susceptible to the short-term trends reported on thus far. The establishment of Bright Line Watch, however, should be interpreted as a position sign in the state of the democracy. Considering that democratic backsliding in the U.S. is still in the debate stages, and is unproven, means that the concern displayed by Bright Line Watch, by virtue of its creation, and as shown by the American public in its surveys, indicates the intense commitment of the American populace to a free and fair government and political society. That commitment and care is necessary to the lasting, and further improvement, of the American democracy.
photo by unknown source, available at https://philebersole.wordpress.com/2017/02/22/ancient-greece-and-the-meaning-of-democracy/