January 2018 marked the completion of Donald Trump’s first year in office, and apparently, a decline in quality for the United States’ democracy. Bright Line Watch, a forum for political scientists to discuss the performance of democracy, perceive potential threats to its tenacity, and monitor public opinion, conducted its fourth survey assessing the quality of democracy last month, and the results show that both experts and the general public believe the U.S. to be on the decline. A crucial finding of the survey is that the experts are significantly more positive about the quality of democracy than the public, but significantly more negative about the validity of the voting process. These discrepancy are important to recognise as they beg the questions: is expert approval meaningless if the U.S. is not felt to be an efficient democracy by the general population? And are the public being misled in how meaningful their vote is? It appears that the U.S. is failing in its dearest tenet–as a government “of the people, for the people, by the people”–and the Bright Line Watch survey helps shed some light on this.
An expert survey was circulated among political science departments at universities, and a public survey to a sample of 2,000 Americans through YouGov. A failing of Bright Line Watch is the lack of information disclosed about the demographics of the respondents; race, gender and location are crucial variables for how one might assess the government and its effectiveness.The survey asked respondents to rate to what extent the U.S. meets democratic principles, and the quality of democracy abroad, such as in Canada and Venezuela. The survey listed twenty-seven tenets that are generally accepted as necessary for a functioning democracy, including fraud-free elections, judicial independence, and campaign transparency.
On the whole, experts and the public agree that the U.S. is a relatively high-ranking democracy, however both groups reported a decline in its quality. The public are significantly more cynical than the experts, with just 50% believing that the U.S. ‘mostly meets’ or ‘fully meets’ the protection of free speech, and 81% believing that the U.S. only ‘partly meets’ or frankly ‘does not meet’ the prevention of government officials using public offices for personal gain. In fact, in only four of the twenty-seven instances did more than half of the public sample believe the U.S. to be mostly meeting its democratic principles. The experts were more optimistic, with 84% believing elections to be at least mostly fraud-free (yet only 49% of the public concurred).
Interestingly, most of the cases in which the public rated the democratic quality of U.S. as higher than the experts concerned the voting process. The public were nearly three times more likely to believe that voter participation was generally high; a mere 11% of experts agreed. The public were also significantly more positive about the equal impact of votes, suggesting that they are being exploited by officials, and overestimate citizens’ influence on election outcomes. This is a worrying find as it implies an erosion of a fair election process, and a de facto if not de jure disenfranchisement of citizens–a definitive ‘bright line’ that democratic backslide is happening in the U.S.
The duping of the public is evident in other results also: 62% believed that all adult citizens have equal opportunity to vote, whereas 64% of experts feel they do not. It appears the public are unaware of the extent of inequality among the electorate, and how disadvantaged many of their fellow citizens are when trying to exercise a fundamental political right of democracy. Furthermore, the public were also over three times more convinced than experts that electoral districts are not systematically biased, or rather: three times more naive about the exploitive reality of gerrymandering. This is concerning as it suggests the public are not cognizant to the power structures in place to undermine and distort their role in the election process, lessening the likelihood of improvement in these matters.
Bright Line Watch surveys provide important data for assessing the state of U.S. democracy and tracking the perception of its validity by its citizens. The organisation has distributed the survey four times since February 2017, in roughly three-month intervals. The results show that there has been a consistent decline in how the general public and experts alike esteem the quality of democracy, suggesting the U.S. is suffering from democratic erosion or at the very least, displaying crucial markers of it. What is undeniable is that, actual decline or not, U.S. citizens are losing faith in their democracy. In these turbulent political times, both domestically and abroad, it is paramount that we stay alert to all the triggers of backslide, and encourage critical feedback to the government and its officials so that the United States remains accountable, democratic, and a government “of the people, for the people, by the people.”