After the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump to what could easily be the most important office in the world, a group of Political Science professors from Yale University, University of Rochester, and Dartmouth College launched Bright Line Watch. The group was established as a way to monitor and track the performance of democracy in the United States under President Trump’s unconventional style of leadership. Bright Line Watch has been very active since its establishment, administering and analyzing four waves of expert surveys, as well as two waves of surveys aimed at the general populace. “Experts” are defined as members of Political Science departments in colleges across the United States, while the public surveys were given to a representative sample of 2,000 citizens determined by the group YouGov. The data they collected in their waves of surveys is extremely robust and can serve to tell us a lot about the perceived trajectory of United States democracy through a domestic and comparative lens.
Bright Line Watch just released the data and results associated with the fourth wave of surveys in early January 2018, including both public and expert survey data. The surveys were administered and released to coincide with President Trump finishing up his first year in office. Not only that, but we were lucky enough to have a virtual lesson with Mitch Sanders, Director of Survey Research at Bright Line Watch, in order to pour over the data from the newest surveys and talk about the most important or notable trends. He provided us with a lot of insights into how the data was collected, how and why they choose to highlight certain aspects of democracy, and what the data revealed to him.
The surveys paint a decidedly discouraging picture of American democracy as it stands. The public was a bit more pessimistic about our democracy than the political science experts, but both sentiments exhibit a downward trend. The meat of Bright Line Watch’s survey is an analysis of 27 statements regarding democratic principles. Respondents were asked to evaluate how well they thought the United States meets that standard. 21 of those 27 principles have seen a decline in the number of experts rating the United States highly. In fact, the only statement that has seen any marked improvement is that “law enforcement investigations of public officials or their associates are free from political influence or interference.” Although, this statement was first released in Bright Line Watch’s May 2017 wave, which was directly preceded by the firing of FBI director James Comey by Donald Trump.
As I mentioned earlier, this was the first wave of surveys where they introduced a comparative lens, asking the survey respondents to rate the democratic nature of other countries and their governments, which I found particularly salient. For both the public and the experts, the United States still ranks as one of the more democratic countries in the world, but it was not rated as the most democratic in either survey. When rating democracy around the world, the range of the public’s rankings were far more constrained than that of the experts. For example, they rated very democratic countries like Canada and Great Britain lower than the experts, and they rated more questionable regimes like in Russia or Saudi Arabia as more democratic than the expert rankings. I found this surprising, as I would’ve assumed that the political science experts would have been more conservative with their estimates than the public; the opposite proved to be true. Operating with far more information than the general populace, they were more pessimistic about less-than-democratic regimes and more optimistic about the strength democratic principles in countries like Canada, which ranked as the most democratic country across surveys. The results from the public survey broke the data down regarding this comparative analysis even further: on one figure, they compared the ratings of the various countries from pro-Trump respondents and anti-Trump respondents. The results were very interesting. The pro-Trump respondents were far less harsh on the democratic principles of countries like Russia, Saudi Arabia, or Venezuela. They were also more critical of the high-ranking democracies like Canada and Great Britain. This trend is particularly troubling, as it could indicate that certain groups within the country that are loyal to Trump are becoming more accepting of strong-man politics as his presidency grinds on.
There are certainly a lot of valuable lessons to be learned from the data collected by Bright Line Watch, but I wonder if the report invokes too much of a foreboding tone regarding the future of our democracy. President Trump has certainly done a lot of damage in his first year in office. He has reversed many strides that have been made by marginalized groups within the United States. But at the same time, I’m not so sure that he is the root cause of any kind of democratic backsliding that could possibly be occurring in the United States. If I were adding a question for the next wave of Bright Line Watch surveys, I might want to include something that addresses the role of extreme polarization, gridlock, and populism in eroding our democratic principles. Despite the ongoing fear of Russian interference in our presidential election, Donald Trump became president through totally legal means. I might question the institution of the electoral college, or the efficacy of the Legislative branch as it stands, but I’m not too worried about the state of democracy in America. Obviously, it is far from perfect. Obviously, President Trump has reversed a lot of progress that has been made in our country thus far. But he hasn’t done anything yet that can’t at least partially be undone. A good deal of the American electorate is still confused and upset, which could lead to a level of participation in the next presidential election that we are not used to. I believe the democratic principles in the United States are still strong, despite being more vulnerable than ever before.