U.S. democracy is changing, as do people, but is it really eroding? This is the essential question that inspires the work conducted by Bright Line Watch (BLW). The initiative is a collaboration between professors from Yale, Dartmouth, and University of Rochester, identifying what experts (political science professors and analysts) and the public deem key characteristics of a healthy and thriving democracy, and assessing the vitality of U.S. democracy based on these same principles.
Since its inception, BLW has released 4 waves of surveys: each one improved based on feedback from experts. The sample was a representative sample of 3,000 respondents. Findings indicate that there is a general agreement on the institutions that make up democracy, but there’s more mixed reviews on whether or not the U.S. is upholding them. In their 1st and 2nd survey, which was only distributed to experts, there was a general consensus on the importance of certain “democratic attributes,” but a lot more variance regarding how well the U.S. upholds these attributes. Most notably, nearly 50% of experts didn’t believe that votes had equal impact. Understanding the political and cultural context of the time (February and May of 2017), this makes complete sense considering the country’s history of gerrymandering and the tension between socioeconomic and racial classes. African Americans of low socioeconomic status have less power within voting that has only been exacerbated by the processes of gerrymandering (like in North Carolina and Maryland), and voter ID laws.
The following two surveys that have been released have been given to both experts in political science and the general public. Waves 3 and 4 do provide us a glimpse into similarities and differences between how experts rate democracy and how the general public does. On average, experts were a bit more optimistic about the state of our democracy than of the general public. The few conditions that this was not true involved conditions of democracy that directly correlated to the general public’s “political literacy” or understanding of their political boundaries (districts). This is most likely due to either the fact that most of the general public does not want to seem incompetent when it comes to political issues or how our government works so they say that the U.S. does a better job at it than it actually does, or experts (being experts) have more insights in the specific wrongdoings committed by our government and come to a closer consensus that the U.S. really fails in those specific areas.
It is important to note how the survey data has transformed over time, and therefore I will spend this next paragraph highlighting some of those differences. More generally, the votes have remained consistent amongst experts over the course of all the waves, but from wave 2 to wave 3, there have been stark shifts in assessment for conditions like “investigations not compromised” or “Constitution limits executive.” The context in which both of these surveys were given is crucial cause there were significantly different political contexts. The 2nd wave’s data showed the expert’s rated these issues aforementioned a lot lower than wave 3. A lot of this could be attributed with the handling of the supreme court justice —nomination of Neil Gorsuch— and the firing of Comey as FBI director.
Although Bright Line is a valuable metric in measuring how citizens feel about the state of U.S. democracy, it shows that there is a fluctuation in ratings that make it hard to assess whether or not democracy is truly eroding. If it was eroding, we would see a steady or consistent decline in both how experts and the public view democracy. In addition, one critique to keep in mind of the metric as a whole is that Bright Line does not seem to have a consensus of what democracy should look like. Sure, it is important to let the people decide what they think Democracy is, but how do we decide what truly signifies the depletion of erosion of democracy if there isn’t a base-line definition that we can all agree upon? Democracy can mean different things to different people, and this complicates our measurements and understanding of U.S. society even further. Some say that’s part of the Democracy– to be able to critique and refute what it actually is or means, but others would argue that if it’s different for every person, how we can hold our government to standard? Bright Line has yet to prove that, or provide adequate evidence that even experts and the general public genuinely feel like it is.
Photo by Nick Youngson, Democracy, Creative Commons Zero.