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Expert Survey on American Democracy: February 2018

Our expert survey results in February 2018 demonstrate increased threat levels and perceived risk of democratic breakdown. From January to February 2018, ratings worsened on five of six dimensions of democratic performance, reversing the improvement from December to January. Further, experts rate a 16.7% chance of democratic breakdown in the U.S. within the next four years, a marked increase from recent months, and 100% of respondents believe that democratic quality has declined over the last 10 years.

In general, democracy experts see American political behavior in 2017-18 as firmly outside the norm for consolidated democracies. The results indicate a high point of threat in November-December, but February saw a near-return to these earlier levels. There was a particularly large shift in threats surrounding elections and treatment of the media. 

From May 2017 through February 2018, we polled 496 democracy experts on threats to American democracy. February is the seventh month after fully switching to a daily-updated rolling survey, although we will continue with our monthly updates. See here for a longer description of the survey methodology and sample, including our attempts to limit ideological bias. As a useful set of comparisons, we also asked the same questions about five other countries: the United Kingdom, Canada, India, Poland, and Hungary. Separate experts were chosen for each country, with a total of 71 respondents. As of February, the U.S. rates worse than India and Poland on threats to democracy, although better than Hungary.

Survey Questions

We first ask about six categories that have comprised key warning signs of democratic decline elsewhere: (1) Treatment of the media, (2) Constraints on the executive against abuses of power, (3) Elections and treatment of the opposition, (4) Civil liberties, (5) Civil violence, and (6) Rhetoric indicating democratic erosion or weak normative attachment to democracy. We ask about political leaders’ behavior in these categories, but do not single out specific leaders.

Respondents grade each category from 1 to 5, with higher values indicating greater threat to democracy. To ease interpretation, the values were chosen to have concrete and tangible meanings: 1 = Normal consolidated democracy, 2 = Moderate violations atypical of consolidated democracy, 3 = Significant erosion of democratic quality with potential for future breakdown, 4 = Near-term survival threatened, and 5 = Non-democracy. Intentionally, coding a 3 or above on any dimension is a high bar.

We also ask respondents about the likelihood of democratic breakdown, whether democratic quality and stability has improved or declined over the last 10 years, and what recent events or actions (if any) they consider most threatening to democracy.

Shifts Over Time

The above figure shows the average rating for each category from May 2017 to February 2018. Results indicate increasing concerns in February compared to January, with average threat ratings increasing across five of six categories. There was  particularly large increase for threats to Media and Elections.

However, with the exception of Elections, threats have not returned to their peaks in November to December. Concerns over Civil Liberties peaked in October and have roughly leveled off since December. In contrast, Civil Violence threats have generally declined since Charlottesville in August.

Average predictions for democratic breakdown jumped in February (11.3% to 16.7%), as well as the number indicating democratic decline over the past 10 years (currently 100%).

February Results

The above figure shows the average response by category in February. Experts still see the greatest threat manifested in anti-democratic rhetoric, with several pointing specifically to the president. One respondent noted, “The robustness of the rule of law and public freedom make America the oldest, most significant and most important constitutional democratic republic in the world but the current president seems to have only limited understanding of these values, concepts, and American history.” Another pointed to “constant rhetoric by Trump that undermines trust in basic institutions of the American democracy.

Treatment of the media kept its place as the second greatest threat. One respondent pointed to “the general practice of the executive branch to stoke division through its attacks on the media, under-represented groups, and – most importantly – the rule of law.” Another simply noted the “constant attacks on the press.”

Constraints on executive power represents the next greatest source of threat, with one respondent warning of “efforts by the White House to undermine the FBI, the Justice Department, and the rule of law generally.” Another warned of “President Trump’s efforts to undermine the Justice department, while using ill informed and disorganized power of executive authority to undermine effectiveness and governance.”

 Treatment of elections falls narrowly behind, with several noting the lack of efforts by the president to respond to Russian election interference and protect American election integrity. In contrast, concerns about civil violence and civil liberties have generally been in decline.

 When asked to identify the most threatening recent event (if any), the most common response was the president’s anti-democratic rhetoric and politicization of law enforcement (both mentioned by about 25% of respondents). Other frequent responses were attacks on the media and the judiciary and the lack of election protective measures.

How does the U.S. compare to other countries on the same questions? The above figure shows the average threat rating across the six categories for each country. Countries fall in three groups: the United Kingdom and Canada face the lowest threat level; the U.S. fits in a middle group with Poland and India; and Hungary faces the greatest threat. As of November, the U.S. rates worse than India and Poland, although narrowly. This comparison helps to validate the survey questions—not all democracy experts rate their country of expertise as being threatened or outside the norm, even in a Conservative-led UK. Rather, the U.S. jumps out as distinct from other consolidated democracies.

 The third figure shows the percentage who rated each category 2 or above (indicating behavior atypical of a consolidated democracy) and 3 or above (indicating erosion and future breakdown threat). Worryingly, majorities rate the U.S. as outside of the norm for stable democracies on every dimension but Civil Violence. Nearly all rate rhetoric, executive constraints, elections, and treatment of media as outside the norm.

This is the third time that a category besides rhetoric has a majority rating a 3 or above, which is true of media treatment, executive constraints, and (for the first time) elections. In general, respondents were cautious about assigning high values—only 3 responses (1.3% of total) registered the highest threat category of 5. This reassures us that respondents are not amplifying their answers for effect.

We also asked respondents whether democratic stability and quality has improved or declined over the last 10 years (chosen so the reference point is another Republican president). 100% responded that American democracy has declined, with 42.1% saying it’s “much worse.”

 Finally, we directly asked respondents about the likelihood of democratic breakdown (by their definition) within the next four years. Note that “breakdown” does not imply full dictatorship, only a sufficient erosion of democratic functioning. The responses averaged an alarming 16.7%, with a median of 10%. Responses ranged from a low of 0 (given by 3 respondents) to a high of 65%, with 12 answering 20% or higher. Note that 16.7% is orders of magnitude higher than what traditional models of democratic breakdown would predict for the U.S. given its stability and socioeconomic advantages.

Analysis

The results give us clear reasons to remain concerned about the future of American democracy. February saw increases in threat levels across nearly all dimensions, particularly on the threat of breakdown. There is a near-consensus that American democracy has weakened over the last 10 years and is now outside the norm for consolidated democracies, especially in rhetoric, media freedom, elections, and executive constraints. As discussed earlier, one should not view rhetoric being the highest-threat category positively since rhetoric can erode the norms holding democratic compacts together and often predicts later anti-democratic behavior.

Comparing the U.S. to other countries provides useful context. American democracy rates as considerably worse than democracy in Canada and the United Kingdom, and now worse than India and Poland (as of June). This is highly consistent with seeing American democracy as shifting downward in quality, with at least some chance of breakdown. 

Indeed, the estimated 1-in-6 chance of democratic breakdown (within four years) is a major warning sign. However, the most likely downward path for American democracy remains the steady erosion of democratic norms and practices, as followed before by Venezuela, Hungary, Turkey, and many others. This presents threats that extend beyond the current administration and may imperil American democracy for years to come.

Michael K. Miller is an Associate Professor of Political Science at George Washington University.