Ed. Note: An update from our partners, the independent experts at Authoritarian Warning Survey who support the Democracy Threat Index.
Our July 2017 survey (the third in a monthly series) confirms a great deal of pessimism about American democracy and increasing concern over the past two months. From June to July, ratings worsened on nearly every dimension, with especially large shifts on elections and political rhetoric. Democracy experts see American political behavior in 2017 as firmly outside the norm for consolidated democracies, although they remain divided on how much this threatens democratic stability. On average, experts rate a 10.3% chance of democratic breakdown in the U.S. within the next four years. 95% of respondents believe that democratic quality has declined over the last 10 years.
From May to July, we polled 170 democracy experts on threats to American democracy. 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 July, the U.S. rates slightly worse than India and just behind Poland on threats to democracy.
We first asked 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 asked about political leaders’ behavior in these categories, but did not single out specific leaders.
Respondents graded each category from 1 to 5, with higher values indicating greater threat to democracy. To ease interpretation, the values were chosen to have fairly 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 asked 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
Results indicate rising concern from June to July, with average threat ratings increasing for five of the six categories. Especially worrisome were rising threat ratings for elections and rhetoric. For instance, an additional 14% of respondents indicated that elections and treatment of the opposition were outside the norm for consolidated democracies.
The above figure shows the average rating for the four most significant threat categories from May to July, with the overall average for three comparison countries included as a reference. Overall, there’s a high degree of consistency, although the increases for elections and rhetoric jump out. Elections, media treatment, and executive constraints now exceed the average threat rating for Poland and India, whereas the threat rating for rhetoric now exceeds the average rating for Hungary. Average predictions for democratic breakdown increased only marginally from June to July (from 10.0% to 10.3%), but the number indicating democratic decline over the past 10 years increased by 6%.
The above figure shows the average response by category in July. Experts see the greatest threat manifested in anti-democratic rhetoric, with several pointing specifically to the president. One respondent noted the president’s attempts to “denigrate the media, and demonize opponents, and the unwillingness of the Republican party to stand up for democratic norms.”
Treatment of the media represents the next greatest source of threat. Echoing several others, one respondent pointed to “repeated attacks on the media, accusations of ‘Fake News’ accompanied by unsubstantiated claims.”Elections and treatment of the opposition is the third greatest source of threat, according to the survey, and represented the largest increase from June. Several respondents pointed to concerns about the president’s voter fraud panel and warned it “could be used as pretext to change electoral rules of the game.”
Close behind was concern about executive constraints. A common pattern in modern cases of democratic decline—such as Venezuela, Turkey, and Hungary—is the slow concentration of power in executive hands, at the expense of independent bodies like legislatures, prosecutors, and courts. One respondent cited Trump’s “threatening to remove politically appointed government officials over dissatisfaction with their loyalty.” Another expressed concern with “directing/attempting to direct law enforcement for political ends.”
When asked to identify the most threatening recent event (if any), the most common response was interference with the Russia investigation, including threats to fire Robert Mueller (mentioned by about 45% of respondents). Other frequent responses were attacks on the media and the attempted politicization of law enforcement.
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 July, the U.S. rates slightly worse than India. 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, and treatment of media as outside the norm.
However, only rhetoric has a majority rating a 3 or above. Indeed, respondents were cautious about assigning high values—only a single response out of 258 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). 95.3% responded that American democracy has declined, with 30.2% saying it’s “much worse.” No respondents said it has improved.
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 10.3%, with a median of 7%. Responses ranged from a low of 0 (given by four respondents) to a high of 40%, with 7 answering higher than 20%. Note that 10.3% is orders of magnitude higher than what traditional models of democratic breakdown would predict for the U.S. given its stability and socioeconomic advantages.
The results give us ample reason to be concerned about the future of American democracy. 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, elections, media freedom, 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 comparable to Poland and India. This is highly consistent with seeing American democracy as shifting downward in quality, but not yet threatened with near-term breakdown.
Nevertheless, the estimated 10.3% 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, an uncertain road followed before by Venezuela, Hungary, Turkey, and many others.
Michael K. Miller is an Associate Professor of Political Science at George Washington University.