Respondents see violations to multiple basic elements of democracy. These violations are generally judged as severe enough to place the U.S. outside the norm for consolidated democracies, but do not immediately threaten democratic collapse. However, when asked about the four-year likelihood of democratic breakdown (by their definition) in the U.S., the average response was an alarming 11.1%.
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 American 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. By intention, coding a 3 or above on any dimension is a high bar.
Summary: (Average) (Median) (Range)
Treatment of Media (2.2) (2) (1-3)
Executive Constraints (2.4) (2) (1-4)
Elections and Treatment of Opposition (2.0) (2) (1-4)
Civil Liberties (1.7) (2) (1-4)
Civil Violence (1.3) (1) (1-4)
Rhetoric (2.9) (3) (1-5)
The above figure shows the average response by category. Clearly, experts see the greatest threat manifested in anti-democratic rhetoric, with several pointing specifically to the president. One respondent noted “Trump’s rhetoric around violence, us vs. them, and intimidation of judges and witnesses associated with investigations against him.” Others pointed to “verbal assaults,” “attacks that seek to delegitimize crucial democratic actors,” and “the lack of expressed respect for democratic values.”
Executive constraints form the next greatest source of threat, according to the survey. 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, who coded this category a 3, cited “presidential attacks on all other sources of independent authority in the U.S. government, including investigative (e.g., FBI) and judicial.”
When asked to identify the most threatening recent event (if any), the most common response by far was FBI Director James Comey’s firing (mentioned by about 40% of respondents). This is not surprising given that the survey occurred about a week after the firing and while the aftermath was a focus of news coverage. Other frequent responses were the lack of effective oversight by Congress, politicization and attacks on the judiciary, and ethics violations.
Significant concerns were also expressed about the White House’s hostile treatment of the media, although several conceded this was mostly rhetorical so far. Fewer respondents pointed to elections, although several pointed to Trump’s unsupported claims of rampant voter fraud and the formation of an electoral commission that they worried might restrict voting rights. Respondents generally do not see significant threats to civil liberties (although three mentioned the immigration order) or uses of civil violence or intimidation.
The second 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 and executive constraints get more than a third of respondents rating a 3 or above. Indeed, respondents were cautious about assigning high values—only 1 response out of 406 registered the highest threat category of 5 (in rhetoric). This reassures us that respondents are not amplifying their answers for effect.
The third figure shows the percentage of all responses by category, color-coded from blue (1) to red (5). This again demonstrates the high degree of warning placed on rhetoric and the milder responses on civil liberties and civil violence.
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 quality that respondents would not judge the country democratic.
The responses averaged an alarming 11.1%, with a median of 7%. Responses ranged from a low of 0 (given by six respondents) to a high of 60%, but only eight answered higher than 20%. Unsurprisingly, the average threat rating for the six categories strongly correlates (0.55) with the breakdown prediction. Note that 11.1% 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.
It’s tempting to view rhetoric being the highest-rated category positively since rhetoric is short of action. However, anti-democratic rhetoric can erode the norms holding democratic compacts together and often predicts later anti-democratic behavior. Warning signs are also flashing for executive constraints, and to a lesser degree the treatment of media and the opposition.
The estimated 11.1% chance of democratic breakdown is also a major warning sign. Even if one thinks this is an over-estimate by a factor of 10, it still indicates a non-negligible chance of democratic decline in the U.S. However, as the responses indicate, the most likely downward path for American democracy is not full breakdown, but a steady erosion of democratic norms and practices. Democracy experts generally agree that the U.S. has started down this path, but remain cautious about how far it will go before turning back.
Michael K. Miller is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at George Washington University.