In February 2017, four political scientists formed Bright Line Watch. Their mission was a chilling sign of the times, a reflection of the fears that swept across the United States as Donald Trump swept into office. They existed, they said, to “monitor the status of democratic practices and highlight potential threats to American democracy.” The danger was from our new president, and from ourselves.
“I alone can fix it,” Trump promised during his convention speech. It was a crisp distillation of his philosophy, which marries an autocrat’s ideology to a populist’s appeal and leaves little rhetorical room for the nettlesome checks and balances that constrain most presidents. Trump admires dictators and strongmen; he dismisses the press as fake news and ethics rules as unnecessary niceties; he lies without compunction and delights in self-serving conspiracy theories. In January, he was sworn in as our president.
At about that same time, a worrying new strain of research emerged. Americans were less committed to basic democratic norms and institutions than we’d thought. Surveys from Harvard lecturer Yascha Mounk, among others, showed that the share of Americans who thought it essential to live in a democracy was dropping with every generation, and the proportion who supported army rule had shot from 1 in 16 in 1995 to 1 in 6 in 2014.
Perhaps that was how Trump had become our president. Americans had lost faith in democracy, and so they had turned to a leader who shared their skepticism.
Since the launch of Trump’s presidency, Bright Line Watch has conducted repeated surveys of political scientists on the state of American democracy. The third wave of results, which will be presented at a conference on threats to American democracy on Friday, contains good news of a sort: Trump’s presidency, at least in the view of these experts, has not done visible damage to the workings of the American political system.
In many cases, the feared assault on core institutions hasn’t materialized. Trump has not launched a coordinated assault on the judiciary, for instance. In other cases, his efforts have been unsuccessful, even counterproductive. The media is more invigorated, more profitable, and more trusted since his election. The firing of FBI Director James Comey led to the appointment — from within Trump’s own administration, no less — of special counsel Bob Mueller.
Early in Trump’s presidency, Yuval Levin, the editor of the conservative journal National Affairs, predicted to me that this White House was likelier to be defined by “dysfunction than autocracy,” and so far he’s been right.
Americans believe in democracy, but their political interests get in the way
As for the American public’s commitment to democracy, Bright Line Watch partnered with the polling firm YouGov to see if the public had really become so coup-curious. Here, too, the results comfort: Voters on both sides of the aisle show a commitment to the building blocks of American democracy, and they are clear-eyed that it is under threat. In fact, political scientists are more sanguine than the public: On a 1-100 scale, the experts gave the US political system a 72; for voters, it was 60.
Cleave Trump’s supporters from his opponents, though, and the divergences are unsettling. Partisan interests can split Americans on even the most obvious principles. Trump fans now question the importance of American elections remaining free from foreign influences — Russia’s involvement in 2016 has eroded a once-uncontroversial democratic ideal. Similarly, Trump supporters are more skeptical that it’s important for congressional districts to be drawn in an unbiased way, or for the media to be left to do its job freely.
In another series of questions, voters and experts were asked to rate how America was actually doing across 27 dimensions. Here, the splits between all groups were sharper. Experts rated American democracy dismally on designing unbiased districts, fostering political participation, and creating compromise. Trump fans and foes sharply disagreed on whether America is making good on its guarantee of equal legal and political rights, protecting the system from foreign influence, and drawing unbiased districts:
The most depressing result, to my eyes, came when pollsters asked whether America was ensuring an equal opportunity to vote. Voters who approve of Donald Trump gave the country high marks: 83 out of 100. Among voters who disapprove of Trump, that falls to 52. And among experts on democracies? It’s a grim 47.
The real threat to democracy, it seems, isn’t the absence of abstract commitment to its ideals but the presence of concrete tribal allegiances that get in the way.
One nation, under party polarization
There are a few takeaways here. The first is that people’s opinions on democracy lie downstream from their partisan identity. If it had been Trump’s voters who had seen the Electoral College, gerrymandering, and Russia turn against them, then it would be Trump’s voters vibrating with outrage over the violation of key principles of American democracy.
As it is, even an idea as unambiguous as “freedom from foreign interference” or “unbiased districts” quickly diminishes in importance once partisans spy an advantage in its erosion. The question that obsesses the survey’s authors is whether there are abuses so severe that even partisans won’t rationalize them. “Can any democratic principle be called into question, or is there a bright line the public won’t cross?” asks Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth political scientist who is one of the survey’s authors.
Second, and more optimistically, few experts think Trump has significantly undermined the foundations of American democracy since taking office. I tend to agree with them: For all the fears of Trump’s strongman instincts, incompetence and opposition has thus far defined his presidency, and limited its damage.
That said, the preexisting reality of American democracy seems grimmer than political scientists give it credit for. To read their results, we are a country where money purchases policy, where biased districts distort the public’s will, where foreign governments toy with our elections, where voting is often a privilege rather than a right. And still, American democracy gets a solid 72.
This seems, to steal a line from George W. Bush, like the soft bigotry of low expectations. Here, perhaps, the somewhat more pessimistic public has it right and the experts have it wrong.