Our survey (the second in a monthly series) includes 57 democracy experts' views on the behavior of American political leaders from January to June 2017. Respondents are academic scholars who study democratic decline, political institutions, or countries that have recently experienced democratic erosion. We contacted 255 experts, for a response rate of 22.4%. Polling took place from June 21-26.* See here for a fuller analysis of the results, here for our May results, and here for coverage in Washington Post's Monkey Cage blog.
For the first time, we also asked the same questions for five other countries: the United Kingdom, Canada, India, Poland, and Hungary. Separate respondents were chosen for each country. All are experts on their respective country, with a rough balance of experts based in the country and living abroad. Across the five surveys, 64 experts responded (out of 307 contacted, a response rate of 20.8%).
We acknowledge there are important concerns about ideological balance in academic surveys of this kind. See below for three aspects of our survey that help to mitigate this potential bias.**
Drawing on common patterns of recent democratic erosion, we asked about six categories of threats to democracy:
Treatment of Media: Leaders' treatment of media, respect for free press, and transparency
Executive Constraints: Effective constraints of executive against abuses of power; leaders' respect for judiciary, legislature, and rule of law
Elections and Treatment of Opposition: Respect for free and fair elections and legitimacy of opposition
Civil Liberties: Respect for core freedoms (such as speech, assembly, religion, and privacy)
Civil Violence: Use of violence, intimidation, or paramilitary organizations for political ends
Rhetoric: Speech by political leaders indicating democratic erosion or weak normative attachment to democracy
For each category, respondents could choose among five responses:
Within range of a normally functioning consolidated democracy
Moderate violations atypical of a consolidated democracy, but that don't yet threaten breakdown
Violations that signal significant erosion of democracy quality and warn of high potential for breakdown in future
Critical violations that seriously threaten near-term survival
Violations severe enough to make system non-democratic
We also asked respondents about (1) the likelihood of democratic breakdown, (2) whether democratic quality and stability has improved or declined over the last 10 years, and (3) what recent events or actions (if any) they consider most threatening to democracy.
U.S. Results: (Average) (Median) (Range)
Treatment of Media (2.4) (2) (1-4)
One respondent pointed to the "systematic discrediting of central political institutions, including elections, the media, and the judiciary" as the greatest recent threat.
Another pointed to "ongoing attacks on the professional media as 'fake news' and the failure to respond to legitimate questions about behaviors and policies in the White House."
Executive Constraints (2.3) (2) (1-4)
One respondent pointed to the "lack of respect for checks and balances, and repeated attempts to undermine institutional checks on executive authority" as the greatest recent threat.
Elections and Treatment of Opposition (1.9) (2) (1-4)
One respondent pointed to "partisan gerrymandering" and "efforts to exclude voters" as among the greatest recent threats.
Civil Liberties (1.7) (2) (1-3)
Civil Violence (1.4) (1) (1-3)
One respondent pointed to "the attempted assassination of GOP members of Congress" as the greatest recent threat.
Rhetoric (2.7) (3) (1-4)
One respondent pointed to "political rhetoric deligitimizing opposition and media control" as the greatest recent threat.
Another respondent noted the "lack of compromise and commitment to democratic ideals and practices by elites and masses."
We also asked about respondents' guesses on the likelihood that American democracy breaks down (by their definition) within the next four years.
The average estimate was 10.0%.
The median estimate was 9%.
Estimates ranged from 0 to 45%. Only 6 of 57 answered 0.
Lastly, we asked whether "the quality and stability of American democracy" had improved or declined over the last 10 years (chosen so the comparison point is also under a Republican president). Respondents answered on a five-point scale, from "much worse" to "much better."
89% indicated decline for American democracy.
25% indicated that American democracy was "much worse."
Results for Other Countries
For each country, we list the average rating across the six threat categories, the percentage of all responses indicating behavior outside the norm for consolidated democracies (2+), the average predicted likelihood of democratic breakdown, and the percentage saying democratic stability and quality has declined. The U.S. is shown for comparison.
Country: Avg. rating / % outside norm / % breakdown / % decline
United States: 2.06 / 74% / 10% / 89.3%
United Kingdom: 1.25 / 20.8% / 3.5% / 37.5%
Canada: 1.17 / 16.7% / 0.4% / 0%
India: 2.13 / 75% / 14.6% / 80%
Poland: 2.12 / 71.2% / 17.4% / 81.8%
Hungary: 2.89 / 91.1% / 44.4% / 94.7%
Click here for a further analysis of our results.
Click here for the exact text of the survey.
Click here for the full survey results (anonymized) in a spreadsheet.
Click here for our May survey results.
* One answered in June from a prior survey. All survey results are anonymous. The survey was supported by IRB certification #051706 (29200) at George Washington University.
** First, we made an effort to include conservative academics in our sample. Several answers indicate conservative participation (e.g., one respondent claims that "the real threats to American democracy took place during the Obama administration"). Second, the five other countries serve as credible comparison points, as four of these countries have right-of-center governance and all have academics that tilt left. Thus, any ideological bias should be roughly held constant. Third, we employ reasonably concrete questions. Rather than ask about general approval of current politics, we ask respondents to compare to other consolidated democracies and evaluate whether events threaten democratic survival. As a positive sign, not a single response for the six threat categories gave a value of 5 (the greatest threat), indicating that respondents are not amplifying the threat for effect.