Authoritarian Warning Survey polls democracy experts on threats to democracy from American political leaders in 2017. Respondents are academic scholars who study democratic decline, political institutions, American politics, or countries that have recently experienced democratic erosion. From May through August, we have received 234 responses from 961 contacts (a response rate of 24.3%).* Initially, we ran and analyzed the survey once each month.
In our current version, we survey a randomly selected sub-sample of our respondent pool (~600 scholars) each weekday. Every day, we calculate a rolling average of these responses as a Democracy Threat Index. This is a live measure of democracy scholars' views on threats to American democracy. Our method weights responses by time and also continually analyzes the data for discrete breaks in threat levels that may indicate major events. You can read more detail about how we construct the Index here.
For comparison, we asked the same questions in June for five other countries: the United Kingdom, Canada, India, Poland, and Hungary. Separate respondents were chosen for each. All are experts on their respective country, with a rough balance of experts based in the country and living abroad. Across the five surveys, 71 experts responded (from 307 contacted, a response rate of 23.1%).
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 ask 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 can 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
For the Democracy Threat Index, these responses are re-scaled to 0-100. For the monthly results, we leave them as 1-5.
We also ask respondents about (1) the likelihood of democratic breakdown, (2) whether democratic quality and stability has improved or declined over the last 10 years (so the comparison is to a Republican president), and (3) what recent events or actions (if any) they consider most threatening to democracy.
Click here for the exact text of the survey.
Click here for the full survey results from May-August (anonymized).
August U.S. Results: (Average) (Median) (Range)
See here for a fuller analysis of the August results.
Treatment of Media (2.6) (2) (1-5)
One respondent pointed to "attacks on the media as an enemy of the people."
Another described a "constant effort by administration to undermine citizen trust in media."
Another argued that the administration's "treatment of the media" goes "well beyond what we have seen in modern times from presidential administrations."
Executive Constraints (2.5) (2) (1-5)
Several respondents pointed to interference with Russia investigation and the lack of proper oversight by Congress.
One respondent warned that "we now have an executive branch, along with many within Congress, who openly seek to undermine the credibility of institutions of government in the public."
Elections and Treatment of Opposition (2.4) (2) (1-5)
One respondent pointed to "a concerted effort to undermine the legitimacy of the electoral system via rhetoric, voter suppression, gutting the census, etc."
Another warned of "attempts to delegitimate elections, opposition, courts, media."
Civil Liberties (2.0) (2) (1-5)
Civil Violence (2.2) (2) (1-5)
Numerous respondents pointed to the President's response to Charlottesville.
One respondent noted the "potential for future violence and intimidation of minority groups."
Rhetoric (3.0) (3) (2-5)
One respondent pointed to "extreme rhetoric by the President" as the greatest recent threat.
Another respondent warned of the president's efforts to "denigrate the media, and demonize opponents, and the unwillingness of the Republican party to stand up for democratic norms."
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 14%.
The median estimate was 10%.
Estimates ranged from 0 to 75%. Only 3 of 60 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."
92% indicated decline for American democracy.
34% 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. in July is shown for comparison.
Country: Avg. rating / % outside norm / % breakdown / % decline
United States: 2.45 / 86% / 14.0% / 92.2%
United Kingdom: 1.23 / 20.0% / 2.6% / 40.0%
Canada: 1.21 / 20.6% / 0.4% / 5.9%
India: 2.17 / 75.8% / 15.5% / 81.8%
Poland: 2.28 / 75.6% / 23.5% / 84.6%
Hungary: 2.90 / 91.5% / 44.2% / 95.0%
Click here for our July survey results.
Click here for our June survey results.
Click here for our May survey results.
* 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 governments 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, only 3.7% of responses had the value 5 (the greatest threat) in August, indicating that respondents are not amplifying the threat for effect.