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Could American Democracy Really Break Down?

Gilead flag from The Handmaid's Tale

When we ran our inaugural survey of democracy experts in mid-May, perhaps the most shocking result was that they predicted on average an 11% chance of democratic breakdown in the U.S. within four years. Even if one judges this to be an over-estimate by a factor of 10, it still implies a significant chance of American democratic decline.

Is this a real threat?

Full democratic breakdown is rare: About 2% of modern democracies break down in a given year. No democracy nearly as wealthy or politically stable as the United States has ever failed. Yet this doesn't mean it's impossible. To paraphrase the movie Cocktail, "Every good thing ends badly. Otherwise, it wouldn't end."

So what is the likelihood of democratic breakdown in the U.S. according to political science?

In broad strokes, scholars have two main approaches to predicting democratic breakdown. One focuses on economic and institutional variables and usually derives numerical predictions. The other focuses on elite behavior and democratic norms and tends to be more qualitative. Let's start with the first approach and see what this tells us about the United States.

Consider a simple model predicting democratic survival from some common variables used by academics: average income, literacy, the region's fraction of democracies, and the democracy's age. For a sample of all democracies since 1960, we predict the chance of democracy surviving each year.* Although basic, this provides a rough baseline.

The results are very positive for the U.S. The model predicts the likelihood of breakdown as about 1 in 6,700 within the next four years. In fact, the U.S. rates as the sixth least-likely democracy in the world to fail. Here's a list of the most and least likely survivors, with their estimated odds of breakdown:

Chances of breakdown within four years

1. Switzerland 1 in 32,500

2. New Zealand 1 in 24,100

3. Canada 1 in 22,700

4. United Kingdom 1 in 11,100

5. Belgium 1 in 7,000

6. United States 1 in 6,700


Hungary 1 in 45

India 1 in 33

Mexico 1 in 32


Liberia 1 in 4.2

Niger 1 in 3.3

However, the far more likely threat for the U.S. is not full democratic breakdown, but an erosion of democratic quality, of the kind that's occurred in Hungary, Poland, Nicaragua, and the Philippines. This could bring the U.S. into the hazy borderland between dictatorship and democracy characterized by phrases like "illiberal democracy," "delegative democracy," and "hybrid regime." Some cross-country ratings already place the U.S. as a "flawed democracy."

We can proxy such a decline by a decrease on either the Polity or Freedom House democracy scores. This sort of erosion is much more common than full breakdown, occurring in 1 of 8 democratic years since 1972. Using the same model as above, we find a considerably more likely threat for the U.S.: Democratic decline has a 1-in-133 chance within four years, with the U.S. third least-likely in the world.

Poster for Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here

This is still far from the 11% chance given by our experts. Although maybe useful as a baseline, these sorts of models ignore the reasons that many worry about the resilience of American democracy, such as high polarization, weakening trust in institutions, flagging electoral integrity, inequalities of political participation, and questionably democratic behavior by several political leaders.

This brings us to the second way that scholars think about democratic survival and breakdown, maybe best exemplified by Robert Dahl. In this view, democracy survives based on elite consensus, shared norms, and trust.** Democracy requires that leaders accept constitutional limits on their rule, freedom for their opponents and critics, and an acceptance that power is relinquished after losing an election. None of these requirements are natural instincts of leaders. For democracy to hold together, leaders must expect others to sanction them if they violate norms and trust other leaders to act with restraint if they gain power. Democracy survives as an equilibrium of like-minded leaders who must view democracy as "the only game in town."

Unfortunately, an equilibrium can often be easily toppled, like a chair balanced on one leg. An erosion of trust and adherence to democratic norms can spiral quickly. Moving down the path of hyper-polarization and mistrust leads to political gridlock and usually a sudden democratic collapse, as in Peru in 1992 or Thailand in 2006 and 2014, where elite cooperation became unthinkable and violent street fights between rival Yellow and Red factions the norm. Alternatively, one faction can become dominant and steadily chip away at democratic constraints, as in Hungary, Venezuela, Turkey, and Russia.

There are warning signs that the democratic equilibrium in the U.S. is wobbly. Survey respondents point to the most serious threats as anti-democratic political rhetoric, weakened executive constraints, and treatment of the media.

Foremost among these warning signs are the actions and statements of the president. Needless to say, there is debate as to whether concerns about Trump are generated by partisanship, disappointment from the election, or discomfort with a non-traditional politician. Yet there are reasonable questions about President Trump's fealty to democratic norms, as seen in his harsh attacks on the judiciary and media, interference in investigations, unsupported claims about electoral fraud, admiration for foreign autocrats, and threats to jail his electoral opponent.

WWII poster: Americans will always fight for liberty

A common reaction to such concerns is the assurance that institutions are strong enough to maintain democratic functioning. Yet these critical institutions are made up of elites, many subordinate to the president or controlled by the president's party. Whether these leaders' commitment to protect democracy will overrule their partisan and material incentives is precisely the question of whether the democratic equilibrium will hold. As Robert Dahl wrote, "To assume that [the U.S.] has remained democratic because of its constitution seems to me an obvious reversal of the relation; it is much more plausible to suppose that the constitution has remained because our society is essentially democratic."

Thus, democracy's survival is frighteningly precarious, yet to a great extent also a matter of choice and resolve. It becomes easier to see where our surveyed experts arrived at an 11% chance of breakdown. Authoritarian Warning Survey will continue to survey experts and comment on current events to track every wobble and correction in our democratic equilibrium.

* For nerds, this is a dynamic logit model of breakdown in a sample of democracies, with a cubic function of democracy age. The measure of democracy is from Boix, Miller, and Rosato, which has been updated to 2015.

** Certainly, citizen pressure matters too and factors into leaders' interests, but a democracy of indifferent elites held together by citizen protest would be extremely fragile.

Michael K. Miller is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University.