Our August 2017 survey results demonstrate sharply increasing concern over the past month, amplified by the events in Charlottesville. From July to August, ratings worsened on every dimension, with especially large shifts on civil violence and civil liberties. Democracy experts see American political behavior in 2017 as firmly outside the norm for consolidated democracies, although they remain divided on how much this threatens democratic stability. On average, experts rate a 14% chance of democratic breakdown in the U.S. within the next four years. 92% of respondents believe that democratic quality has declined over the last 10 years.
From May through August, we polled 234 democracy experts on threats to American democracy. We previously asked respondents once a month. August is the first month after fully switching to a daily-updated rolling survey, although we will continue with our monthly update posts. See here for a longer description of the survey methodology and sample, including our attempts to limit ideological bias. As a useful set of comparisons, we also asked the same questions about five other countries: the United Kingdom, Canada, India, Poland, and Hungary. Separate experts were chosen for each country, with a total of 71 respondents. As of August, the U.S. rates slightly worse than India and Poland on threats to democracy, although not as imperiled as Hungary.
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 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. Intentionally, coding a 3 or above on any dimension is a high bar.
We also asked respondents about the likelihood of democratic breakdown, whether democratic quality and stability has improved or declined over the last 10 years, and what recent events or actions (if any) they consider most threatening to democracy.
Shifts Over Time
Results indicate rising concern in August, with average threat ratings increasing in all six categories. The U.S. now averages above both India and Poland in democratic threats. Especially worrisome were rising threat ratings for civil violence and civil liberties, which were previously rated very low. From July to August, the percentage indicating civil violence in the U.S. is outside the norm for consolidated democracies rose from 35% to 67%.
The above figure shows the average rating for each category from May to August. For comparison, the overall average for India is 2.17, Poland is 2.28, and Hungary is 2.90. The increases for violence and civil liberties jump out. Of course, this is in part a response to Charlottesville, especially concerns about civil violence. That indicator significantly increased from an average of 1.71 in August prior to Charlottesville to 2.43 after.
Average predictions for democratic breakdown also increased from July to August (from 10.3% to 14.0%), but the number indicating democratic decline over the past 10 years held steady (both above 90%).
The above figure shows the average response by category in August. Experts still see the greatest threat manifested in anti-democratic rhetoric, with several pointing specifically to the president. One respondent noted the president's attempts to "denigrate the media, and demonize opponents, and the unwillingness of the Republican party to stand up for democratic norms." However, another respondent cautioned that it's difficult to "assess the threat Trump specifically poses to American democracy" given that the worst abuses have been mostly rhetorical and not yet translated into tangible political outcomes.
Treatment of the media represents the next greatest source of threat. One respondent pointed to persistent "attacks on the media as an enemy of the people." Several noted that such rhetoric was unprecedented among recent administrations.
Close behind was concern about executive constraints, with several warning of attempts by the president to frustrate the Russia investigation and insufficient oversight by Congress. One respondent argued 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 the opposition is the fourth greatest source of threat, according to the survey. Several respondents pointed to concerns about the president's voter fraud panel. One warned of "a concerted effort to undermine the legitimacy of the electoral system via rhetoric, voter suppression, gutting the census, etc."
When asked to identify the most threatening recent event (if any), the most common response was President Trump's reaction to Charlottesville, which many interpreted as validating radical white supremacist groups. This was the first month that the most common response was not interference with the Russia investigation, although this was still widely mentioned. Other frequent responses were attacks on the media and potential voter suppression.
How does the U.S. compare to other countries on the same questions? The above figure shows the average threat rating across the six categories for each country. Countries fall in three groups: the United Kingdom and Canada face the lowest threat level; the U.S. fits in a middle group with Poland and India; and Hungary faces the greatest threat. As of August, the U.S. rates slightly worse than both Poland and India. This comparison helps to validate the survey questions—not all democracy experts rate their country of expertise as being threatened or outside the norm, even in a Conservative-led UK. Rather, the U.S. jumps out as distinct from other consolidated democracies.
The third 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. This is the first time this is true for civil violence. Nearly all rate rhetoric, executive constraints, elections, and treatment of media as outside the norm.
However, only rhetoric has a majority rating a 3 or above. Indeed, respondents were cautious about assigning high values—only about 3% of responses registered the highest threat category of 5. This reassures us that respondents are not amplifying their answers for effect.
We also asked respondents whether democratic stability and quality has improved or declined over the last 10 years (chosen so the reference point is another Republican president). 92.2% responded that American democracy has declined, with 34.4% saying it's "much worse." Only one respondent said it has improved.
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 functioning. The responses averaged an alarming 14.0%, with a median of 10%. Responses ranged from a low of 0 (given by four respondents) to a high of 75%, with 11 answering higher than 20%. Note that 14.0% 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. August saw a major upward shift in the threat level. There is a near-consensus that American democracy has weakened over the last 10 years and is now outside the norm for consolidated democracies, especially in rhetoric, elections, media freedom, and executive constraints. As discussed earlier, one should not view rhetoric being the highest-threat category positively since rhetoric can erode the norms holding democratic compacts together and often predicts later anti-democratic behavior.
Comparing the U.S. to other countries provides useful context. American democracy rates as considerably worse than democracy in Canada and the United Kingdom and slightly worse than Poland and India. This is highly consistent with seeing American democracy as shifting downward in quality, but not yet threatened with near-term breakdown.
Nevertheless, the estimated 14% chance of democratic breakdown (within four years) is a major warning sign. However, the most likely downward path for American democracy remains the steady erosion of democratic norms and practices, as followed before by Venezuela, Hungary, Turkey, and many others. This presents threats that extend beyond the current administration and may imperil American democracy for years to come.
Michael K. Miller is an Associate Professor of Political Science at George Washington University.