Our September 2017 survey results demonstrate consistently strong concerns about American democracy over the past month, although slightly lessened compared to August. From August to September, ratings improved on every dimension except civil liberties. However, democracy experts still see American political behavior in 2017 as firmly outside the norm for consolidated democracies. On average, experts rate a 13% chance of democratic breakdown in the U.S. within the next four years. 87% of respondents believe that democratic quality has declined over the last 10 years.
From May through September, we polled 285 democracy experts on threats to American democracy. We previously asked respondents once a month. September is the second 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 September, the U.S. rates slightly worse than India and comparable to 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 slightly declining concern in September compared to August, with average threat ratings decreasing in five categories. The U.S. now averages above India but very slightly below Poland in democratic threats. But worrisome is the rising threat rating for civil liberties, which was previously rated very low. From July to September, the percentage indicating civil liberties in the U.S. is outside the norm for consolidated democracies rose from 51% to 75%.
The above figure shows the average rating for each category from May to September. 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 compared to July 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 September (from 10.3% to 13.1%), but the number indicating democratic decline over the past 10 years held steady (above 85%).
The above figure shows the average response by category in September. Experts still see the greatest threat manifested in anti-democratic rhetoric, with several pointing specifically to the president. One respondent noted the president's "nationalist rhetoric that can be a foundation for the erosion of civil liberties for dissenters and non-mainstream groups." Another cited "Trump's unwillingness to fully confront the growing assertiveness of a non-liberal, non-democratic, and racist (if still numerically small) extreme right."
Treatment of the media represents the next greatest source of threat. One respondent pointed to "comprehensive attacks on major news media by President Trump and his administration and supporters." Several noted that such rhetoric was unprecedented among recent administrations.
Close behind was concern about civil liberties, with several citing potential limits on free speech and protest. One respondent warned of the president's "repeated lack of respect for rule of law, freedom of speech, and lack of respect for media."
When asked to identify the most threatening recent event (if any), the most common response remained President Trump's reaction to Charlottesville, which many interpreted as validating radical white supremacist groups. This was the second 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 India and virtually identical to Poland. 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 second time this is true for civil violence. Nearly all rate rhetoric, executive constraints, 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 1% 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). 87.2% responded that American democracy has declined, with 28.2% saying it's "much worse." No respondents 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 13.2%, with a median of 7%. Responses ranged from a low of 0 (given by three respondents) to a high of 95%, with six answering higher than 20%. Note that 13.2% 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. Although slightly lower than August, September saw a maintenance of consistently high threat levels across all categories. 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, 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, comparable to Poland, and slightly worse than 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 13.2% 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.