Our October 2017 survey results demonstrate rising concerns about American democracy over the past month. From September to October, ratings worsened on every dimension except civil violence. Further, democracy experts still see American political behavior in 2017 as firmly outside the norm for consolidated democracies. On average, experts rate a 12% 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 October, we polled 333 democracy experts on threats to American democracy. We previously asked respondents once a month. October is the third 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 October, 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 October. Experts still see the greatest threat manifested in anti-democratic rhetoric, with several pointing specifically to the president. One respondent noted the president's "president's consistently strong rhetorical attacks on constitutional safeguards." Another cited warned of "continued hostility to opposition, media, and rule of law by the administration."
Treatment of the media represents the next greatest source of threat and the greatest increased threat from September. One respondent pointed to "the president's rhetoric about 'fake news' and openly attacking the free press, including his call to investigate the press for perceived bias and even revoke their licenses, which would effectively censor oppositional and negative media coverage of the government."
The third greatest threat is concern about constraints on executive power, with one respondent warning of "attempts by the executive to intimidate other branches of government and the media." Close behind are civil liberties and treatment of elections. In contrast, concerns about civil violence showed the only decline, as the reaction to Charlottesville fades in the background.
When asked to identify the most threatening recent event (if any), the most common response was the president's warnings on the media, especially the threat to revoke licenses for unfriendly press coverage. About 40% of respondents referenced this in some way. Other frequent responses were potential voter suppression and the president's response to Charlottesville.
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 October, the U.S. rates slightly worse than India and 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 third 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). 91.7% responded that American democracy has declined, with 35.4% 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 12.4%, with a median of 5%. Responses ranged from a low of 0 (given by seven respondents) to a high of 80%, with six answering higher than 20%. Note that 12.4% 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. October saw an increase in threat levels across all categories but civil violence, with the greatest increase on treatment of the media. 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, and slightly worse than India and Poland (as of June). This is highly consistent with seeing American democracy as shifting downward in quality, but not yet threatened with near-term breakdown.
Nevertheless, the estimated 12.4% 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.