Our expert survey results in April 2018 demonstrate decreased threat levels compared to March, but an increase in perceived risk of democratic breakdown. This represents a correction from the trend from February to April 2018, when ratings worsened on all six dimensions of democratic performance. Experts rate a 11.4% chance of democratic breakdown in the U.S. within the next four years and nearly 100% of respondents believe that democratic quality has declined over the last 10 years.
In general, democracy experts see American political behavior in 2017-18 as firmly outside the norm for consolidated democracies. The results indicate a high point of threat in March on everything but civil violence and civil liberties, but persistently high threats on executive constraints, treatment of the media, and rhetoric. Thus, despite an improvement over the last month, warning signs for American democracy remain high.
From May 2017 through April 2018, we polled 582 democracy experts on threats to American democracy. March is the ninth month after fully switching to a daily-updated rolling survey, although we will continue with our monthly updates. 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 April, the U.S. rates similar to India and Poland on threats to democracy, although better than Hungary.
We first ask 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 ask about political leaders’ behavior in these categories, but do not single out specific leaders.
Respondents grade each category from 1 to 5, with higher values indicating greater threat to democracy. To ease interpretation, the values were chosen to have 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 ask 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
The above figure shows the average rating for each category from May 2017 to April 2018. Results indicate falling concerns in April compared to March, with average threat ratings decreasing across all six categories. Generally, each dimension has returned to the levels seen in January-February 2018.
Threats in rhetoric, executive constraints, media treatment, and elections reached all-time highs in March, extending increases starting in January. In contrast, concerns over Civil Liberties peaked in October and nearly reached that level again. Civil Violence threats peaked immediately after Charlottesville in August and have not returned to those levels.
However, the news is not uniformly positive: Average predictions for democratic breakdown increased in April compared to March (9.1% to 11.4%) and the number indicating democratic decline over the past 10 years (94.5%) held at a very high level.
What might explain the peak of threat from February-March and the decline in April? It's easy to construct many explanations given the constant stream of news, but one possibility is the focus on news like the Korean detente and the Stormy Daniels case (a scandal, but not one that really implicates democratic threats).
The above figure shows the average response by category in April. Experts still see the greatest threat manifested in anti-democratic rhetoric, with several pointing specifically to the president. One respondent noted, "The robustness of the rule of law and public freedom make America the oldest, most significant and most important constitutional democratic republic in the world but the current president seems to have only limited understanding of these values, concepts, and American history." Another pointed to "constant rhetoric by Trump that undermines trust in basic institutions of the American democracy.
Treatment of the media returned to its place as the second greatest threat. One respondent pointed to "the general practice of the executive branch to stoke division through its attacks on the media, under-represented groups, and - most importantly - the rule of law." Another simply noted the "constant attacks on the press."
Constraints on executive power fell to the third greatest source of threat, with one respondent warning of "efforts by the White House to undermine the FBI, the Justice Department, and the rule of law generally." Another warned of "President Trump's efforts to undermine the Justice department, while using ill informed and disorganized power of executive authority to undermine effectiveness and governance."
Treatment of elections falls slightly behind, with several noting the lack of efforts by the president to respond to Russian election interference and protect American election integrity. However, the breakup of the president's electoral commission may have led to a declining worry about elections. Concerns about civil violence and civil liberties have been in decline.
When asked to identify the most threatening recent event (if any), the most common response was interference in the Russia investigation (mentioned by about 25% of respondents), followed by attacks on the media and rule of law. Other frequent responses were corruption, polarization, and anti-democratic rhetoric.
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; a middle group with Poland. India, and the U.S.; and Hungary facing the greatest threat. As of April, the U.S. rates similarly to 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 but civil violence. Nearly all rate rhetoric, executive constraints, elections, and treatment of media as outside the norm.
This is the fifth time that a category besides rhetoric has a majority rating a 3 or above, which is true of media treatment. In general, respondents were cautious about assigning high values—only 3 responses (0.9% of total) 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). 94.5% responded that American democracy has declined, with 43.6% saying it's "much worse."
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 11.4%, with a median of 10%. Responses ranged from a low of 0 (given by 4 respondents) to a high of 70%, with 10 answering 20% or higher. Note that 11.4% 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 clear reasons to still be concerned about the future of American democracy. Although April saw decreases in threat levels across all dimensions, there remains 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, elections, 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 similar to India and Poland (as of June). This is highly consistent with seeing American democracy as shifting downward in quality, with at least some chance of breakdown.
Indeed, the estimated 1-in-9 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.