Our expert survey results in July 2018 demonstrate slightly decreased threat levels compared to May-June, with ratings improving on five of six dimensions of democratic performance (all except elections). This represents a small correction from the worsening trend starting in April 2018. Experts rate a 13% 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. Threat ratings on civil liberties reached an all-time high in May.
From May 2017 through July 2018, we polled 689 democracy experts on threats to American democracy. We use these responses to calculate 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 July, the U.S. rates slightly worse than 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 July 2018. Results indicate rising concerns in May and June, with average threat ratings increasing across all six categories, and a correction in July for every dimensions except elections. Every dimension remains worse than it was in April 2018.
Threats in rhetoric, executive constraints, media treatment, and elections reached all-time highs in March, dipped down in April, and then increased in May-June. In contrast, concerns over Civil Liberties peaked in May. Civil Violence threats peaked immediately after Charlottesville in August and have not returned to those levels.
Average predictions for democratic breakdown also declined slightly in July (15.3% to 13.2%) and the number indicating democratic decline over the past 10 years (97.6%) held at a very high level.
What might explain the increased thereat in May-June and the decline in July? It's easy to construct many explanations given the constant stream of news. In particular, May-June saw an escalation in Trump's attacks on the Mueller investigation, with aggressive claims to be able to self-pardon or end the investigation at will. The rising concern over elections could plausibly be related to attention to the 2018 midterms and continued concern over Russian interference and the government's lack of a concerted response.
The above figure shows the average response by category in July. Experts still see the greatest threat manifested in anti-democratic rhetoric, with several pointing specifically to the president. One respondent warned that "the President's use of Twitter and other public statements raise the risk that citizens lose confidence in the democratic process." Another pointed to "continued demonization of law enforcement, Mueller investigation, & media."
Treatment of the media maintained its place as the second greatest threat. Respondents pointed to "attacks on media as 'enemy of the people'" and "the president's scathing statements about the press and the FBI, and the implied (or explicit) threats in them." One warned of "demonizing of free press, causing citizens to ignore and disregard factual information about the administration."
Constraints on executive power holds the third greatest source of threat, with one respondent warning of "efforts by the executive to undermine the judiciary and rule of law." Another warned of the "undermining of the rule of law through pardons and the prospect of the president putting himself above the law by pardoning himself." One respondent warned that "the breathtaking claims of pardon power... pose an imminent threat to the rule of law in the country which, if they are not checked, would put the president and those acting on his behalf largely above the law."
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. Concerns about civil violence and civil liberties also increased.
When asked to identify the most threatening recent event (if any), the most common response was interference in the Russia investigation or threats to self-pardon, followed by attacks on the media, and lack of legislative oversight. Among the new events being pointed to is overreach on immigration enforcement and corruption.
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 July, 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. Nearly all rate rhetoric, executive constraints, elections, treatment of media, and civil liberties as outside the norm.
Two categories have a majority rating a 3 or above, indicating serious erosion: rhetoric and media. In general, respondents were cautious about assigning high values—only 3 responses (1.2% 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). 97.6% responded that American democracy has declined, with 47.6% 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 13.2%, with a median of 10%. This average is the second-highest over the past year. Responses ranged from a low of 0 (given by 3 respondents) to a high of 65%, with 11 answering 20% or higher. 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 clear reasons to be concerned about the future of American democracy. July saw only modest decreases in threat levels across all dimensions, reinforcing 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 slightly worse than India and Poland (as of June 2017). This is highly consistent with seeing American democracy as shifting downward in quality, with at least some chance of breakdown.
Indeed, the estimated 13% 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.