Our expert survey results in August and September 2018 demonstrate increased threat levels compared to July, with ratings worsening on all six dimensions of democratic performance. This represents a reversal from the improving condition from June to July 2018. Experts rate a 16.5% 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 threat levels near the all-time high point reached in March, with persistently high threats on executive constraints, treatment of the media, and rhetoric. Threat levels related to elections reached an all-time high in August.
From May 2017 through September 2018, we polled 747 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 September, the U.S. rates 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 September 2018. After a slight decline in July, average threat ratings increased across all six categories into August, with a resulting correction in September.
Threats in rhetoric, executive constraints, and media treatment 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. Concern over elections increased in March, then reached an all-time high in August.
Average predictions for democratic breakdown also increased from July (13.2% to 16.5%) and the number indicating democratic decline over the past 10 years (97.1%) held at a very high level.
What might explain the increased threat, especially in August? It's easy to construct many explanations given the constant stream of news. In particular, August saw a further escalation in Trump's attacks on the Mueller investigation, with aggressive claims to be able to self-pardon and 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 August-September. 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."
Constraints on executive power is now the second greatest source of threat, overtaking the normal second-place (media). 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 the media is now the third 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."
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 attacks on the media, followed by interference in the Russia investigation, lack of legislative oversight, and concerns about rule of law.
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 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 2 responses (0.5% 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). 97.1% responded that American democracy has declined, with 44.9% 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 16.5%, with a median of 10%. This average is the second-highest over the past year. Responses ranged from a low of 1% to a high of 80%, with 24 answering 20% or higher. Note that 16.5% 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. August and September saw significant increases 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 16.5% 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.