Is American Democracy Really Under Threat?

The country’s turbulent politics, in perspective

The scene after a gunman fired on Republican lawmakers playing baseball in Virginia (Joshua Roberts / Reuters)

The White House’s increasing inaccessibility to the press; the violence against lawmakers and journalists; the apparent ease with which Russia preyed on Americans’ deep political divisions and distrust of government; and the president’s efforts to delegitimize the media, his opponents, unfavorable court rulings, and independent investigations into his campaign’s ties with Moscow, have all contributed to a sense that American democracy is battered and besieged.

“America is no more immune from collapse than were some of history’s most stable and impressive consensual governments,” Victor Davis Hanson wrote last week in National Review. “Fifth-century Athens, Republican Rome, Renaissance Florence and Venice, and many of the elected governments of early 20th-century Western European states eventually destroyed themselves, went bankrupt, or were overrun by invaders.”

Whoa now. Is the United States really in such bad shape? Two recent expert surveys help put the country’s challenges in perspective. They highlight precisely where the U.S. political system is currently strongest and weakest. And together they convey a message that is at once reassuring and unsettling: America isn’t end-times Athens or pre-Vichy France. Far from it. But nor, in certain respects, is it a healthy democracy.

In May, amid the fallout from Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, the democracy-monitoring group Bright Line Watch polled more than 1,000 political scientists in the United States on whether America was adhering to a list of 29 democratic principles. What they found is that the vitality of American democracy depends on your definition of “democracy.” The U.S. performed well on measures of free expression but poorly on measures of political civility and equality, with the quality of elections and checks and balances on power earning mixed results.

Most respondents agreed, for instance, that the U.S. government met democratic standards for protecting the right to protest, preventing electoral fraud, deterring political violence, and not interfering with the press. But most disagreed that the U.S. met standards for granting citizens an equal opportunity to vote, stopping officials from exploiting their public office for private gain, and conducting politics and formulating policy based on a common acceptance of basic facts or expert consensus.

Relative to a similar survey in February, in the early days of the Trump administration, the political scientists voiced greater concern about several principles, many of which involve constraints on executive power and relate to two of the most prominent elements of Trump’s presidency so far: the travel ban and Russia investigations.

Bright Line Watch also asked respondents to assess on a 0 to 100 scale the overall performance of American democracy at the moment, and to do the same for other periods in U.S. history. With the caveat that evaluating the present is different than evaluating the past (especially the distant past), here’s what Bright Line Watch found: The quality of democracy generally improved from the nation’s founding to 1975—increasingly most steeply after 1950 with the passage of civil-rights and voting-rights legislation—before plateauing for decades and then dipping to pre-1975 levels at the dawn of the Trump Era. (As The New York Times cautions, the Bright Line Watch survey is not based on a representative sample of political scientists, and academics tend to be more liberal than the general public.)

A poll by another democracy-monitoring project, the Authoritarian Warning Survey, helps place America’s political problems in an international context. In May, 68 democracy scholars compared the behavior of American political leaders since January to the typical behavior of politicians in other mature democracies. On average, the United States was judged to be within the norm for “consolidated” democracies in terms of the rejection of political violence and the protection of civil liberties. It was considered to be just outside the norm when it comes to constraints on executive power, respect for an independent press, and commitment to free and fair elections in which political opponents are treated as legitimate. And, most remarkably, it was deemed significantly outside the norm on political rhetoric that honors democratic principles. When asked what recent development posed the greatest threat to American democracy, the most common response was Trump’s dismissal of Comey.

In his analysis of the results, Michael Miller, one of the academics behind the Authoritarian Warning Survey, noted that the respondents expressed greater alarm about democratic breakdown in the United States than one would expect based on traditional indicators of the fragility of democracy in a given country, including average income, literacy rates, the age of the democratic system, and the percentage of democracies in the broader region. A model with these variables created by Miller put the chances of American democracy collapsing within four years at 1 in 6,700, which makes the United States one of the world’s most secure democracies, roughly on par with Belgium. (It’s worth noting that Belgium has its own democratic problems—it once went 589 days without an elected government between 2010 and 2011—and that Switzerland looks far more stable than the United States, with the odds of democratic breakdown in the next four years about 1 in 32,500.) The participants in Miller’s survey, by contrast, on average estimated the odds of the U.S. not resembling a democracy in four years at 11 percent.

Yet this is a highly unlikely future for the United States, Miller argued. “[T]he most likely downward path for American democracy is not full breakdown, but a steady erosion of democratic norms and practices” as seen in countries such as Poland and the Philippines in recent years, he wrote. “Democracy experts generally agree that the U.S. has started down this path, but remain cautious about how far it will go before turning back.”

It’s tempting to be heartened by the fact that the survey respondents were most concerned about political rhetoric “since rhetoric is short of action,” Miller added. But “anti-democratic rhetoric can erode the norms holding democratic compacts together.” Anti-democratic language today, he warned, can predict anti-democratic behavior tomorrow.