Democracy And Facts: Political Scientists Have Their Say

As we approach the end of the first year of the Trump Presidency, how is American democracy faring? Might political scientists offer a prognosis? Dartmouth College’s John Carey and Brendan Nyhan, with Gretchen Helmke, from the University of Rochester, and Susan C. Stokes, from Yale, have been working toward one with “Bright Line Watch”—named to suggest, Carey says, that the profession as a whole should be “monitoring boundaries that dare not be crossed.” Since last February, they’ve been polling their colleagues at virtually every university and college campus across the country—there are some ten thousand political-science professors in the United States—asking them to rank the essential attributes of democracy and to rate America’s performance along those lines. So, what do the professors think?

The team sent out three waves of questionnaires. The most recent one, whose data was collected in September, constitutes the basis of the most ambitious report, released last month. The rate of response was eleven to sixteen per cent across the three waves—about twelve hundred scholars on average—a significant sample, as statisticians would say, and the responses seem reliably random. “If there was self-selection bias,” Carey said, “it was not, as might have been suspected, university people eager to bash the Trump pi├▒ata. The data prove more intriguing than that.” (Carey and Nyhan are my colleagues in Dartmouth’s government department.)

The team asked their colleagues to rank as “important to democracy” twenty-seven statements, or “principles,” grouped in inevitably overlapping categories, such as elections (“elections are conducted, ballots counted, and winners determined without pervasive fraud or manipulation”); protections (“government agencies are not used to monitor, attack, or punish political opponents”); accountability (“government officials do not use public office for private gain”); institutions (“the judiciary is able to effectively limit executive power”); and discourse, the most amorphous category, aimed at establishing norms (“elected officials seek compromise with political opponents”). With the third wave, the team went further, looking into how expert opinion compared with that of ordinary citizens. They hired a polling firm, YouGov, to give the same survey to a random group of Americans, dividing respondents into self-identified pro- and anti-Trump voters.

Some results are hardly surprising. Principles most easily identified with civil liberty and electoral fair play—free speech, fraud-free elections, equality of rights, and so forth—stand out as most important for all groups, though experts rate them most highly, and anti-Trump voters rank them more highly than pro-Trump supporters. It is also no surprise—and no cause for cheer—that the experts believe that America is performing much worse in some crucial dimensions than the Trumpists do—the most important being “equal voting rights,” where about eighty-five per cent of Trumpists think that America is doing just fine, and less than half the experts do. There is a similar, vexing gap between experts and Trump voters on “no foreign interference.”

Some results, however, were quite unexpected, especially regarding performance. “Far from being complacent, the American public is in many ways more alarmed than political scientists are about the health of U.S. democracy,” the report says. “On a one-to-a-hundred scale, where one is ‘dictatorship,’ and a hundred is a ‘perfect democracy,’ the experts give America a median result of seventy-two and the public sixty,” Carey says. He supposes that the experts’ comparative optimism derives from their study of the institutions that guarantee such principles: “They can see how the judiciary checks the executive, or how press freedoms are protected, and can see how these work well enough in America and not at all in other countries.” The public will tend to form an opinion of performance from an immediate and overarching sense of restiveness—of America being, as less exacting surveys put it, “on the wrong track.” Also telling is the fact that about two-thirds of experts are pretty sure that government agencies “do not monitor, attack, or punish political opponents,” while less than forty per cent of Trump voters think so. “It all conforms with the Bannonite narrative of the ‘Deep State’ that helped propel Trump’s campaign,” Carey says.

One disparity, however, is a little baffling. Ninety-five per cent of the scholars considered various protections for the freedom of speech as essential, yet just sixty-seven per cent thought that, in principle, it was necessary for political leaders across the parties “to generally share a common understanding of relevant facts.” This response is several percentage points lower than that of Trump supporters. It is considerably lower than that of Trump opponents, more than eighty per cent of whom affirmed the principle. A little arithmetic, and one is left wondering: if a third of the experts don’t think that a general agreement on the facts is crucial to liberal democracy, what do they suppose that freedom of speech is for?

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