Assessing the health of American democracy: Q&A with political scientist Susan Stokes

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(Illustration by Michael S. Helfenbein)

The 2016 U.S. presidential election was a historically divisive contest in which the victorious candidate repeatedly leveled unfounded accusations of election rigging and widespread voter fraud.

To Yale political scientist Susan Stokes, it seemed the time was ripe to assess the health of American democracy.

She joined John Carey and Brendan Nyhan, professors of government at Dartmouth College, and Gretchen Helmke, a professor of political science at the University of Rochester, to form Bright Line Watch — a project that will examine the strength of the nation’s commitment to its democratic institutions and values.

Bright Line Watch recently released a survey of 1,571 political scientists working at U.S. institutions. The survey, reported in The New York Times, had two goals: define the qualities most essential to democracy and use those characteristics to rate the health of democracy in the United States.

The respondents determined that American democracy remains robust, but is showing some signs of weakness. Core standards, such as free and fair elections and freedom of speech, were largely given a clean bill of health. Other areas, such as equal voting rights and majorities in elected branches acting with restraint and reciprocity, are in poor health, according to the survey. Overall, nearly 7 in 10 respondents rated the health of U.S. democracy a 7 or better on a scale of 10.

Stokes, the John S. Saden Professor of Political Science and director of the Yale Program on Democracy at the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, recently spoke with YaleNews about Bright Line Watch. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Why did you establish Bright Line Watch?

The four of us all work in comparative politics, and we specifically study Latin American politics. I don’t think it is a coincidence that people who study a part of the world where there has been a lot of political instability over the decades are concerned about seeing similar kinds of issues appearing in American politics.

Three of us had circulated a letter before the election voicing these concerns. [Brendan Nyhan joined the project later.] After the election, we felt the same kind of issues remained pertinent. Our primary mission is to bring research-based expertise on threats to democracy to bear on the current political situation in the United States. We decided that we would conduct an ongoing survey of political scientists to assess the health of the various qualities essential to American democracy.

Susan Stokes

We plan to interview the same set of experts or overlapping groups of experts every quarter or at certain times when it seems important. Initially we used a group of political scientists based in U.S. institutions, but our next survey will include a group of experts from international institutions.

We are also planning to produce thought pieces, op-eds, and background pieces that could help journalists understand at a deeper level how a given institution functions in different parts of the world.

How did you arrive at the name “Bright Line Watch”?

We have a colleague at Stanford, a preeminent political scientist named Barry Weingast, who wrote an article on how constitutions impose stability on societies. He proposes the idea that when there is a constitution, even an unwritten constitution as in Great Britain, it becomes an expectation that certain lines cannot be crossed, which he calls “bright lines.” It’s not that these lines are backed up by legal systems or court interpretations. He argues that the citizenry’s recognition of them as bright lines is what truly matters. That shared expectation then shapes our behavior and prevents us from doing things that we might otherwise do because we would run afoul of constitutional limits.

We liked this idea and felt it would be useful to have people with scholarly expertise help define the bright lines and identify where they are being trodden on. I think they are being trodden on, and it is frightening to see things not work the way they are supposed to. For instance, when the president castigates and disrespects individual judges, he runs afoul of our notion of the separation of powers and mutual respect among the branches of government. I think the judiciary in its own quiet way has pushed back, and certainly the citizenry is pushing back.

What qualities were rated the most essential to democracy?

We didn’t know how our colleagues would respond, and we hadn’t taken the survey ourselves. There was a clear clustering of answers. Questions that had to do with free and fair elections topped the list of standards considered most important for a democracy. That didn’t surprise me because the holding of free and fair elections at regular intervals where the losing candidate or incumbent party steps aside peacefully is at the heart of our operational definition of democracy. The right to engage in unpopular speech or expression ranked highly, as did protecting the press from government interference.

There were a bunch of items that our colleagues considered important, but not definitional for democracy, such as having a civil discourse and not having political opponents question each other’s patriotism. You’re not going to feel that democracy is under threat if opposing political parties question each other’s patriotism. That happens. It’s unpleasant, but it happens.

A lot of standards fell into the middle — they seem important but not as crucial as free and fair elections, such as an absence of private political violence or legal sanctions for official misconduct.

What was the key takeaway? Did anything surprise you?

The good news was that there was a correlation between how important our colleagues considered an item and how well they thought the country was doing on that item. There was general agreement that U.S. elections are free of widespread fraud.  Of course, this is a more controversial position than one would normally expect because the Trump administration has pushed very hard on the idea that there has been widespread voter fraud, which is something that was investigated in depth well before this last election, and the scholarly consensus is that instances of voter fraud are rare.

We were happy that our colleagues assessed the health of U.S. democracy as it stands now rather than express concerns about the future.  It surprised me that our colleagues were so restrained in following our directions and didn’t use this as an opportunity to vent, but as an assessment of how things currently stand.

It is a moving target. One of the items on which the respondents gave the U.S. high marks was the lack of private political violence, but just in the last week we’ve seen two attacks on Jewish cemeteries and the senseless shooting in Kansas City of two tech workers from India. The feeling that these incidents, which are not delinked from politics, will become more common over time is frightening. Perhaps they won’t. This will likely be reflected in our next survey.

In your experience as a scholar of Latin American politics, what circumstances have caused democracies to fail?

The good news in Latin America is that democracies aren’t failing. They once did. We had a wave of re-democratization in the 1980s and 1990s. Since then, there have been some coups, but they have generally ushered in short-lived governments. We have not seen military leaders taking over and installing themselves in office for decades like we saw in the 1960s. The taming of civilian military relations has been very important.

If you look at President Trump’s cabinet, you see that several key appointments are former military, and they seem to be among the more sensible appointments, which is good, but if you step away from the personalities involved, it is a little disquieting that there is such heavy involvement by military and former military officials in the government.  As a Latin Americanist, I worry about that a lot.

I also worry about things like threats of criminal prosecutions of candidates. Genuine corruption must be prosecuted, but threats can be used as a political weapon. I found the “Lock her up” chants during the campaign very disquieting.  You can fall into a very bad equilibrium that way.

The survey rated free speech among the most important democratic principles and also rated it as one of the healthiest aspects of American democracy. Are the widespread protests occurring in response to President Trump evidence of this strength?

It’s an interesting moment because there is sudden flourishing of civil society. Folks who have not been politically active are getting involved and engaging in protest. They’re also writing their members of Congress, attending town hall meetings, and being active at a level we haven’t seen for a long time. If you had asked me two years ago how important I considered a vibrant civil society to democracy, I think I would have told you that it is important, but our system is organized so that politics is carried out by professional politicians. The United States is a republic, not a democracy in a technical sense, and we hire politicians to work for us so we can carry on with our lives.

I think what we’re seeing now is that when things begin to go off the rails, it is very important to have an organized citizenry holding elected officials accountable and keeping their feet to the fire.

A significant portion of the public appears very skeptical of expert opinion. Are you concerned that this skepticism will hinder Bright Line Watch’s impact?

I am concerned about it. I see it among my own friends and family. People have responded to our survey on Facebook by pointing out that political scientists tend to be Democrats so our work is biased. I think political scientists need to be better at communicating how we go about doing our work, just as journalists have to explain how they use sources or decide to publish an article. If you’re getting surgery, do you care more about your surgeon’s political affiliation or their level of experience? It should be the same with political and social scientists. People should care about our methods and how we reach our conclusions. We cannot publish in journals unless we are very careful. Our colleagues go through our results and methods with a fine-toothed comb, so we have an incentive to be careful and unbiased, but I don’t think that always comes across.

Bright Line Watch’s comparative advantage lies in having expertise and knowing where to find the experts. That said, we should be directly addressing how to make our work more credible to a broader public.

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