Skidmore College

Bright Line Watch: Is Data a Friend or Foe? by Woeser Dolma @ Skidmore College

Bright Line Watch  is an impressive organization that was created by Political Science Professors after the Presidential election in 2016. The Professors believed the Presidential election was a crucial moment, like the rest of the world, to express their concerns that will be a potential threat to democracy in the foresee future. Hence, Bright Line Watch was born and their mission was to analytically examine the publics opinion of the United States democracy and its current President through series of surveys. Our class had the pleasure of skyping with the Director of the Survey research department, from Bright Line Watch. He explained the analysis of survey Wave 4, where the survey is categorized by ‘public’ opinion and ‘expert’ opinion. The surveys are important to understand the publics opinion and therefore, cater to the public, which according to Robert Dahl is an essential component of democracy. Thus, it is important to understand the perspective of the public within the United States. Conversely, since the surveys are only a small proportion of the United States population, I am hesitant to interpret the ‘public’ and the ‘experts’ opinion as a holistic representative of the United States.

The surveys from Bright Line Watch all include a public survey and an expert survey, where the analysis is insightful; however, I believe there is an inherent bias within the results. Bright Line Watch categorizes ‘experts’ as individuals who have a P.H.D in Political Science, but that was the only information provided. The survey for ‘experts’ should have included the Professors race, gender, and other variables to have parity within the sample. Another interesting component within the expert’s survey is the area of study by the ‘experts’. The results and graphs in the Bright Line Watch report should indicate those who have an international expertise versus those who specifically study country specific politics. This would significantly change the results for “Rating of democracy around the world” because those with international expertise’s opinion may be held in more weight than experts in American politics. Thus, the graph should have portrayed different levels of expertise. However, as the director of survey data mentioned that Bright Line Watch did not want to display more than two variables on a graph because it would be difficult to interpret. Nevertheless, to fully represent the holistic picture of democracy within the United States and other countries, I believe all variables are important to analyze in depth.

As well as, the public reports should include the demographics of the individuals taking the survey. The director explained the surveys are done through YouGov, but information regarding how individuals get the surveys and who takes the surveys are undetermined. Additionally, individuals can take surveys on YouGov with an economic incentive, which can skew the results. The director also indicated that Bright Line Watch did not want to define democracy because then individuals would answer the survey in regards to a specific definition of democracy and not the definition they believe to be. I think this was specifically insightful because democracy is interpreted different amongst various individuals and I think this was a good strategic approach.

Although the results in large may be skewed, the surveys are interesting to analyze on the micro level. Examining the specific results from the public is noteworthy because there is a stark difference in the data between those who approve of Trump and those who disapprove Trump. The representation within the survey shows the polarization of the United States, which reflects the ideologies of democratic erosion. Dahl stated that one of the main characteristics of democracy is the quality of being completely or almost completely responsive to all its citizens. However, within our current political system it is difficult to cater to the citizens needs if they are on polar extremes. Thus, the polarization of United States citizens shows the beginning of erosion of democracy. If the government did follow Dahl’s beliefs, then how would the government cater the needs of the citizens on polar ends? I believe representation of citizens is important; however, I think the government fails to cater to its left-wing citizens in the current administration. For example, the failure to address the sexual harassment suits against Trump, and current issues related to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Therefore, the government should cater to all of its citizens or there will be an increasing divide in the forthcoming years.

The Bright Line Watch is an important outlet for the public to increase their awareness of the erosion of United States democracy. Regardless of the criticism within its sample, Bright Line Watch is a great organization to provide information to the public in an innovative way. The data portrays the concerns the public has and it should be taken into account by the government because democracy should represent all of its citizens.


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