Skidmore College

Are we afraid of the right things? by Wallace Anne Cloud @ Skidmore College

Bright Line Watch was created by a group of Political Science professors shortly after the 2016 presidential elections.  Over a span of a few months, beginning with the first published results in February 2017, Bright Line Watch has released the results of their surveys that aim to monitor several markers of democracy in this country.  Beginning in September 2017, Bright Line Watch included data collected from the public for the first time, regarding their perception of possible democratic backsliding.  The most recent wave of surveys released, in February 2018, includes the fourth expert survey and the second public survey.  Having the opportunity to speak with the Director of the research department provided lots of clarification on the sources and demographics of the surveys and the intention behind several of the figures.

Conducting surveys of the public and their perceptions of democracy in the United States following the elections was an incredibly important addition to the Bright Line Data.  The election highlighted a large divide between the ‘political elites’ of the country and the mass majority of Americans – a divide that must be better understood if we are to reunify the country.  However important this is, there are some factors of that data that provide some uncertainty.  Although the director attempted to provide clarification on the demographics for the public survey, which was done through YouGov, there was still some ambiguity about the specifics the sample.  The website notes that it was a “representative sample of 2,000 Americans” but little else is known regarding political preference, gender, age, etc.

Disregarding the possible weaknesses of the demographics, it was particularly illuminating to examine the differences in viewpoints between the public and the experts.  In general, it appears that the public has demonstrated that they have noticed a greater decline in several areas of democratic performance in the United States, as well as a much less optimistic view of the United States’ level of democracy in relation to other countries around the world in comparison to the experts.  It should perhaps be heartening to the American public that the professors of Political Science have, although noticed a decline in the overall level of democracy, do not rate the United States as low as the members of the public have.

Particularly compelling was the comparison between public and expert responses. In particular, the areas in which each group saw the most decline between the third and fourth waves.  The group of experts actually saw a positive change from “fully meets” to “mostly meets” concerning campaign fund contributions and transparency in particular, however, the majority of factors showed a marked decline over the last 4 months.  It is interesting to note that both the experts and the public noticed the most severe decline in the category of judicial independence.  This seems a logical area for decline considering the intense scrutiny regarding the Russia investigation and a number of indiscretions by several members of the Trump administration.  Overall, the public had a much more negative view than the experts, concerning changes in the markers of democracy over the past few months.  It appears to be a trend that the public seems to hold more extreme views than the experts, perhaps suggesting that the public does not need to be nearly as afraid of the decline of democracy as they seem to be.

What is concerning, however, is the discrepancies between the what the public and the experts worry about the most within the US system.  Although there were a few similarities, when examining the data from the overall performance of US democracy, the public and the experts each had very different worries.  For example, when it came to the greatest level of agreement for “fully meets” nearly 40% of the public felt that this was equal voting rights.  In comparison, over 60% of the experts felt that the United States “does not meet” or “partly meets” equal voting rights.  It’s shocking that over half of the public felt that the United States at least “mostly meets” the criteria for a category that was rated so low by the experts.  Almost all of the categories rated by the public and the experts reveal a very different perception of the country.

The data provided by Bright Line Watch seems to suggest that, although the public has proven to be concerned about the state of democracy in the United States, they may not be looking at the right factors as a marker of democracy.  Although it’s positive to see members of the population that are actively concerned and engaged, there are certain areas that require more concern than others.  For example, the experts almost unanimously agreed that the United States “does not meet” or “partly meets” unbiased voting districts.  This area was ranked far lower by the public, which demonstrates perhaps that the public does not actually realize how worrisome gerrymandering is as a reality.  Perhaps Bright Line Watch can be used to, not only measure makers of democracy, but to determine where public knowledge and awareness of democracy could be increased.


1 Comment

  1. Ricky Cutlip

    February 17, 2018 at 2:13 am

    I thought this argument was interesting, as it has been a longtime concern that the American public is not as well versed on political issues as they should be. I would agree with you that educating the public on certain issues that seem to be lacking in recognition or understanding would fix the issue you presented, however that might not be as easily done as said. While some individuals might not understand certain elements of democracy or the state in which they persist, there can be other reasons as to why their responses deviate from the professionals. Partisanship is one that comes to mind almost immediately. It is not unreasonable to assume that a conservative, for example, who lives in an ideologically balanced state that almost always elects republican officials, would agree that gerrymandering is as issue. Not because it isn’t actually an issue but because admitting something is wrong would potentially harm his/her political agenda. In cases like this, education might not be the issue, and would therefore still swing the percentage in what you imply to be the wrong direction. Additionally, certain areas of the country might behave differently than others with respect to the different components of democracy the survey covers. You argue that educating those who live in an area that is not indicative of the condition in the rest of the country might appropriately adjust their response. In my experience, however, if someone does not witness a certain condition, they are less likely to admit that it exists. Therefore, educating them on the situation outside of their domain might not be enough for them to realize how their assessment of the survey component is inaccurate.

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