Skidmore College

What does the data tell us and not tell us? by Jillian Seigel @ Skidmore College

Within the last 18 months US Citizens have witnessed a polarizing election, a presidential transition, a government shutdown, and the eruption of international interference and the questioning of our political leaders. Trump’s election to the presidency was a pinnacle moment for a change in American feelings and understandings of what democracy meant for the United States, but also, how they view the state of democracy in the United States compared to the rest of the world. Bright Line Watch, directed by four professors of political science, saw that under the Trump Administration, a higher threat and awareness to American democratic norms and institutions were erupting. With this knowledge and curiosity, they produced a survey to further understand what threats were invading on American democracy, but also, what factors could be increasing the feelings Americans have.

Together, they developed a survey (with the fourth wave just released) that was given to both the public and experts (political scientists). The results proved to be interesting because they showed that the public had less trust in American democracy than the experts. Though, American democracy, for both experts and the public, was in decline over the last couple of years. A question that emerged was how does democracy compare to the rest of the world. As part of the Democratic Erosion collaborative course, each student took a survey that questions how they felt the United States’ democracy was and it was up to the discretion to how they were ranking the countries. It is important to understand that each student rated democracy with their own standards. Whether emotion was driving their response or they were thinking objectively or comparably with the rest of the world.

At Skidmore College, we were fortunate enough to have a discussion with one of the Bright Line Watch data scientists who walked us through the most recent data. For someone who has little understanding of political survey data, this session was helpful to set up a baseline understanding of data analyzing and survey techniques. Because there have been several waves of data, comparing attitudes and opinions about American democracy, for the most part, have been in decline. While these data sets provide a broad understanding of what Americans think of the quality of democracy in the United States, the public response proves to be challenging. What should be further explored is what determines “good” or “bad” democracy. The experts know what it means to be a democracy but when asking the public, there is room for discrepancies.

The “Rating of democracy around the world” data set, in particular, shows that that for every country, except Iraq, there is a visible difference in the country’s rating of democracy between experts and the public. For me while taking this survey, the countries that I had little to no knowledge about, I left blank because I did not think my answer would have been helpful and could have skewed the results. What is interesting about this data set is that for countries with lower ratings of democracy, the experts had lower means while countries that had higher ratings of democracy were given higher means than the public gave.

Because the survey data is recent, it would be particularly interesting to see how it would change over the next few years. As mentioned earlier, each student taking this course took a different survey that asked how we thought the quality of democracy in the United States would be “x” amount of months and years. A potential question that could be added to the Bright Line survey could address how Americans think the quality of democracy will change in the future. For example, from now until the midterm elections, during the next presidential election, and then the changing of the Presidency. All of these events have big political turnovers and much of people’s dismay stems from political leadership. However, as the Bright Line Watch data scientist said, political scientists do not like to predict the future. Perhaps this question should only be given to the public because it would better reflect the feelings Americans have about democracy and where they think it is going.

The question of democracy eroding in the United States is one that is accompanied by factors that could have been reflected in the data. With my little statistics knowledge, the way the survey was distributed easily could have shifted the data. Because this survey was distributed to almost 10,000 political science faculty and then distributed via YouGov, it can be assumed that those who believe there is some sort of democratic erosion were those that responded because they would feel that their results would help shed light on problems they feel are in need of attention. All data collection has some sort of bias, whether it is participant or the ways that the survey is distributed.

Bright Line Watch is delving into the intricacies and questions the American public and experts have about democracy. Issues of democracy have been prevalent throughout American history stemming from our founding. Nonetheless, questioning the validity and state of democracy in the United States has most recently been under a microscope due to the hyper polarizing political system and the presence America has in international spheres. This survey data has paved way for political scientists, government officials, and the American public to better understand attitudes towards democracy within the United States, which in turn, could further explain what democracy may look like in future years as a result of what some call democratic erosion. 


Photo by, Creative Commons Zero License.

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