Skidmore College

Bright Line Watch: Who Is Rating Our Democracy? by Mandee Mapes @ Skidmore College

“At a time of potential danger to American democratic norms and institutions, it is more urgent than ever for scholars to highlight the risks to our system of government.” According to Bright Line Watch’s website, this is their motivation for their data collection…but who are these scholars?

Well to start, they’re white–on October 6, 2017, Bright Line Watch held their first conference, called How Do Democracies Fall Apart? (And Could It Happen Here). Out of the 24 speakers that spoke on the democratic state of the United States of America, 4 of them were of color. When 50.2% of Americans are people of color43% of people killed by police are people of color (not even including Native Americas), and for 80% of the United States’ lifetime, white people legally murdered, enslaved, and discriminated against people of color, 15% is an unrepresentative, problematic, and pathetic demographic.

Now to be clear, this is not a criticism of Bright Line Watch or the speakers at the conference, but of academia. Academia, like all respected lines of work, has always been a white man’s world and despite a shift toward critiquing marginalization, academia has continued to be a white man’s world. But if democracy is based on egalitarian values, then white men–or in this case white people in general–should not and cannot be the spokespeople for US democracy. That is, to accurately assess US democracy, the voices and experiences of social groups that have been historically and currently oppressed by US “democracy,” such as people of color, need to be included in the conversation.

According to Bright Line Watch’s third expert survey, “the public rates American democracy more negatively than our experts do.” Taking into account the statistics in my earlier paragraph, this is not surprising–if the public has a higher percentage of oppressed groups, then they will have lower confidence in US democracy. One example of this is the discrepancy in opinion on tolerance of protests and protection from political violence (see Figure 1). With increased media coverage of police shootings of unarmed black men and Black Lives Matter protests, it would be hard for the public to defend US democracy in either category. Of course, it could be a discrepancy in knowledge, where the public did not know that this was a problem before the media coverage, and for that reason rated it worse than the experts who were probably judging it based on previous trends in racialized police brutality and protests advocating for and led by people of color–while the questions are not directly comparative, it is natural for people to rate situations based on how the situations used to be. However, it is important to consider that this is a reflection of academia’s values. That is, as primarily white people who do not encounter police brutality on the street or during a protest, it might be hard for experts to understand how big of a deal tolerance of protests and protection from political violence is in an assessment of democracy.

I also think it is important to point out the acute discrepancy when it comes to confident in our government (see Figure 1). Again, this could be explained as a misunderstanding of the breadth, in time and space, of US democratic failings. Meaning, the public is under the false belief that, for example, openness to third parties or judicial limits on the executive, are eroding, when in reality they have been bad for awhile, if not from the beginning. But again it is important to question whether this is a bigger problem of academic elitism, a social group that has been unusually protected from the corrupt and cryptic role the US government holds in many people of unrepresented social groups’ heads.

Again, my hope is not to minimize the important work that Bright Line Watch is doing, nor to delegitimize the mastery of democracy to be an expert on the subject, only if we are to use academia to quantity, qualify, and fight democratic erosion, we must take into account academia’s current biases and its possible effects on their assessment of US democracy. This can easily be fixed by including demographic information in survey regressions, such as the one analyzed in this post. But that is, of course, a short-term solution. Long-term, there needs to be an active push to include social groups that have experienced totalitarian-like terror under US democracy in the assessment of that democracy.

Bright Line Watch’s work is essential to fight democratic erosion in the US. As pointed out on their website, “one of the greatest threats to democracy is the idea that it is unassailable,” and the first step to dismantling this belief is through critique of democratic institutions, values, and norms–but we must make sure we do not exclude the existing inequality within those democratic institutions, values, and norms in our critique.

*Photo by Fibonacci Blue, “Black Lives Matter Protect at Vikings Game,” Creative Commons Zero License.

Leave a Reply