Skidmore College

You Can’t Measure Democratic Health by Underrepresenting People by Anne Pfeifenberger @ Skidmore College

Our Democracy has Bright Lines that when crossed compromise our democratic values and rights. The erosions of those lines and democratic norms has now come to the fore as one of the largest political debates since Donald Trump won the presidential election in November 2017. Disregard for facts and ethical conduct, a focus on scandals, distrust of election results, and other deviations from government and democratic process standards has led to an increase in the number of groups tracking and studying administrative actions and state of the U.S.’s democracy.

During Trump’s campaign, liberal academia and media began tracking the ways in which his presidential election and the following term have led to disregard for or erosion of certain practices that are considered standard in campaigns and governance. In the media, this can be seen with Trump false claim trackers, or, in the case of political scientists, surveys of specialists and the public that measure democratic backsliding.

Bright Line Watch is one such institution that seeks to track the state, health and potential erosion of the country’s democracy. Mitch Sanders of Bright Line Watch explained the project’s beginnings. Started by four political scientists, the organization seeks to measure the norms, rules, and institutions of the U.S. democracy and look for their violation. However, the timing of Bright Line Watch’s creation seems to contrast their general message of avoiding political bias.

The timing for Bright Line reflects the concerns of its founders, where three of its four creators signed an open letter stating that Trump threatened U.S. democracy. In addition, the start of their surveys followed the Economist’s publication, that downgraded the U.S. to a “flawed democracy.” The democratic norms that Trump disregarded in his campaign, and his following election seems to have in many ways prompted Bright Line’s founding.

While recording the perceived strength of the United States’ democracy can show the immediate effects de/stabilizing events, it can also track long term trends. The danger is in equating democratic erosion or fearing its potential only after the rise of Trump. Americans’ trust in government and institutions has been declining since the 1950s. Rising inequality, political scandals, wars, gerrymandering and government shutdowns, to name a few, have all led to declining trust in the populace. These phenomena were already playing out and eroding U.S. democracy before Trump ran. Rather than the major cause of democratic erosion, Trump is an effect of our democracy’s underlying problems. In the Wave 4 Bright Line Watch Survey, the organization points to this weakness as the surveys may “fail to detect the erosion… because the norms in question had collapsed long before [their] first survey in 2017.” The heightened fear of democratic erosion under a Trump administration is misplaced and seems to hide the systemic issues that democracy in the United States faces.

The publication’s timing especially may in fact restrict its circulation to only liberal news sources. The website’s media coverage page consists primarily of links to the New York Times, Vox, New Yorker, Atlantic, Washington Post, etc., all of which have largely liberal audiences. With increasing partisanship and skepticism over biases, Bright Line Watch may have inadvertently restricted the application of its findings.

In addition, the study’s anonymity, and lack of demographic information and transparency raise questions of skewed and biased data. Wave 4 consisted of 1,066 responses from political science faculty (with a response rate of 11%) and 2,000 responses from the public through a YouGov survey. However, there is no information on the participants demographics. Certain academic fields in the United States struggle to proportionally represent populations. In 2010, women made up only 28.6% of political science faculty nationwide and African-American women constituted merely 1.7% of faculty. Without demographic information beyond their specialization within political science, Bright Line Watch inadvertently creates a potentially biased dataset. The experiences of a minority within the field, whether it be through gerrymandering, police brutality, legal action against sexual assault, etc. may have a different perception of the health of America’s democracy in comparison to the white male that typically dominates U.S. academia.

So, what does this mean for the actual state of America’s democracy and its potential erosion? The Fourth Wave results echo the statements of Freedom House and the Economist Intelligence Unit on slipping democratic standards; however, those publications do not delve into specific components of the U.S. government that people prize, and are more black and white in their scoring. Visualizing perceived changes in democratic components as percentages creates a more concrete means to address specific issues that the U.S. faces. The survey’s weakness is of course that it may not accurately reflect the current extent of erosion in certain areas depending on the respondents’ demographics.

But if the Bright Line survey reflects similar trends to other democratic rating systems, why is demographic information so important? Robert Dahl considered political equality among citizens to be a key characteristic of democracy, but potentially missing large subsets of the population in surveys measuring the strength of democracy works to undermine the legitimacy of such endeavors.

This does not mean that organizations such as Bright Line Watch should not continue to monitor the perception and performance of the U.S. democracy. If anything, Trump’s election has awakened individuals to the long-term trend of slow institutional erosion, that the nation must now address. Bright Line Watch may not be able to convince hardliners that the organization was not created to criticize Trump, but it can make its future Waves more accurate in its representation of the populace’s perception. Bringing demographic information and ensuring that the data accurately represents the people’s views will only increase their finding’s legitimacy and create a more accurate image of the United States’ democratic norms’ and institutions’ health.

Photo by iStock, Creative Commons Zero license.

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