The Capitol is illuminated before sunrise in Washington. (Bloomberg)

The decline of democracies is not as dramatic as it used to be. Instead of military coups, the greater threat is the steady erosion of democratic norms by elected leaders. If done skillfully, leaders can consolidate power and weaken democracy while most citizens remain unaware.

Largely reacting to President Trump, a wave of news stories and essays have raised the alarm about threats to American democracy and declines in democratic support among young Americans. This is echoed by concerns about the spread of illiberal populism in Turkey, Hungary, Poland, France, the Netherlands and elsewhere.

Yet how real is this threat in the United States? No democracy nearly as wealthy or durable as the United States has ever broken down. Are these warnings a partisan reaction to the 2016 election or an appropriate note of caution before the country follows the path of Hungary and Venezuela?

Our new survey of democracy experts sheds light on these questions, and the results are concerning. These experts see significant warning signs for American democracy, especially involving political rhetoric and the capacity of political institutions to check the executive. On average they estimate an 11 percent chance of democratic breakdown within four years.

A survey of democracy experts

We polled democracy experts to evaluate the current level of threat to American democracy. We invited prominent scholars who study democratic breakdown as well as experts on countries that have faced democratic decline. A total of 68 responded from 233 invitations, for a response rate of 29 percent. Most of these scholars (64) responded between May 15 and 21, but four answered a pilot survey earlier in May, before the firing of FBI Director James B. Comey.

The survey, which we plan to repeat monthly, is part of a larger project called Authoritarian Warning Survey, in collaboration with David Szakonyi at George Washington University, Lee Morgenbesser at Griffith University and others. Our website also features democracy scholars reacting to current events. This survey complements similar projects at BrightLineWatch and the Upshot, but is unique in focusing on democracy experts and asking them to compare the United States to recent cases of democratic erosion.

The results

We asked about six categories that often present warning signs of democratic decline:

  1. Leaders’ treatment of the media, respect for free press and transparency
  2. Effective constraints of the executive against abuses of power, and leaders’ respect for the judiciary, legislature and rule of law
  3. Respect for free and fair elections and opposition legitimacy
  4. Civil liberties (respect for core freedoms like speech, assembly, religion and privacy)
  5. Use of violence, intimidation or paramilitary organizations for political ends
  6. Rhetoric by political leaders indicating democratic erosion or weak normative attachment to democracy.

We asked about American political leaders’ behavior on these dimensions, but did not refer to specific leaders such as the president.

Respondents graded each category from 1 to 5, with higher values indicating greater threat: 1 = Behavior of a normal consolidated democracy, 2 = Moderate violations atypical of consolidated democracy, 3 = Significant erosion of democratic quality with potential for future breakdown, 4 = Critical violations that threaten near-term survival, and 5 = Non-democracy. You can think of these as Defcon ratings. The graph below shows the average response on this scale for each of the warning signs.

Surprisingly, majorities of experts rate the United States as outside the norm for a consolidated democracy (a 2 or above) on every dimension but the use of violence. In fact, 90 percent or more rate the United States a 2 or above in political rhetoric, executive constraints, and treatment of media. This signals real concerns.

However, political rhetoric and constraints on executive power are the only dimensions for which more than a third of respondents believed that there had been significant democratic erosion or worse (a 3 or above). Indeed, respondents don’t appear to be amplifying the alarm for effect: only 1 response out of 406 cited the highest threat category of 5 (for political rhetoric).

Experts see the greatest threat manifested in anti-democratic rhetoric, especially by the president. One respondent noted “Trump’s rhetoric around violence, us vs. them, and intimidation of judges and witnesses associated with investigations against him.” Others pointed to “verbal assaults,” “attacks that seek to delegitimize crucial democratic actors,” and “the lack of expressed respect for democratic values.” Anti-democratic rhetoric is more than empty words, too: It can erode the norms holding democratic compacts together and often predicts later anti-democratic behavior.

Executive constraints were the second most-threatened from this list. A common pattern in recent cases of democratic decline — such as in Venezuela, Turkey and Hungary — is the steady concentration of power in executive hands, eventually eliminating independent oversight. One respondent, coding this a 3, cited “presidential attacks on all other sources of independent authority in the U.S. government, including investigative (e.g., FBI) and judicial.”

When asked to identify the most threatening recent event, many experts cited a lack of effective oversight by Congress. But the most common response was Comey’s firing, which was mentioned by nearly half of these experts. Although only a very small number of respondents took the survey before the Comey firing, they perceived less threat on average than did the respondents interviewed after the firing (1.83 vs. 2.11, combining the six categories into a single average).

These experts also expressed concerns about the White House’s aggressive treatment of the media, although several conceded this was mostly rhetorical. Fewer pointed to elections, although some criticized Trump’s claims of rampant voter fraud and potential moves to restrict voting rights in response. These experts generally did not see significant threats to civil liberties or uses of civil violence.

We directly asked respondents the likelihood of democratic breakdown (by their definition) within the next four years. Note that “breakdown” does not imply full dictatorship, only a sufficient erosion of democratic quality.

The responses averaged 11 percent, with a median of 7 percent. Responses ranged widely, from a low of zero percent to a high of 60 percent, although only eight answered higher than 20 percent. Unsurprisingly, the more these experts believed specific aspects of democracy were threatened, the more likely they believed a democratic breakdown was.

Conclusion

According to democracy experts, U.S. politics has shifted outside of typical behavior for healthy stable democracies but has not yet eroded to the point where democratic survival is immediately threatened. Nevertheless, they believe that there is a non-trivial chance of future breakdown and point to worrisome threats regarding anti-democratic rhetoric and institutional checks of the executive. American democracy has proven remarkably durable, but warning signs are flashing.

Michael K. Miller is an assistant professor of political science at George Washington University.