Here's the funny thing about democracy: Sometimes, you don't know what you've got til it's gone.
John Carey, a Dartmouth professor of government, would know. He has spent his career studying the erosion of democracy in Latin American countries such as Venezuela and Argentina. And time and again, he has seen the same thing. “It’s only in retrospect that you can point to the bright line,” a moment when a country’s democratic institutions stopped working, he told me. At the time, he said, there’s rarely consensus. Instead, Carey said, “there's usually a debate about whether this is an advance or a setback.”
One example: In Latin America in the 1990s, democratically elected leaders often tried to seize power by trashing constitutional mandates against reelection. It’s a classic first move by heads of state interested in overstaying their welcome, perhaps indefinitely. In fact, those term limits were put in place because a century earlier, a rash of would-be authoritarians used presidential extensions to hang on to power well after their populations had turned against them.
But not everyone saw it that way. Too often, the leader would frame his decision as explicitly good for the democratic process. “The leader would say, ‘Those restrictions are anti-democratic, the people shouldn’t be restricted. If they want me, it’s their choice,’ ” Carey said. “That debate is so familiar now you can almost set your watch by it.”
It’s the same with other things, too. Would-be autocrats frame efforts to rein in the judiciary or purge judges who disagree as a way of being more responsive to the people. Or, they’ll say that certain judges are protecting the economic interests of the elite, and they need to go. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has defended his decision to jail thousands of his critics, along with journalists, professors and political rivals, by arguing that those arrested were fomenting discontent and stirring up coups.
“We have this sense that we’re gonna know when democracy’s under threat,” Carey says. “We think that if it’s under threat we’ll all know and share that recognition. I don’t think that’s the case at all . . . things that we’d call anti-democratic — the erosion of separation of powers, electoral issues — when they are violated, there’s often no consensus that there is a violation taking place."
Bright Line Watch is here to help. The website, set up by a small group of political scientists, was born out of the idea that, in their words, “One of the greatest threats to democracy is the idea that it is unassailable.” Their goal is to carefully monitor the state of democracy in the United States so that they can identify threats to the system.
To start, the creators identified the essential qualities of democracy. They chose 19, including fair, free elections; judicial and legislative independence; government protection of individuals’ right to engage in unpopular speech; a robust free press; and an executive authority that won’t push its power beyond constitutional limits. There are others, too: “Government leaders recognize the validity of bureaucratic or scientific consensus about matters of public policy.” “Government agencies are not used to monitor, attack, or punish political opponents.” “Government officials do not use public office for private gain.” “Political competition occurs without criticism of opponents’ loyalty or patriotism.”
Then, the Bright Line Watch people asked more than a thousand political scientists: How important is each of these traits to a fully functioning democracy? Here are the answers, mapped:
Next, they asked a more complicated question: how is the United States doing? Do we, as a country, still offer the key qualities of a democracy?
“The 2016 U.S. presidential campaign taught us not to assume that the country’s political leadership will follow the practices and norms that help guarantee American democracy,” the founders wrote on the site. “Our overarching goal is to use our scholarly expertise to monitor democratic practices and call attention to threats to American democracy.”
The idea is to create a benchmark so that experts can assess change over time. The point is to look out for trends. It’s a way to tell whether our institutions are becoming less free, whether our voting system is still fraud-free, whether journalists and judges still have as much autonomy in a year as they do right now.
Here’s how the country’s democratic health looks to the professors right now:
The respondents aren’t alone in their criticism. An Economist report from a couple of months ago rated America’s democracy as “flawed” because of “weak governance, an underdeveloped political culture and low levels of political participation.”
Next, the polls’ analysts did something interesting. They looked at “how political scientists rank the U.S. in terms of the characteristics that they regard as especially important to democracy.” And on this scale, American democracy is strongest at the things most important to democracy generally:
And finally, the survey asked professors to rate American democracy right now, on a scale of one to 10. Here are the results: