Bright Line Watch examines U.S. democracy

by Debora Hyemin Han | 3/3/17 2:05am

Last week, government professors John Carey and Brendan Nyhan, University of Rochester political science professor Gretchen Helmke, Yale University political science professor Susan Stokes and market research company partner Mitch Sanders released data from the first survey conducted by Bright Line Watch — a project that seeks to use scholarly expertise to monitor democratic practices and call attention to threats to American democracy, according to its website. BLW gave The New York Times early access to the results, which were reported in the Upshot section on Feb. 23.

For its first survey, BLW aimed to understand what qualities were most essential to democracy and use those characteristics to assess the current state of democracy in the U.S. Of the approximately 10,000 political scientists who were invited to participate in the survey, over 1,500 responded, according to Sanders, who is BLW’s director of survey research. He said that the survey connects the perspective of political scientists to the questions that people are asking about democracy and political institutions. The survey was based on 19 statements related to characteristics of democracy, from fraud-free elections to limits on executive power to equal-impact voting. Respondents were asked to evaluate the statements on their relevancy and how well the U.S government meets those standards.

The survey found that an overwhelming majority of the experts believe the U.S. meets democratic standards of fraud-free elections, freedom of speech and judicial limits of executive power. Fewer than two-thirds of respondents said the U.S. meets standards of the majority showing restraint and reciprocity and noncriticism of opponents’ patriotism.

According to Carey, the idea for BLW originated from emails and Facebook messages between himself, Helmke and Stokes prior to the November election. They shared new polls and articles about the election with one another and had conversations about the way American democracy was being spoken about in the media. Most take stability and performance of U.S. democracy for granted, according to Carey, and despite how much people complain about democracy, they usually do not talk about it in existential terms. After the election, the group began to speak about the project in more concrete terms, and by November, the name “Bright Line Watch” had been established and the method of surveying was beginning to be discussed, Carey added.

The name is a metaphor for the “bright line” between liberal democracy and other forms of government, according to Nyhan. Because it is often unclear when political regimes cross this line, BLW aims to bring scholarly expertise to the conversation, Nyhan added.

“Political scientists have a more nuanced view of what constitutes democracy, and that’s what we wanted to capture,” Nyhan said.

Sanders said that a survey does well aggregating many opinions based on a robust sample, calling it a “good snapshot” of what political scientists are thinking.

According to Nyhan, BLW hopes to catalyze a conversation among political scientists about current issues as they occur, adding that it is important for scholars to show their expertise as events unfold.

“Ultimately, we’re counting on expert judgment to ... re-aggregate that information and give you some kind of summary judgment on how the U.S. is performing in those areas,” he said.

Both Carey and Nyhan, while emphasizing the non-partisan nature of the project, agreed that the political climate leading up to the election and during the election was a big factor in creating the project. However, Nyhan said that BLW also has elements that originated before President Donald Trump’s era.

“It’s very much inspired [by] current events, but it draws on a vast scholarly literature that long predates Donald Trump or anything having to do with his political relevance,” he said.

Furthermore, Nyhan said that it does not seem that the political scientists who participated in the study used the survey as a “Trump-bashing vehicle,” noting that some responses had very favorable views on certain aspects of the current state of democracy and that the political scientists are answering the question as scholars more so than as individual citizens.

Going forward, Carey said that the project aims to not only aid the American public in understanding the current state of democracy, but also contribute to research and scholarship. Because anyone is able to download the data, do their own analysis and publish their findings, he said he looks forward to seeing how the data can be utilized and incorporated. He added that the resource will become more and more valuable as the group continues to survey and add more waves of data.

In addition, Carey said he sees potential for the group to inform local governments about the current state of democracy. The survey sample could expand to include local officials, rather than just focusing on government at the national level, he said.

“We designed the survey in a way that we hope will be interesting to people, to newspaper readers, but actually also to civic leaders, to people working in government at all levels or people who are working in advocacy,” Carey said.

Carey and Nyhan say there is also a possibility for BLW to explore a comparative aspect, asking scholars to evaluate the state of American democracy in comparison to democracies of other nations around the world. Carey, Helmke and Stokes all focus on comparative government in their research. Carey said the team has already noticed parallels between the current state of American democracy and the democracies of other nations that they have studied.

“[The survey results] were echoing the same themes that we’ve been debating throughout our whole professional careers — you know, how democracy erodes, declines, in some cases, or is extinguished all together,” he said.

Carey said that as the project is still new, “a year from now, [the group will] have a much better idea” of the data the survey is generating.