New GW Project Quantifies Threats to American Democracy

Survey found “significant warning signs” for the American political system over the next four years.

GW gates
September 05, 2017

A new survey from George Washington University political science experts that seeks to measure and quantify whether the current political climate threatens American democratic institutions found “significant warning signs” for American democracy.

The Authoritarian Warning Survey is a continuous survey of leading academic experts on democracy and authoritarianism, measuring critical facets of American democracy. Daily updates, published in conjunction with the nonpartisan, nonprofit group United to Protect Democracy, will provide a daily index of metrics indicating the strength of democratic norms in the United States.

In its latest edition in August, survey respondents estimated on average a 14 percent chance of democratic breakdown within four years. This outlook is slightly worse than predictions for India and Poland, indicating a worrisome level of instability.

The survey website also includes articles from non-ideological, expert scholars reacting to current events, informed by how democracy has eroded in similar countries. GW political science professors Michael K. Miller and David Szakonyi lead the survey project along with Lee Morgenbesser, a research fellow at Australia-based Griffith University.

“Our goal is to be vigilant without being alarmist,” Dr. Miller said. “The only true safeguard of any democracy lies in the willingness of its citizens to identify and oppose non-democratic actions by the powerful. We aim to provide a credible warning if and when this happens.”

The survey asks more than 500 political scientists to evaluate six categories of threats to American democracy:

  • Media: Political leaders' treatment of media, respect for free press and transparency.
  • Executive constraints: Effective constraints of executive against abuses of power; leaders' respect for judiciary, legislature and rule of law.
  • Elections and treatment of opposition: Respect for free and fair elections and legitimacy of opposition.
  • Civil liberties: Respect for core freedoms such as speech, assembly, religion and privacy.
  • Civil violence: Use of violence, intimidation or paramilitary organizations for political ends.
  • Rhetoric: Speech by political leaders indicating democratic erosion or weak normative attachment to democracy.

The survey also asks respondents to predict the likelihood that American democracy breaks down within the next four years.

Scholars taking part in the blind survey include experts on democracy and authoritarianism, as well as specialists in various historical examples of democratic decline, such as Turkey, Hungary and Poland. In addition to its main survey, the project conducts separate annual surveys on democracy in the United Kingdom, Canada, India, Hungary and Poland as points of comparison.

“How real is this threat in the United States? No democracy nearly as wealthy or durable as the United States has ever broken down,” Dr. Miller said in an announcement about the Authoritarian Warning Survey. “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 survey 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.”

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