Political Scientists v. The Public on Our Democracy

President Joe Biden speaking at a podium with various pro-democracy activists and Big insurrectionists behind him, mounted on a piece of graph paper with various data points

Prior to last week’s inaction in the U.S. Senate, there was a sweeping chorus of voices pushing Congress to enact voting rights legislation and protect democracy. Among the elected officials, activists and concerned constituents, there was another group of engaged citizens calling for change: academic scholars who research and write about our systems of governance every day. “We, the undersigned, are scholars of democracy who have watched the recent deterioration of U.S. democracy with growing alarm,” reads the first of three statements, signed by over 100 scholars in 2021.

In today’s Data Dive, we’re exploring what political science experts have to say about the United States’ democratic performance, possibilities for reform and recent election-related events. We’re highlighting some interesting findings from Bright Line Watch’s latest report, “Tempered expectations and hardened divisions a year into the Biden presidency,” which examines the results of their November 2021 survey of both the general public and a sample of academic experts. We’re honing in on the academic experts — a sample of 564 political scientists who specialize in a range of subfields — to see what insights we can glean. 

Here are the key takeaways:

The general public wants to see significant change to the political system. Political scientists support change even more.

The large majority of the public sample (62%) indicated that they support fundamental change to the structure of the United States government. Among political science experts, the rate is even higher, with 74% of experts agreeing that “significant changes are needed to make [the design and structure of government] work for current times.” 

Bar graph showing that 74% of experts and 62% of the general public want to see fundamental change.
Source: Bright Line Report, November 2021

When asked about the methods with which to enact such a change, only a sliver of the public and experts support the creation of a new U.S. Constitution (6 and 7%, respectively) while over 20% support amending the existing U.S. Constitution. The most popular route for reform in both groups is one that does not require amending the Constitution. 

Once the public sample was further divided by partisan affiliation, it revealed a starker divide — 80% of the Democratic public supports fundamental reform in contrast to only 38% of Republicans. It’s unclear how partisan leanings may come into play in the expert sample.

Political scientists differ from the general public in their perception of the United States’ democratic performance.

In general, experts rate the overall performance of American democracy more positively than the public, and have done so consistently over the past few years. In November 2021, the experts’ mean rating (66 out of 100) was over 10 points higher than the public’s mean rating. However, when broken down by democratic principles, experts diverge even more so from the public.

Here are some notable differences. For example, experts believe that the United States meets the following standards, while the public leans the other way. 

Experts believe: 

  • The government doesn’t interfere with the press.
  • Government statistics and data aren’t influenced by political considerations.
  • Government agencies don’t monitor and punish political opponents.
  • Elections are conducted without widespread fraud.

On the flip side, the public rates the following standards much higher than experts do:

  • All eligible voters have an equal opportunity to vote.
  • Electoral districts are not systematically biased towards a particular political party.
  • Political leaders generally share a common understanding of facts.

Institutional reforms would be beneficial. Their path to adoption? Less clear.

Structural deficiencies within our institutions existed long before the recent “Big Lie” push of voter suppression and election subversion efforts during 2021. In fact, political scientists and activists have pushed for reforms, such as ranked-choice voting and public funding of campaigns, for years as a way to enable citizens to elect more representative and responsive leaders.

In Bright Line Watch’s latest survey, they asked the experts to rank nine reform proposals in terms of their expected effect — whether they will pose a threat or benefit to society. Nonpartisan redistricting, through the establishment of redistricting commissions, ranked highest, with 87% of experts viewing it as a benefit to society. Establishing a national popular vote and expanding Senate representation to include Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. were close behind with 81% and 76% of experts in favor, respectively. Less than 50% of experts rated nonpartisan primaries and two-round elections as beneficial, making these the lowest-ranking reforms.

While the general consensus is that these democracy reforms would be beneficial, the reality of enacting them in practice appears more challenging. When the respondents forecasted the likelihood (from 0 to 100%) that a given proposal would be adopted by 2030, almost all of the median forecasts for the reforms were between 10 and 30%. The exception was eliminating the filibuster, which gained a median 50% chance of adoption. 

Experts are raising the alarm that the GOP’s election subversion efforts are abnormal and crucially important.

Bright Line Watch then asked their expert sample an interesting question: to rate a range of recent events in the political world in terms of their importance and normality. For example, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Breyer remaining undecided on his retirement ranked normal, though relatively important. Biden hosting the Fourth of July party on the White House lawn? Normal, but unimportant. On the other hand, Fox News host Sean Hannity applauding Trump for acing a cognitive test ranked abnormal and unimportant. These examples are plotted on an XY-plane in the graphic below (which is a simplified version of the report’s charts).

X-Y plot highlighting three events that experts rated most abnormal and most important: "Contact to state officials to overturn results," "Trump asks Georgia Secretary of State to 'find' votes" and "Insurrectionists storm the U.S. Capitol."
Source: Bright Line Report, November 2021

Let’s focus on the shaded subsection that shows the events that ranked highest for both abnormality and importance. Among the swath of news stories, the events that consistently ranked highest on both metrics were related to election subversion. Only a handful of the rated events are presented in the graphic above, highlighting the following:

  • Insurrectionists storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
  • On a phone call, Trump asks the Georgia secretary of state to “find” votes.
  • Trump allies contact and pressure state officials to overturn results.

Even within the diverse range of news stories that dominate our headlines, political scientists routinely raised the alarm that election subversion efforts were most abnormal and important, a clue for what may be most important to pay attention to in our democracy.  

The political scientists surveyed here were a small, random sample. Nonetheless, they point us to the issues that people trained in understanding systems of democracy are most concerned about. For example —  while a large portion of the public (driven heavily by Republican respondents) think election fraud is a major issue in the United States, experts do not. They are, on the other hand, concerned about equal access to voting. That’s important.

It is often political scientists who help craft policy recommendations for electoral issues, advise courts on redistricting and suggest new, innovative ways to revitalize our democracy. However, right now they are ringing the alarm bells: “This is no ordinary moment in the course of our democracy. It is a moment of great peril and risk.”