Democracy in Decline

Bright Line Watch, a multi-university initiative whose co-directors include professors John Carey and Brendan Nyhan, surveyed Americans and political scientists about the state of democracy as the country approached its first national elections since the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Americans head to the polls next week for the midterm elections as the country faces a struggling economy, increased violence towards political figures, and the spread of voting-related falsehoods on social media. With both chambers of Congress and dozens of governorships on the line, the election results will shape the nation's future, including the likelihood of Donald Trump running for office again. 

Bright Line Watch, a multi-university research initiative whose co-directors include professors John Carey and Brendan Nyhan, surveyed Americans and political scientists about the state of democracy as Nov. 8 approaches—the country's first national elections since the Jan.6 insurrection. In its new report, "American Democracy on the Eve of the 2022 Midterms," the group sounds the alarm on risks to American democratic norms and institutions—from the high likelihood that some candidates in the upcoming elections will refuse to concede to the anticipated decline in the quality of U.S. democracy in the future. 

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Brendan Nyhan John Carey
Brendan Nyhan and John Carey

In a Q&A, Carey and Nyhan reflect on the report's findings, and on how Twitter's "disproportionate influence on the media and politics" may be a particular cause for concern under new owner Elon Musk. 

The survey finds that academic experts anticipate that some high-profile candidates in the 2022 midterm elections will refuse to concede. Are you concerned that this elevates the risk for violence? 

Brendan Nyhan: I am very concerned about sporadic political violence like what we saw with Paul Pelosi. I don't know if it will be linked to a refusal to concede in 2022, but the risk is present. I'm most worried, though, about the spread of candidates refusing to concede in 2022 as a precursor to a more widespread attempt to overturn the 2024 election.

John Carey: I'm worried about political violence around the election, and I think refusal to concede defeat could contribute. I suspect our expert sample is overestimating the likelihood of widespread violence after the midterms, at 34%, but even if the odds are one-tenth of that, that's way too high. Acknowledging defeat is the linchpin of democracy. We can't take it for granted anymore that losing candidates will concede.

What of the report's findings did you find most surprising?

J.C.: The most surprising thing to me is how tightly bound attitudes are on Trump's criminality and whether he should be prosecuted. I'm not surprised a lot of people believe he committed crimes, but I expected more of those people to be skeptical about whether the government should pursue prosecution. We had follow-up questions teed up to probe the rationale behind exactly that combination of attitudes but because so few people fell into that category, there weren't enough responses to do a meaningful analysis.

B.N.: I was surprised to see increased Republican recognition of Joe Biden as the rightful winner and trust in the 2022 vote count compared to our last survey, which was conducted November 2021. Both numbers are still far too low, but these were modestly encouraging signs.

I was also surprised at the strength of the expert consensus on the benefit to democracy of Trump facing criminal prosecution. It was not as strong as the level of agreement they reported on the threat to democracy that a 2024 campaign from Trump would pose, but it was still quite robust and stronger than I expected.

Six events that took place since your 2021 survey were rated as both "highly abnormal" and "highly important." Does this indicate that American democracy is increasingly at risk?

B.N.: I'm not sure the number of events is higher than in the past—unfortunately, abnormal and important events are common in post-2016 America. What I found most noteworthy is that experts rated the prevalence of election denialism among 2022 Republican candidates as the most important and abnormal event in the past year and one of the most important and abnormal events that has taken place since Trump first took office.

J.C.: We've had a steady stream of events judged to be abnormal and important since we started asking that question about four years ago. We never have any trouble identifying events that will draw that response. Long term, I think the threat comes when the abnormal becomes normalized—when we start to shrug off things that would have raised an alarm in the past. Designing a survey so we could detect that, and measure it if it's happening, is a challenge, though. 

The report notes that "those who post regularly about democracy on Twitter are more pessimistic about democracy's future than those who do not." What do you make of this?

J.C.: It's important to emphasize that we're not saying that Twitter causes pessimism. If those who are already thinking more about threats to American democracy are drawn to Twitter, we'd see the same result. But if you're getting your news from Twitter (or, God forbid, from tweets posted by political scientists), it's important to keep in mind that the views expressed there might not reflect the perspectives of political scientists more broadly. 

What do you anticipate will be Elon Musk's influence on the state of our democracy in his new role as "chief twit"? 

B.N.: I am worried that Musk will unleash a lot of misinformation on Twitter, which is not actually very widely used but exerts disproportionate influence on the media and politics.