Democracy watchU.S. Democratic Indicators Plummet Amid Racial Justice Protests, Pandemic: Watchdog report

Published 29 September 2020

The health of democracy in the United States has reached its lowest point since Bright Line Watch, an academic watchdog group of political scientists, began tracking its performance in 2017. Latest Bright Line Watch analysis finds erosion “across the board” on measures of democratic principles and how well the U.S. is abiding by them.

The health of democracy in the United States has reached its lowest point since an academic watchdog group of political scientists began tracking its performance in 2017.

Results of the August 2020 survey from Bright Line Watch—a political science research project of faculty at the University of Rochester, the University of Chicago, and Dartmouth College—show a small but perceptible drop in the experts’ rating of the overall quality of U.S. democracy.

During the first two years of Bright Line Watch expert surveys, from February 2017 to March 2019, average scores were generally in the high 60s on a 0–100 scale, with a decline in the period before the 2018 midterm elections and then an uptick afterward in March 2019. Since then, however, three consecutive expert surveys have shown successive declines, driving ratings of U.S. democracy to a new low of 61 on the Bright Line Watch scale in their latest survey.

While there are a few bright spots in the latest report, the overall picture is cause for consternation, notes Gretchen Helmke, professor of political science at the University of Rochester.

Since February 2017, the nonpartisan group of political scientists, which includes Helmke and Mitchell Sanders ’97 (PhD) of Meliora Research, has been surveying the American public, as well as colleagues in academia, in an effort to gauge the relative well-being of the nation’s democracy.

“It is concerning that there has been so much erosion across the board on so many principles,” says Helmke. “We have been seeing growing gaps for a while between how important a principle is and how it is performing, particularly in areas related to institutional limits on the government and accountability. But the latest survey showed us just how much ground has been lost since March.”

In one way or another, COVID-19 has touched billions of lives around the globe and cast a pall over U.S. politics. To date, more than 185,000 people have died in the U.S. alone. Campaigns for the presidency, Congress, and other public offices are taking place in a largely virtual medium. At the same time, since Memorial Day, when George Floyd died while in the custody of Minneapolis police officers, protests over Floyd’s death and the government’s response to the protests have highlighted challenges to democratic governance. The survey was completed before the police shooting of Jacob Blake on August 23 in Kenosha, Wisconsin.