Taking the nation’s temperature

Democracy in the United States: holding its own, could do better.

In America, “the holding of regular free and fair elections—where the loser steps aside—is at the heart of our operational definition of democracy,” says Susan Stokes, professor of political science and one of the founders of Bright Line Watch (BLW). BLW, formed in 2016, uses scholarly expertise to monitor democratic practices and call attention to threats facing American democracy.

In February, BLW asked political scientists nationwide to rate the importance of 19 characteristics of democratic governments and evaluate how well the United States adheres to each. More than 85 percent of the 1,571 respondents gave the nation high marks on free and fair elections. Large majorities said we do well on other features they labeled essential to a functioning democracy: freedom of speech, judicial limits on executive power, minimal political violence, and open competition among political parties.

However, a majority gave low marks on equality of voting rights, legal rights, and political rights; ensuring that elections are free from foreign influence; and whether government officials refrain from using public office for private gain.

The nation got even worse ratings on behaviors that the scientists saw as important but not definitional. These norms include civil political discourse, majority restraint, and recognition of common nonpolitical standards for facts and analysis. More than 80 percent of the scholars said the United States is, at best, only partly meeting those standards.

“History has taught us not to assume that democracy will take care of itself,” notes Stokes.

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