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A check-up for US democracy

Dartmouth professor John Carey

What is the state of American democracy in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election? A project founded by two Dartmouth professors asked more than 1,500 political scientists to weigh in.

The picture is sobering.

About 86 percent of those who took part in a survey by the Bright Line Watch project believe the United States met or mostly met an acceptable standard for free and fair elections. But only about half believe other branches could effectively check the power of the executive branch.

Metro Minute asked Dartmouth professor John Carey to reflect on the research. (Comments edited for length.)


What led you and your colleagues to start Bright Line Watch?

“Most of us have done work outside of the US, so we’d seen places were democracy has been stripped away. . . . So, when we saw things we consider deviations from things we’d consider usual behavioral norms, such as hyper-partisanship or political parties reluctant to investigate potential breaches in security happening here, we thought we’d try and see what other people thought. You know, when it’s happening, there’s no consensus that democracy is dying.”

So just how healthy is American democracy?

“We’re in territory that I’ve never seen before. Overall, I think we’re still good. . . . But there have been worrying signs. Congress’s lack of willingness to investigate Russia’s potential involvement in the election is troubling. If there is an outside power hacking communication of one candidate and the other candidate knew or endorsed it, that would be a huge deal. . . . We’re not trying to say that the president is trying to destroy democracy, but his election is a part of the deviations that we’ve been watching.”

What’s next for your organization, and US democracy?

“We’re going to repeat the survey every quarter. We want to get a timeline of how things change. If we get the answers back in a year and they’re the same, that would make for a boring story, but it would be telling. However, if, in a year, our responses are wildly different, that’s more concerning. . . . While I’m less confident than I was five years ago, I’m still betting on democracy. The data shows that there is overwhelming confidence in the integrity of our elections and in freedom of expression and speech. That’s reassuring.”


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