By Bernard Avishai, The New Yorker
he Bright Line Watch team is at it again, exploring the resilience of democratic norms in America, as the Trump Presidency, entering its third year, seems ever more cavalier about them. The team—the political scientists John M. Carey and Katherine P. Clayton, at Dartmouth College, Gretchen Helmke, at the University of Rochester, Brendan Nyhan, at the University of Michigan (and of the Upshot, at the Times), Mitchell Sanders, of Meliora Research, and Susan C. Stokes, at the University of Chicago—spent much of 2017 comparing the attitudes of “experts,” a broad swath of fellow political scholars, with those of ordinary voters. (I reported previously on their findings.) This time around, the team has issued a report on a new survey called “Party, Policy, Democracy and Candidate Choice in U.S. Elections,” which probes only the attitudes of ordinary voters—self-identifying Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. The report clearly assumes, but does not state, that common attitudes toward democracy will likely be tested by the 2020 election campaign, and even more so by the Robert Mueller investigation. (Carey and Clayton are my colleagues in Dartmouth’s government department.)
The team asks, “Are there democratic principles that, if violated by politicians, would generate resistance from the public? Are citizens of all political stripes equally willing to punish candidates for such violations?” These are hardly academic questions, but voters’ attitudes are difficult to isolate, let alone weigh, so a little professional ingenuity is in order. You need to determine how attitudes are shaped by party solidarity—by the sense of reassurance that voters feel in their allegiances. You must, as the statisticians say, “control for” aspects of identity besides party affiliation, such as gender, ethnicity, age, and so forth. (Will men support male leaders irrespective of how they lead on issues like tax cuts or respect for the rule of law?) You need to decide which values and policy principles are most characteristic of affiliation with a given party, so that voters can be positioned not only by professed allegiance but in a kind of ideological ecosystem. Most important, and most challenging, you must determine what democratic norms are crucial, and how to represent them.
In this case, the team decided to test for four norms: respect for universal access to voting; willingness to compromise in order to preserve the integrity of institutions; respect for the judicial-criminal processes free of partisan influence; and deference to court decisions, even when these seem wrong. The latter two suggest respect for the rule of law. Again, it is hard to believe that the anticipated Mueller report did not influence the choice of questions.
Read the full story on The New Yorker website.