John Carey is Professor of Government at Dartmouth College and is a co-founder of Bright Line Watch, a research group which monitors threats to American democracy.
In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and John Carey discuss whether recent publications casting doubt on the extent of democratic erosion have any merit; why many Americans believe the charges against former President Trump to be politically motivated; and why, no matter the outcome, indicting a former president may trigger a cycle of retaliatory prosecutions.
The views expressed are those of the speakers, not those of Persuasion. The transcript and conversation have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: You and I have been in conversation for many years now and we've both been very worried about the state of American democracy and of other democracies around the world. It's nearly the ten-year anniversary of my turning into a doom-and-gloomer about democracy at a time that it's now difficult to recall, when the idea that these democracies could come into any kind of danger was treated as sort of far-fetched or absurd. Conventional wisdom has really flipped 180 degrees, I think.
But zooming out, how concerned should we be about the future of liberal democracy as we're recording this in 2023?
John Carey: I remain concerned. I think you were ahead of the game, in the sense that you were on this theme a little bit ahead of a lot of academics, who really kind of snapped to attention during the presidential campaign of 2016. And I give you a little credit, as well, for being ahead of the game on anticipating a couple of good turns in this story, which were particular elections, in the United States in 2020 and Brazil in 2022, in which sort of populist incumbents were turned out of office. And it's hard to beat incumbents. And so, in some sense, the last couple of years have brought some very good news. But there are still a lot of stories in the set of countries that are front and center. Ten years ago, people were talking less about India. They're talking more about India now. Ten years ago, people were talking more about Turkey, Venezuela, and the Philippines. Now the conversation has shifted to places like Israel and Hungary. But a lot of the same ingredients are still present: a concentration of power in the executive branch, executives overstaying their terms sometimes against explicit constitutional term limits. We can look at the case of El Salvador right now, which I think is one we'll be paying more attention to in the next few years, where that's likely to happen.
Mounk: It feels to me that whether or not democracy is in danger, or how worried we should be about it, depends a little bit on the exact question we're asking. If we ask which significant big democracy in the world looks as stable as it did ten years ago, the answer is just about none. In the United States, we have the very real prospect of somebody becoming a major party candidate while under indictment. In Brazil, we continue to have a deeply polarized political system with a president who is struggling in many ways. In India, democracy is under serious attack from Narendra Modi. When you get to the big European countries, which look somewhat better, there are certainly concerns: in France, it does look like the next president may very well be Marine Le Pen. Germany, oddly, is probably the big significant democracy that's doing the best in the world (perhaps along with Japan), though the AfD, the far-right populist party, is currently in second place in many polls, and this is a quite extreme far-right populist party, more extreme than many other European parties but in a broadly similar space. All of that looks very concerning.
Is the danger broader than we've recognized? Help me puzzle through this.
Carey: I'll give you a classic academic answer, which is that it’s too soon to tell. Neither Bolsonaro or Trump, the two cases we mentioned before, got that second term. We're seeing a lot of reporting now about the preparations that the Trump campaign is making for what a second term might look like. And a second bite of the apple might be even more damaging to our institutions. You think about the case of Orbán in Hungary—it was his second term, after a period out of office, when he was really able to turn Hungarian democracy in a direction that was problematic. I think there's some learning that goes on on the part of some of these politicians, and they can get more effective over time. And of course, also, if they are reelected then that also is indicative of where the state of popular opinion is in these countries. It may indicate a broader support for their particular agenda.
Mounk: There’s been an interesting paper recently which makes the skeptical case for how worried we should be. I think both of us ultimately disagree with the paper, but we both find it to be an interesting and important intervention. It's called “Subjective and Objective Measurement of Democratic Backsliding” by Andrew Little and Anne Meng.
John, would you talk us through the basic argument they’re making of why, when you look away from the kind of subjective ways of measuring how democratic various countries are, and you look towards objective measures, those look less concerning. What are those objective measures and why are they supposedly telling this reassuring story?
Carey: I really liked this paper, even though, as you noted, there are some places where I disagree with it. But Little and Meng kind of pick up this story saying in the last ten years or so, academics, journalists and a lot of political actors have been talking about the democratic recession around the world. And they note all the familiar cases, a lot of which we've already mentioned. But Little and Meng say that almost all this academic writing is based on expert assessments of democracy and the performance of democracy. And a lot of your listeners will probably be familiar with organizations like Freedom House or V-Dem. Most of that democratic recessionist literature is based on these expert assessments. And Little and Meng come along and say, “Well, look, if there really is a recession, we should be able to observe it in other indicators as well,” and maybe some that don't depend on what they would call “subjective assessment of experts.” And so they look at things like the rate at which incumbent governing parties lose elections, whether elections are getting less competitive (is the margin of victory between the winner and the second-place party getting wider or narrower?), and whether chief executives are evading term limits and perpetuating themselves in office beyond their constitutional terms at a greater rate than in the past. They also look at things like how many journalists are getting jailed or murdered every year. So there are a lot of things that are less objective, and pretty well documented, and they look at them. They don't find any evidence that in the last decade or so that things have gotten worse by those other indicators. And it's a pretty compelling case.
Mounk: They do a lot of interesting sleuthing work putting together that data and it's quite compelling. Certainly, it should update our model a little bit—the question is, how much? To what extent should that reassure us? Where would you try to push back against this paper?
Carey: I'm part of a research group called Bright Line Watch. And we've been surveying academic experts, very much like the groups that Little and Meng are concerned with and whom they think might be biased towards pessimism. We've been surveying even broader samples of academic experts, and we've also been surveying samples of the American general public. And there are some propositions that we should be able to observe in our own data if all of us experts are kind of stewing in this marinade of pessimism, or doomer-ism, echoing our own pessimism and sort of accentuating it. But the answer in all these cases is that we can't find any evidence for this. And we also compared our experts with the general public and the answer is that they're actually more optimistic: they rate the US better on democratic performance, for example, than the public does. So we looked a whole bunch of different ways, and none of them is a direct test of Little and Meng. But you would think that we'd find some kind of corroborating evidence somewhere if that proposition is right. We can't find it.
Another possibility is that Little and Meng are right by the objective measures that they've looked at—those things aren’t moving much—but that the ways that democratic eroders are operating is maybe getting more subtle over time, not throwing the journalists in jail but changing the ownership structure of the media. Another example would be chipping away at the power of the courts. I think we are watching that going on this week in Israel. That's not going to show up by their broad objective measures. And it's probably a good thing that we don't see the tanks rolling down the street. We don't see a lot of military coups anymore. I think we could all count that as progress. But it may be the case that the attacks on what we would think of as liberal democracy are more subtle, but they're still happening.
Mounk: I love a great academic puzzle. And what's lovely about your response to this paper is that it sort of pulls the same move that they pull on the democracy literature. Look at all these indications that we should worry about the state of democracy—I mean, people have stormed the Capitol for the first time, the Capitol was breached in, whatever it is, 150 years, I mean, that seems like a pretty straightforward case, it's not like people have just imagined this crisis of democracy—now, Little and Meng come in and say, let's look at these objective measures that should actually correlate with all of these headlines and concerns, and it's very striking that, on a lot of them, they don't.
Perhaps one way of making sense of it is that we've been thinking about this all along in terms of democracy or dictatorship, like one or zero. And obviously, a lot of these measurements are actually more subtle than that. Our basic framework, intellectually, I think, has been Germany, France and the United States democracies now, and the concern is that when people like Trump or Le Pen win, they may one day become dictatorships. And perhaps that is just an overly simplistic way of thinking about it. And what's really happening is that we are going from a set of reasonably liberal democracies with broad protections for opposition activity and free speech, in which the playing field is relatively even, to dirty democracies, where a lot of what's going on is competition over the rules of the game, where you're able to fiddle with the rules to give yourself an advantage, you're able to undermine both the chances of the opposition and the fairness of the system. And that is plenty to be concerned about, by the way. But it isn't quite as stark a breakdown as in the past.
Carey: I think that's right. The dramatic collapses that we saw in a lot of the 20th century are really rare now. Military coups, declarations of dictatorships or the president-for-life kind of thing—that’s gone out of style, or it's just less frequent. The second part of that is that we peak at some point, such that the net changes on the margins are going to be negative at least as often as positive from year to year. There had been a big wave of dramatic transitions in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The democracies we had weren't perfect, but they were going to keep getting better, tinkering around the edges by and large in the direction of improvement. And that is very much open to question right now. And once you get into the measurement of these small changes, or small shifts, the debates are going to get more in the weeds about how we measure and about which countries are moving in which direction. Do you weigh countries by their population? Is a shift in India in a negative direction more consequential than a shift in Hungary or El Salvador? That's where a lot of the academic debate is. And that's okay, because that's where the action is.
Mounk: You mentioned this great research project that you've had for the last seven or so years called Bright Line Watch. Zooming out across the seven years of surveying experts and the general public, what are the main takeaways? What have we learned from looking at them and asking these questions about democracy and how the view of experts and the view of the general public have changed over the years?
Carey: We focus primarily on American democracy. Mostly, we do survey research. In 2017, there was a lot of sky-is-falling kind of rhetoric about American democracy and we wanted to figure out if there was something to this. And the sky didn't fall, at least to the degree a lot of people thought it might in 2017. So we've been trying to figure out ever since if the situation is getting more dire or less. And a lot of what we've found is that the level of partisan polarization in this country is profound. And you can sometimes find shifts around the edges where it's declining a little bit from maybe a high watermark during the Trump presidency. But by and large, those are marginal shifts, and it's still really deep and really problematic. As we look forward, I think the big concerns are, number one, about acceptance of election results: we all have real clear experience with what it looks like when one side doesn't accept their loss. And then the kind of new big ingredient that's been injected in the past year or so is around legal accountability, and specifically indictments of former President Trump, which have come from a couple of different directions so far, and the polarization is deep there as well. But we've been trying to probe to try to figure out what can mitigate that. One of the comments you made earlier suggested a theme that people talk about a lot, that people live in different factual realities. And so we're always trying to look for what the facts are that you can present to people, or what the events are that might happen in the real world which have that rare property where people on both sides of this divide respond in a common manner to them, and they're pretty rare. That's the challenging thing. But we keep looking.
I'll give you the pessimistic interpretation first. First of all, thinking about independent voters: this is a relatively small chunk of our public sample, around 15%. But for obvious reasons, given the role they play in swing elections, they're particularly of interest to us. And right now, solid majorities of independents regard the criminal charges that have been brought so far against Trump as politically motivated. That suggests that the prosecutors have still got a lot of work to do. And Republicans overwhelmingly, about two out of three, are willing to embrace this question on the survey in a way that was kind of intentionally or consciously politically inflammatory: do you agree or disagree that the next Republican president should prosecute Biden and other Democrats in response to the current indictment? And two out of three Republicans embraced the explicit retributionist formulation, which is higher than I ever expected. That part of the electorate is ready to go with the cycle of prosecutions.
Before I started studying US politics really closely, I spent most of my career studying Latin American politics. And in Latin America, this is a really familiar formula. You had countries where every living president, or every living former president, is under indictment at any given time. And it's a bad formula, it's a really hard formula to find your way out of once you go down that path. And the ingredients are there on the ground for that to happen in the US case. Our expert sample seems to be less concerned about this than I am, and I generally regard the judgment of the experts as pretty solid and pretty informative. But in this case, they don't seem much concerned with that. One indication of that, to me, is that they're just about as supportive of the indictment that came out of New York (about financial improprieties to cover up hush money payments to Stormy Daniels) at about the same level as the indictments handed down by Jack Smith in June, about Trump's handling of classified documents. I'm not an attorney, but I look at those cases, and they look very different to me. The evidence that Smith handed down with the indictment seems really straightforward; it's easy to follow the logic. In the New York case, less so—at least to my eye. But the experts as a whole, they like the indictments.
Mounk: One thought I have about the cycle of retribution is that, obviously, that is bad, because you end up with decent people who haven't, in fact, done anything wrong, under indictment and in prison and so on. But it's also terrible because you obviously create an incredibly strong incentive to stay in office. If the moment you're out of power, you know that you're going to be prosecuted and possibly put in jail, you're going to do whatever you can to stay out of jail. Once this cycle of retribution gets going, it's a very bad sign for the future stability of democracy.
Very briefly, at the end of this conversation, what is something that you've learned from your survey research about democracy that you think we should bear in mind? If there's one big lesson from all of the data you've collected in the last seven years about how those of us who care about the future of American democracy should act, what we should think, or what we should change our mind about, what might it be?
Carey: Well, it's to look for some seeds of optimism. And by optimism, I mean evidence that we think of as factual information that people respond to. We've talked about some reasons for despair in the podcast so far, but we should look for evidence in the other direction. And there is some. We asked people in this most recent survey not just about these four general cases that are sets of allegations against Trump—for instance, the hush money, the Georgia election, the classified documents, and the January 6 investigation—but because we actually had these detailed recent indictments on the classified documents case, we drilled down deeper on that one and asked people a bunch of questions. And we were able to compare answers from a poll done six months ago, where that case was in the news cycle but we didn't have the details of the indictments in front of us. And what we saw is that when we ask people these specific questions—“Did he take the documents? Did he store them in a place where they should have been stored? Did he show them to people who didn't have security clearance? And did he actually try to get his lawyers to obstruct the investigation of the case?”—when you basically confront people with things that they've seen evidence about recently, on those specific questions, they move a little bit. Even Republican respondents who basically said this is all political and no crime was committed—you ask them about the specifics and they start to move a little bit. That we see that movement both over time and when we compare the general question to the specific question—that to me is encouraging. There are pieces of evidence that people respond to information, they respond, they update. And so that's encouraging.
What have I generally learned? People hold a lot of misperceptions. We learn that when we do survey research. For example, the broad package of beliefs that we describe as the “big lie”—they're pretty much all misperceptions that have been documented to be not the case. And yet, a lot of people still hold them. And we could list other areas where people hold these misperceptions, whether they're in public health areas, or climate sciences, and so forth. And we know it's hard to change misperceptions. But it's possible. And a big part of our research is what the strategies are that we can use in order to change people's minds when the facts are really all lined up in a particular direction. And it is hard and sometimes it involves just presenting people with the facts, sometimes it involves combining that with having those facts be delivered by what your audience would consider credible sources. It's a long game. The progress you make can often kind of erode if you don't follow up on it and keep drilling the message in. But you can make progress. That's the bottom line, I think, and we have to keep looking for ways to do it. Because, otherwise, we're never going to close this huge divide that we have. It's mainly along partisan lines, but there are other divides as well where people are just operating in separate factual universes. We got to work on trying to close that. We can do it, but it's going to be a long road.
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