The last six years have taken a toll on the faith Americans have in their elections. The two recent presidential losers have both loudly claimed that their election was rigged. Furthermore, local politicians who find themselves on the losing side of the vote count have begun vociferously telling supporters that their election was stolen. New academic reports feed into this narrative that American democracy is fundamentally rigged, but they, like so many other claims of fraud, they are fatally flawed.
The rhetoric around the decline of our democratic principles has ratcheted up in the last few years. Listen to the way The Guardian describes “democracy deserts”:
It’s time for [alarm bells] to ring. The situation is dangerous.
Our democratic crisis is not just the stuff of academic studies. Who controls our states is increasingly a matter of life and death. Recent history is riddled with examples. For instance, the Flint water crisis began after a gerrymandered Michigan legislature reinstated an emergency manager provision even after voters repealed it in a statewide referendum.
This cry for reform stems, in part, from a new report from the Harvard Kennedy School on election integrity. The report finds that some states in America have elections as poor as those in Jordan, Bahrain, and the Congo. This new study confirms the results of other data sets, such as the ones published by V-Dem, which show a significant decline in liberal-democratic values, especially in the United States.
However, the methodology of these reports deserves scrutiny. Both the Harvard Kennedy School report and the V-Dem study rely on responses from expert opinion. Both studies measure opinions, but present scant data regarding actual voter fraud or voter suppression. Expert opinions, though, are not unbiased. Given the overwhelming left-wing affiliation of academics and researchers, the default hypothesis should be that the expert opinion surveyed will tilt to the left.
To the credit of the Harvard Kennedy School report, it found no statistical difference in the responses from self-identified Democrats, Independents, or Republicans (it’s worth mentioning that it’s likely self-described “independents” or “moderates” still lean left). The V-Dem study doesn’t provide any data on political affiliation. Even if this were accounted for, given the paucity of academic Republicans — especially at highly influential institutions — there is still reason to suspect that the total numbers are still skewed by the sheer number of liberal thinkers in intellectual circles.
It is rather ironic to poll academic experts about the trends in American democracy because some of the loudest voices crying out about the decline of the American democratic order have been academics. Intellectuals from Yale and Columbia have published books and written op-eds declaring that our political order is in crisis. Surveying these same intellectuals about their opinions about democracy doesn’t tell us anything new.
This is not to say that academic experts don’t have a strong grasp on these issues. To be clear, academics have a good vantage point to critique societal trends. However, all too often, studies such as those from Harvard or V-Dem rely on aggregating expert opinion without seeking a diverse set of viewpoints. If we accept that academic circles are quite insular, a premise that is borne out by numerous statistical studies, these reports won’t end up telling us much. A better way of aggregating informed opinions would be to include those working at layman publications, think-tank researchers, government officials, and on-the-ground poll workers.
The concern for American democracy is warranted. I myself have written about the undemocratic steps politicians have taken to stop partisan bills from being passed. However, our democracy is not one step away from Jordan. Hyperbolic statements comparing Wisconsin to the Congo just sow division and distract from the fixable problems that need to be addressed.