Is the Trump presidency a threat to constitutional democracy? The declaration of a national emergency over an alleged immigration crisis on our southern border has renewed the debate. Sixteen states filed a lawsuit accusing the president of perpetrating “an unconstitutional and unlawful scheme” and violating the separation of powers. Fifty-eight national security experts denounced the administration’s end run around Congress to fund the border wall. After the House passed a resolution revoking the emergency declaration last week, Republicans in the Senate face their starkest choice yet in deciding whether to constrain Trump.
The standoff highlights the challenge of preserving the constitutional order in the United States. Doing so requires a consensus on which principles matter and a willingness to punish actions that violate these principles. In other words, democracy must have certain “bright lines” that serve as tripwires. If leaders cross them, other politicians and citizens themselves must be ready to defend democracy.
Unfortunately, our research finds that the consensus required for a healthy democracy is only partly intact. Americans largely agree on which principles of democracy matter most, but they are deeply divided over whether these principles are being violated or upheld. These divides have grown deeper in the past two years — leaving only a few principles that, if violated, could trigger a defense of democracy among supporters and opponents of Trump.
Since 2017, our group, Bright Line Watch, has surveyed Americans about democratic principles. In a new article in “Perspectives on Politics,” we draw on four surveys taken between September 2017 and July 2018 that measure both how important people perceive 27 principles to be and how they think the United States is upholding those principles. Here is what we found.
There is a broad consensus on most principles
With some exceptions, Americans, including Trump supporters and opponents, agree on which principles are most important and which less so. For instance, both groups rate fraud-free elections as “essential” or “important” to democracy (87 percent of Trump supporters, 93 percent of Trump opponents) and not questioning opponents’ patriotism as less important (48 percent of Trump supporters, 57 percent of Trump opponents). The gap between Trump supporters and opponents was typically less than 10 percentage points.
Perhaps most important, similar fractions of Trump supporters and opponents supported constitutional limitations on the executive branch. Fully 84 percent of Trump opponents and 81 percent of Trump supporters said that this principle was important or essential for democracy.
But there are big disagreements on how well the United States is upholding these principles
We found few “bright line” democratic standards that the public as a whole both values and regards as being in jeopardy. Only three principles meet both criteria: that government officials do not use public office for private gain, that officials are sanctioned for misconduct and that investigations into potential misconduct are not compromised by politics.
Much more common are huge gaps between Trump supporters and opponents in how effectively the United States is upholding democratic principles. For instance, Trump supporters are more than 30 percentage points more likely than Trump opponents to see the country as offering equal legal and voting rights, counting votes equally and avoiding foreign influence on campaigns or bias in the drawing of electoral districts. A 37-point gap divides Trump supporters and opponents on how well the country is upholding constitutional limits on the executive.
In our surveys, these partisan gaps have tended to increase over time. Trump opponents believe American democracy is deteriorating, especially in areas of judicial independence, fraud-free elections and toleration of protest. Trump supporters, in turn, perceive improvement in U.S. democracy in domains such as the effectiveness of constitutional and legislative checks on executive power.
This growing divide over democratic performance in the United States is illustrated in the graph below. In September 2017, 56 percent of Trump supporters perceived the Constitution as effectively limiting the executive branch compared with 52 percent of Trump opponents. By July 2018, the divide had widened dramatically — 65 percent of Trump supporters said the Constitution was effectively limiting the executive compared with 28 percent of Trump opponents.
In short, Trump supporters and opponents increasingly have a different understanding of our political reality. This makes it hard to identify any bright lines that most Americans believe must be defended. If any consensus remains, it involves the accountability of individual public officials — that they not use their offices to enrich themselves, that their crimes are sanctioned through impartial investigations.
Thus, the litany of Trump’s alleged personal transgressions at the heart of Michael Cohen’s congressional testimony could pose a greater threat to the president than the battle over border security and the state of emergency. Immigration and the scope of executive authority speak to principles on which citizens, and their representatives in Congress, are deeply divided.
But alleged misconduct by Trump administration officials, including Trump himself, touches on more widely shared principles. The question, however, is whether Democrats and Republicans can even begin to agree on whether those principles have been violated and whether any congressional investigation is truly impartial.
John M. Carey is the John Wentworth Professor in the Social Sciences at Dartmouth College.
Gretchen Helmke is a professor of political science at the University of Rochester.
Brendan Nyhan is a professor of public policy in the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.
Mitchell Sanders is the director of survey research for Bright Line Watch.
Susan C. Stokes is the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science and director of the Program on Democracy at the University of Chicago.