Perspective 56. The Decline in Democracy: Also in the United States?
Political scientists have observed and measured a significant decline in democracy, worldwide, in the last decade. Is the United States a part of this pattern?
Yes. While "illiberal democracies" like Hungary, Poland, Turkey, and the Philippines stand out, reputable surveys record regression in the quality of American democracy. The Economist Intelligence Unit, for example, rated the U.S. a "flawed democracy" in its latest annual report.
In perspective, the most complete analysis comes from V-Dem, an international team of scholars that tracks all the nations of the world on hundreds of variables, using the expertise of some 3500 area and country experts. In its latest annual report, the United States ranked 31st among all nations on an overall index of liberal democracy, below most European states and other allies.
This index measures nations on a scale of 0 (total autocracy) to 1 (total democracy. At the bottom are North Korea and Eritrea, at .01. Denmark tops the charts at .88.
Since 2010 the index for the United States has slipped from .86 to .73, with much of the decline coming since 2016 -- an interesting correlation with political events in the nation.
The weak points of U.S. democracy have usually been identified as low participation rates (such as voting turnout) and various factors relating to the influence of money in politics. V-Dem also ranks the United States as only 59th on the egalitarian component of its index: "to what extent all social groups enjoy equal opportunities to participate in the political arena."
But the weakest point in the recent survey was the "deliberative" dimension, which measures such factors as mutual respect in public debate, the delegitimization of opponents, and attacks on the media. In this sphere, the United States ranked a miserable 106th in the world, behind such sterling exemplars of calm public debate as Libya, Somalia, and Afghanistan.
Israel, by the way, ranked 41st in the world in the overall quality of its democracy, barely in the top quartile. Security concerns and the position of Arab citizens explain some of the result, but as with the United States the deliberative process -- the quality of public debate -- was also a major weakness.
Much as Americans take pride in promoting democracy around the world, it turns out that relatively few abroad admire the American model. A recent Pew Research Center study found that only 17 percent in countries surveyed considered U.S. democracy worthy of emulation.
And while the United States is still far from being an illiberal democracy like Hungary (ranked 89th) or Turkey (149th ), it is witnessing some of the same nationalistic and chauvinistic right-wing populism that motivates such regimes. At a recent rally in Idaho, a speaker asked "When do we get to use the guns? How many elections are they going to steal before we kill these people?"
The local state representative said that this was a fair question.