Perspective 98. Backsliding Democracies: Including the United States?
Thirty years ago Francis Fukuyama could write about the global ascendancy of democracy, but since then democracy has slipped downward throughout the world: in Russia and other former Soviet states, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Israel, the Philippines, India, Italy, and many other places. Does the United States belong on this list?
Yes. The most authoritative and sophisticated measure of democracy, V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy), puts the United States among the 33 nations that have undergone “substantial autocratization” in the last ten years. The Economist Intelligence Unit has, since 2016, ranked the United States as a ‘flawed democracy.” Why should this be the case?
In perspective, the United States still ranks far ahead of Eritrea, last of 180 in the V-Dem rankings. But American democracy has always had weak spots that kept it from a top spot in the rankings: the influence of money, weak voter participation, uneven geographical representation, and sporadic intimidation and violence. And in recent years the weight of these factors has increased.
Money has long been the Achilles heel of American democracy. Commentators often, and plausibly, describe campaign fund-raising as a measure of political success. Since a 2010 Supreme Court decision (Citizens United) gutted the feeble campaign finance regulation then in place, money reigns supreme. Increasing inequality (see Perspective 96) further increases the political power of the wealthy.
The percentage of citizens actually voting has also been an embarrassment. The bitter 2020 election drew a higher turn-out than usual – a full 62.8%! – but that still ranks us only 31st in recent national elections among the top fifty democratic nations. And rather than promoting wider participation, dozens of states are pursuing hundreds of proposals to make voting more difficult, especially targeting minorities with – in the words of one court opinion – “surgical precision.” At the same time, harassment and threats have forced many conscientious election officials to quit.
With the aid of computerization and total loss of shame, gerrymandering to favor the party in power has become an art form. To take just one example: in Indiana, where Republicans have only a five percent edge in party affiliation, they enjoy a 7-2 dominance in Congressional representation.
But the surge in intimidation and violence is the most marked recent development. This took place not by chance, but under a president who undermined faith in elections, openly supported violence, defamed the media, and went all mushy with violent groups (as well as foreign dictators). Trump was the first U.S. President to refuse to accept defeat in his re-election bid, the first to try to stop the peaceful transfer of power, the first to push fraudulent claims (fake slates of electors) to reverse election results, and the first to incite a mob to invade the Capitol and disrupt official proceedings.
In Trump’s wake, political violence by far-right extremists has exploded. Legitimized by open support or silence of elected officials, it went mainstream. Anti-government militias flourished and were the vanguard of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Threats to members of Congress grew more than tenfold after 2016. In one recent poll, almost one-third of Americans asserted that political violence was usually or always justified.
To those who claim kinship with the Founding Fathers: take another look at James Madison in Federalist No. 14. “Democracy never lasts long,” Madison wrote. “There never was a democracy yet, that did not commit suicide.” Some people seem intent on proving that Madison was right.
This is such a sad commentary, yet seems spot on.