The US Was Just Demoted A Whole Tier Of Democracy According To Economist Ranking
American Democracy Is In Decline
In case it wasn’t obvious, American democracy has gone pretty far down the wrong path. That is the conclusion of a new report issued by The Economist this month. The annual Democracy Index ranking gives a score out of 10 to most of the world’s countries for how democratic they are. In 2015 there were 20 countries in the top category, which is “full democracies.” In 2016, there were only 19 countries in the top ranking, because the United States of America fell out of the top tier into the second rung, known as “flawed democracies.”
The ranking still placed the US relatively highly, with a score of 7.98 out of 10, tied with Italy at 21st, and just trailing Japan. Other major democratic countries in the “flawed” category include France, South Korea, India, Belgium, Israel and Argentina. Several democratic countries quickly succumbing to the illiberalism of official far right populism were in the “flawed” category, including the Philippines and Poland.
The decline of democracy in America was the leading story in The Economist‘s writeup of its report. The Economist wrote that the US was headed for a demotion even before the electoral college’s election of Donald Trump to the presidency, and that his win was a symptom rather than a cause of the problem. The Economist pointed to a collapse in the public’s “trust” in its government as the culprit.
A trust deficit causes the US to become a “flawed democracy”
Trust in political institutions is an essential component of well-functioning democracies. Yet surveys by Pew, Gallup and other polling agencies have confirmed that public confidence in government has slumped to historic lows in the US. This has had a corrosive effect on the quality of democracy in the US, as reflected in the decline in the US score in the Democracy Index. The US president, Donald Trump, is not to blame for this decline in trust, which predated his election, but he was the beneficiary of it. Popular confidence in political institutions and parties continues to decline in many other developed countries, too.
The Economist cites a theory that the Great Recession, resulting austerity measures, and political elites’ struggles with dealing with it and apparent detachment from its painful costs, has caused erosion in democracy which is being felt all over the world. In 2016, the quality of democracy slid almost everywhere. But this is too simple an explanation, and the roots of Americans’ distrust in their government go back further. Indeed, the report includes a graph tracking Americans’ reported trust in government from 1958 to 2016, and it shows the biggest slide in the decade following Watergate. Americans’ trust in government reached a high of 75% in 1965. It bottomed out around 30% in 1980, climbed during the Reagan era but slid following Iran-Contra. It climbed during the Clinton years, briefly breached 50% in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and crashed throughout the Bush presidency to about 20%, where it flatlined through the Obama presidency. It’s clear that the recession and its aftermath hurt Americans, though it may not be as much of a proximate cause of populism in the US as it is in Europe. Rather, nearly half a century of presidencies punctuated by major scandals each further eroded trust in government.
The report reaches its ranking by scoring countries on five standards: electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, political culture, and civil liberties. The US still ranks high on its electoral process. Its lowest rankings were in political participation and functioning of government, which dragged down its overall score. This could be the result of a vicious cycle between cynicism about government and declining participation. The Obama administration saw record turnout in the landmark 2008 and 2012 elections. But 2010 and 2014 saw the rise of regressive Tea Party majorities in Congress, which were enabled by record low turnouts. Voter turnout in 2014 was less than 37%. That was the lowest turnout since World War II, when a huge chunk of the population was fighting overseas. Meanwhile, interest and engagement in local and state elections has declined. As lower turnout allows more regressive politicians and lower engagement encourages more corruption, the population grows more cynical and tunes out even more. The end result is a kakistocracy: rule by the worst. Even though it’s a common refrain that voting doesn’t change anything in America’s cynical political culture, massive popular engagement may be the most effective cure.
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