Friday December 08, 2023

Backsliding democracy

December 08, 2021

International IDEA, a European think tank which tracks progress of democracies across the world, has in its recently released report assessed the US as a ‘backsliding democracy.’

This assessment was based on a study of 28 indicators of democracy during 2020-21. The five core pillars studied by IDEA to assess the state of democracies are: representative government, fundamental rights, checks on government, impartial administration, and participatory engagement.

Other countries listed as ‘backsliding democracies’ are Brazil, India, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia; all countries considered functioning democracies at different levels that are seen to have taken a step back in the last year or two.

Seeing the US assessed as a ‘backsliding democracy’ would be a shock to many Americans. However, the factors leading to such an assessment are not. Even before the election of Donald Trump in 2016, The US system of government had started to become increasingly paralyzed, reflecting deep fissures in public attitudes and priorities.

Trump, of course, pushed this several notches by actively undermining trust in the US electoral system. He openly suggested he would not accept results of the elections if he did not win – a refrain commonly heard in autocratic regimes. Following his defeat in 2020 he has continued to question the integrity of the elections. The steps he took to try and reverse the results of the 2020 election – in effect stealing it – are now well known. It is also now clear how close he came to succeeding. His infamous call to the chief election officer of the state of Georgia pressing him to “just find me 11,780 votes” is the stuff for history books.

What may be less well known is the fact that, pushed by a defeated Trump, more than half of the US states where Republicans control the legislature have passed laws that would make voting harder in the future elections, thereby reducing the US score on ‘inclusive suffrage.’

In fact, the state of Georgia itself has enacted laws stripping the power of the chief election officer, so that a partisan legislature can rule on the validity of any election in the state in the future. In several states now the state legislature can ignore the results of an election that it does not like and simply anoint a winner. It appears that downgrading of US democracy in the international IDEA report may be the first of more to come.

Broadly speaking, many Americans have had a deep, sinking feeling for a while about the state of US democracy. It has not only manifested itself in the undermining of democratic institutions such as the voting process but has also created a dysfunction in Congress that makes it impossible to accomplish just about anything. The recently passed infrastructure bill is a rare example of bipartisan collaboration.

The Republican Party has chosen to get solidly behind Trump – no matter how egregious and self-serving his actions. It is a rare moment in American history that a major party has devolved into a cult of personality, abandoning all principles of democracy, even the rule of law.

Another cause of the backsliding of US democracy has been the increased role of money in US elections. The Democrats have a razor-thin majority in the US Senate, effectively giving each Democratic senator veto power over the enactment of the Biden agenda.

Two so-called moderate senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kirsten Sinema of Arizona, have already pushed back against many of the campaign promises of Biden contained in the Build Back Better plan. They are particularly against the tax increases necessary to pay for the middle-class benefits contained in the plan. The recent reports of both Manchin and Sinema receiving millions in donations from moneyed interests that want to scuttle tax increases bring into focus how beholden US democracy really is to big money interests.

There has been much talk in recent months about the effectiveness of a democratic system versus more autocratic setups such as in China. President Biden has started to assemble a coalition of democracies across the world to showcase the accomplishments of democratic systems. Before such a coalition of democracies has a meaningful impact on the thinking of the world, there is much repair the US must do to fix shortcomings in its own democratic system.

The writer is a freelance contributor based in Washington DC.