The “oldest democracy in the world” no longer lands in its top ranks.
That’s according to The Economist Intelligence Unit, which downgraded the United States to a “flawed democracy” for the first time ever in its 2016 Democracy Index. Chief among the reasons for the decline was the American public’s diminished trust in government, the report says.
The Democracy Index, now in its ninth year, aims to ascertain “the state of democracy” in 165 countries around the globe, calculating a numerical score that lumps each state’s political system into one of four categories: “full democracy,” “flawed democracy,” “hybrid regime” and “authoritarian regime.”
There are several factors that have contributed to the United States’ demotion, The Economist Intelligence Unit argues. First and foremost, Americans have lost confidence in their political process.
“According to the Pew Research Centre, public trust in government has been on a steady downward trend since shortly after the September 11th attacks in 2001,” the report notes.
These findings largely confirm the growing body of research that suggests that the US government’s actions do not reflect its constituents’ views. As Gilens and Page explain, public opinion has strikingly little influence on the policy that actually makes it out of Washington. That’s poor footing for a democratic government and it helps to explain why trust in the political system continues to fall.
But this is an issue that has a number of roots. “Major political events over many decades have damaged confidence: the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, the Iraq wars, the financial crisis in 2008-09 and repeated federal government shutdowns,” the Economist Intelligence Unit writes, tacking on rising income inequality as another contributing factor.
In some sense, these too are symptoms of broader structural problems. Partisan redistricting serves to entrench incumbents and pull them further away from the ideological center, severely hindering compromise, the report argues. When officials seek above all to avoid primary challenges, they appear less willing to work with their colleagues across the aisle.
“For urgent and crucial decisions majorities can normally be obtained, but solutions to long-term problems often fall victim to deadlock,” the report notes.
And as the Democracy Index is a measure of governing systems the world over, the authors find that this distrust in the political system is not confined to the United States alone.
“There has been a growing estrangement of political parties from the electorate, as well as a growing gulf in the values held by political elites and ordinary people,” the Economist Intelligence Unit writes. “More than anything, the 2016 events were a reaction against the way in which political elites have been conducting politics—by keeping the electorate at arm’s length, by avoiding the issues that are important to people, and by presuming that everyone shares their moral values.”
Perhaps the clearest consequences of this shift are the “Brexit” referendum, in which a majority of voters in the United Kingdom chose to pull the country out of the European Union, and the U.S. presidential election, which saw Donald Trump win a surprise victory over Hillary Clinton.
“The two votes captured the contradictions besetting contemporary democracy,” the report says. “They were symptomatic of the problems of 21st-century representative democracy and, at the same time, of the positive potential for overcoming them by increasing popular political participation.”
The notion that Donald Trump is both the product and beneficiary of this shift in the United States is repeated throughout the report. Indeed, as an outsider candidate running on a platform of “draining the swamp” of special interests, he was able to further gin up and capitalize on “Americans’ anger and frustration with the functioning of their democratic institutions and representatives,” the authors write.
This kind of flawed democracy, marked by both “free and fair elections” and a baseline respect for civil liberties, but “significant weaknesses in other aspects of democracy,” is actually the most common form of government in the report. Of the 167 states and territories surveyed, just 19 made up the “full democracy” cohort. Most of the nations in this group are clustered in western Europe, including Norway, Ireland, Germany and the United Kingdom. Oceania’s two major states, Australia and New Zealand, also earned the distinction, alongside Canada, Mauritius and Uruguay, the only representatives from each of their continents.
The United States, tied for 21st with Italy, misses out on this bracket by two-tenths of a point. As the report notes, the demotion comes as “the result of a small deterioration in its total score, from 8.05 in 2015 to 7.98 in 2016.” This suggests that it was not a single catastrophe that pulled the U.S. down, but that the downgrade comes at the end of several years of decline. This, in turn, hints that there may not be an easy fix for the American democracy and that structural reexamination and overhaul is likely needed.
And reforming American democracy seems an essential task. As the report describes, democratic government can only work effectively if it holds the public trust and, by the same token, if the people believe that they can influence the policies that get enacted.
In the next post in this series, we take a deeper look at our flawed democracy and why our system of government no longer reflects the people.