The Decline of American Democracy

It is hard to get an objective assessment of how American democracy is doing. The daily media frenzy contributes to 80% “wrong track” public opinion polling and sub-50% approval ratings for everybody but kindergarten teachers, but it would be good to have an evaluation of our democratic processes trending over time and in comparison to other countries. We can discard any effort by think tanks funded by George Soros or the Koch brothers, but there is one source worth a look – the Democracy Index prepared by the British Economist Intelligence Unit. As to political bias, the Economist editors seek the “extreme center”, having supported Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the Vietnam War, Harold Wilson and Bill Clinton, decolonization, gun control, and gay marriage. Their coverage is truly global.

The EIU bi-annually rates about 165 countries on electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, functioning of government, political participation, and political culture. Much of the input is based on surveys and “panels of experts”. Country rankings are divided into four categories:

– Full democracies where civil liberties and basic political freedoms are not only respected, but also reinforced by a political culture conducive to the thriving of democratic principles. These nations have a valid system of governmental checks and balances, independent judiciary whose decisions are enforced, governments that function adequately, and media that is diverse and independent. These nations have only limited problems in democratic functioning.  Most of the 19 countries in this cohort are North European, with Norway at the pole position.  

    – Flawed democracies where elections are fair and free and basic civil liberties are honored but may have issues (e.g. media freedom infringement). Nonetheless, these nations have significant faults in other democratic aspects, including underdeveloped political culture, low levels of participation in politics, and issues in the functioning of governance. South Korea, the United States, and Italy lead this cohort, along with Japan, France, and Israel and another 51 countries. 

    – Hybrid regimes where consequential irregularities exist in elections regularly preventing them from being fair and free. These nations commonly have governments that apply pressure on political opponents, non independent judiciaries, and have widespread corruption, harassment and pressure placed on the media, anemic rule of law, and more pronounced faults than flawed democracies in the realms of underdeveloped political culture, low levels of participation in politics, and issues in the functioning of governance. This cohort of 39 includes Turkey, Ukraine, Thailand, Nigeria, and Iraq. 

     – Authoritarian regimes where political pluralism has vanished or is extremely limited. These nations are often absolute monarchies or dictatorships, may have some conventional institutions of democracy but with meager significance, infringements and abuses of civil liberties are commonplace, elections (if they take place) are not fair and free, the media is often state-owned or controlled by groups associated with the ruling regime, the judiciary is not independent, and the presence of omnipresent censorship and suppression of governmental criticism. This cohort of 52 includes most of the Middle East and Africa, Russia, China, Cuba, and Vietnam, with Syria and North Korea on the bottom. 

Of particular interest, the ratings released in January 2017, dropped the United States from the “full democracies” category to the “flawed democracies” category. The accompanying explaination stressed the steady decline since the 1950’s in Americans’ confidence in governmental institutions as reflected in Pew Research, and a level of income inequality significantly higher than most developed economies. Rather than blaming the drop on the election of Donald Trump, Trump’s election was attributed in part to a broad disaffection with government institutions – a result rather than a cause.

Next year’s survey may drop off of the cliff.

– Whether or not there is ever a fair accounting for the corruption of the Clinton Foundation, the public can connect the dots between the hundreds of millions of contributions, the access to the state department decision making, the reasons for Hillary’s illegal e-mail system, and the meeting of Bill Clinton with the Attorney General on the tarmac in Phoenix.   As exposed in the Nunes memo, the Justice Department and the FBI were engaged to spy on the Trump campaign during an election where the Democratic National Committee gave debate questions to one of their competitors. The use of the IRS to target conservative groups is old news.

– The un-ending Mueller search for collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians keeps expanding to include unsubstantiated claims of obstruction, decade-old wrongdoing by Manafort and his colleages, episodes with porn stars, raids to seize client-lawyer communications, and anything else that the full power of the politicized FBI and Justice Department can bring against the President.

– Many Democrats have abandoned any pretext of respect for our electoral system, with a Silicon Valley billionaire spending tens of millions on a campaign for impeachment, and some 65 House members signing on.

– The public’s view of government effectiveness must include some measure of looming trillion dollar annual deficits.

– And then there is the much flawed Donald Trump, holding up fairly well under the pressure of a nuclear stand-off with North Korea, a trade dispute with China, and an escalating crisis in Syria while the FBI searches his lawyer’s house and office. This is not the conventional poster boy for the leader of the Free World.

In assessing the trajectory of America’s democracy, it is normal for the presidential election to have the results challenged through the final recount. It is improper, but perhaps understandable that agents of the outgoing administration would try to influence the selection of their successors.  What is wrong, and a sharp divergence from America’s democratic principles, is the refusal of the losing party to accept the legitimacy of the president who won the election.


This week’s video is an interview with Diamond and Silk, two black women Trump supporters whose Facebook page with 1,200,000 followers was blocked as “unsafe to the community.” Most of the discussion on the Zuckerberg testimony has been about protection of users’ privacy; this reflects a concern about politically biased censorship.

www.RightinSanFrancisco.com  – 4/13/18