America Classified As A Declining Democracy By Experts, Again

Freedom House Democracy Index marked America as a declining democracy. Is the American system itself flawed or can it recover?
Far-right conspiracy theorists, Qanon, and “Stop The Steal” protest outside the Minnesota State Capitol – November 14, 2020. (Chad Davis/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Far-right conspiracy theorists, Qanon, and “Stop The Steal” protest outside the Minnesota State Capitol – November 14, 2020. (Chad Davis/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Professor Leonard Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at CARR, Professor Emeritus at the University of Nevada, and recipient of both Fulbright and Guggenheim research awards.

A long list of journalists, academics, and elected officials have sounded the alarm: Democracy is under threat. According to Freedom House and other research groups, the number of democracies in the world ( i.e. Governments that afford or protect their citizens civil liberties and civil rights) have declined over the last decade.

Some regard this decline as a ‘recession’ – situations from which the affected countries will recover, much as many national economies commonly do. Other observers are less sanguine, citing, among other things, declining levels of support for democratic values among young people. Others point to the Chinese model of astonishing economic success under highly authoritarian auspices as providing an attractive alternative to western-style democratic capitalism.

Even the current American president, Joe Biden, has joined the discussion. After the wreckage left by the Trump administration and the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, Biden has maintained the world faces a fundamental choice between democracy and authoritarian rule. Is this true? Or, to what extent is it true?

Many of the long-standing democracies appear to be doing just fine. Aside from the United States, the English-speaking democracies – Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and Britain – show no signs of succumbing to military rule or demagogic control. The same applies to Germany and Japan, the former World War II Axis powers. On the European Continent, the Scandinavian countries show no signs of losing their grip on democratic government. So far as southern Europe is concerned, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Greece have had their crises from time to time, but presently these states appear nonetheless for wear.

By and large, the countries where democratic rule has collapsed or have shown signs of collapse, e.g. Turkey, Hungary, Poland, have either been newcomers to the democratic experience or in other cases, as in sub-Saharan Africa, have populations too poor and strife-ridden to sustain and support the values of democratic pluralism. Despite these profound problems, Kenya, South Africa, and Nigeria, for example, still manage to maintain more or less democratic governments.

If we confine our analysis to the western democracies, it is the United States that appears to be the outlier. As The Washington Post columnist Max Boot points out it is not democracy, in general, that is in jeopardy but American democracy specifically that is in serious trouble. Why?

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Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s Founding Fathers and the subject more recently of a highly successful Broadway musical, observed in 1802 that “The people, sir, is a great beast.” If we were to adopt Hamilton’s view, as many have, the current problem with the country’s democratic system rests with its citizens, their bitter social and political divisions and vulnerability to the appeals of demagogues.

Certainly, that is the way Hamilton and the others who drafted the Constitution in 1787 saw things. Why else would they have created a presidency (Article II) to be chosen not by the People directly but by a college of electors who, in turn, were to be selected by the new country’s thirteen state legislatures? And, of course, the same suspicion of the People’s judgment applies to the original indirect means by which US senators were to be elected.

In a sense, of course, the current campaign by Republicans in states throughout the country to suppress the vote of elements in the electorate, people of color, whose voting preferences they find disconcerting is consistent with Hamilton’s assessment. But then again so are the attitudes of liberal and progressive writers who lament the decisions of Red state voters to vote for Trump and who persist in believing he had actually won the 2020 election, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

In thinking about the apparent frailty of American democracy an alternative possibility comes readily to mind. What do the other western democracies have in common that appear to insulate them from the kinds of breakdowns currently facing the American political system? Virtually all the western democracies, from Norway and Canada in the north to Greece and Italy in the south, and Japan in the east, have parliamentary systems of executive leadership. In other words, these democracies have political executives, prime ministers, premiers, or chancellors, chosen by their countries’ popularly elected parliaments. She or he, along with their cabinets, may lose power if they lose majority support in these elective chambers. Typically, these parliamentary democracies have largely ceremonial presidents (‘heads of state’) or constitutional monarchs, such strongly egalitarian countries as Norway and Sweden both have kings, that are supposed to be above the political realm.

France, with its Fifth Republic, is an exception to the rule. The French constitution stipulates what amounts to a hybrid system, combining a popularly elected president serving a fixed term of office but, also, with a prime minister and cabinet responsible to the country’s chamber of deputies. While most American observers celebrate the separation of powers, with legislative, executive, and judicial institutions having their own domains, the other long-standing democracies possess systems of government built around the fusion of powers, where parliamentary and executive institutions are buckled together. (We should probably remind ourselves that Weimar Germany’s constitution (1919-1933) provided for a popularly elected president with extensive emergency powers.)

For more than a century, various American political scientists, e.g. Woodrow Wilson, James MacGregor Burns, Juan Linz most prominently, have drawn attention to the problems inherent in having a powerful presidency elected independently of an equally independent congress, itself divided into two chambers. The Founders’ intent was to prevent the national government from becoming too powerful. So that, as one scholar (Richard Neustadt) put it during the Kennedy years, under normal conditions the president’s only real power is the power to persuade.

Contemporary reality is something else again. The current situation is one in which Americans are bitterly divided along regional, racial and cultural lines. It is also one where many see political compromises as betrayal; where party politics has become venomous.

Under these conditions, the American president-based system has made for deadlock, paralysis, as well as appeals by some at least for the use of violence and insurrection as the best means available resolving our political differences. Some historians have drawn a parallel between the current situation in the US and the conditions that prevailed in the 1850s, ones that lead to the Civil War. Could they be right?

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