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CONNECTIONS: Make America a democracy again

“Democracy is under assault and in retreat around the globe, a crisis that has intensified as America’s democratic standards erode at an accelerating pace.” -- Freedom House report

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

“America: the greatest democracy on earth” is a popular and often repeated cheer. “America: the flawed democracy” does not have the same ring. Nonetheless, the second may be more accurate than the first.

The 2017 Democracy Index named 19 countries “Full Democracies.” The United States of America was not one of them. The USA was listed as a “Flawed Democracy.” Sadly, the USA was not even first among Flawed Democracies; it was second behind South Korea.

The Democracy Index is produced by the Economist magazine. It was produced every two years between 2006 and 2010 and annually after that. It studies 167 countries and determines which of four governing types best describes that country.

The Four Government Types

  1. Full democracy: Civil liberties and basic political freedoms are respected, reinforced and thriving. The governmental system has valid checks and balances, the decisions of an independent judiciary are enforced, and the media is diverse and independent.
  2. Flawed democracy: Elections are fair and free and basic civil liberties are honored; however, there are infringements on rights and an underdeveloped political culture, low levels of participation in politics including voting turnout, and problems with governance adhering to democratic principles.
  3. Hybrid regime: Elections are not regular, free and fair. Governments apply pressure on political opponents, the judiciaries and the media. There is widespread corruption, harassment and an anemic upholding of the law.
  4. Authoritarian regime: Political pluralism has vanished or is extremely limited, government is a dictatorship with infringements and abuses of civil liberties; elections (if they take place) are not fair and free, the media is state-owned or strictly controlled, the judiciary is not independent, and the media is censored and suppressed.

The Five Indicators

To determine the proper placement of a country in one of the four types, interviewers ask 60 questions that fall into five categories. The categories are: the electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation, and political culture.

Prior to 2017, 56 questions were given equal weight while four of the 60 questions were given extra weight. The four questions were:

  1. Are national elections free and fair?
  2. Are voters safe and secure while voting?
  3. Is there influence on elections by foreign powers?
  4. Are civil servants capable of implementing policy?

The report for 2017 also gave extra weight to questions about freedom of the press. Free, diverse and fact-based reporting was added as an important indicator.

The Results

The results in 2017 showed the worst decline in democracies across the globe since 2006. Fifty-one of the 167 counties were listed as Authoritarian Regimes, and only 19 of 167 were listed as Full Democracies. In order, they were: Norway, Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand, Denmark, Ireland, Canada, Finland, Switzerland, Australia, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, United Kingdom, Austria, Mauritius, Malta, Uruguay and Spain. Under Flawed Democracies, the USA was second behind South Korea.

Accepting the results, Fortune magazine wrote: “While U.S. citizens could once claim to be part of the 9 percent of people in the world governed by a full democracy; they are now part of the near 45 percent who live in a flawed democracy.”

Disputing the findings, the American Thinker took issue with the methodology. The Thinker questioned the credentials and the possible bias of the experts who answered the questions in each country. Oddly, they accused the British-based Economist of being liberal. They also challenged the five indicators. For example, the Thinker asked: Why is diversity necessary to a high score? If, in a democratic process, the people elect fewer women and fewer non-whites, that process is not less democratic. If fewer non-whites get to the polls, whose fault is that? They concluded that diversity is not synonymous with democracy.

Michael J. Abramowitz. Photo courtesy Freedom Hose

On the other hand, Freedom House — a nonprofit, nonpolitical organization — conducted its own survey and found results similar to the Index.

According to their latest report on political rights and civil liberties, Freedom House found, “Democracy is under assault and in retreat around the globe, a crisis that has intensified as America’s democratic standards erode at an accelerating pace.”

In 2017, Freedom House studied 106 countries and found 71 suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties and 35 registered gains. Turkey, Venezuela, Poland and Tunisia were among those experiencing declines in democratic standards.

“Democracy is facing its most serious crisis in decades,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “Democracy’s basic tenets—including guarantees of free and fair elections, the rights of minorities, freedom of the press, and the rule of law—are under siege around the world.”

The report also found that China and Russia were making concomitant gains.

Timothy Snyder. Photo courtesy Yale University

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright titled her new book, “Fascism: A Warning.” In his books “On Tyranny” and “The Road to Unfreedom,” Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale University, warns of the ease of a government slipping into authoritarianism and our country’s trend in that direction.

Snyder writes: “The Founding Fathers tried to protect us from…tyranny…We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.”

A continued democracy is dependent upon truth and the rule of law. When one or both are threatened, democracy is threatened. When the people are blind to corruption, insensitive to the loss of checks and balances, or deaf to governing by bullying, the slow slide begins. We can keep chanting “America the greatest democracy,” or we can face the music and fight to make it so.

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