The troubled paradox of U.S. democracy


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On one hand, American democracy seems in an undeniably rough state. Polarization has intensified. There is a lot of misinformation and distrust. The divided public response to the evidence and testimony emerging from Jan. 6 committee hearings in Congress shows a lack of national consensus over a fundamental element of democratic life: the ability to conduct a peaceful transfer of power from one elected government to the next.

Analysts warn that the United States’ aging electoral systems have — through gerrymandering and other anti-democratic practices — increasingly started to yield outcomes that foster further tribalism, deepening the sense of zero-sum, winner-takes-all antagonism that runs through the body politic.

Where there is bipartisan unity, it’s in the mounting despair and pessimism felt by most Americans about their political status quo. A recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll found that majorities of both Democrats and Republicans believe it’s “likely” that the United States will “cease to be a democracy in the future.” Two in 5 Americans, according to another study, would now support a military coup if they believed the circumstances justified such an intervention.

And yet the United States under President Biden can still appear to those elsewhere in the world as a bulwark of liberal democratic values. Many European officials have hailed the United States’ unique role in galvanizing Western governments to confront the Russian invasion of Ukraine and, by extension, defending the international order. The Biden administration views its actions as part of an overall struggle for democracy and liberalism around the globe.

“America and all who share our values … must build on the unity that we have demonstrated in Ukraine to try to extend a broader revolution of dignity to people seeking to be free,” declared U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power in a speech last week.

The Jan. 6 insurrection followed over a decade of democratic decline in the US. The proposed bipartisan commission should not only investigate the root causes of the attack on the Capitol, but also identify remedies to strengthen American #democracy. 4/4

— Freedom House (@freedomhouse) May 19, 2021

That may even be a tall order at home, where all the talk is about democratic backsliding. No matter the outrage and inquiries that followed the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, the Republican Party as a whole appears to be doubling down on former president Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him. It’s pouring millions into new efforts in various states to recruit poll workers and watchers to spot irregularities and potentially challenge ballots and the legitimacy of certain votes.

As my colleagues reported, more than 100 GOP officials and politicians who won recent primaries appear to endorse Trump’s false fraud claims. They wrote that “Many” would be in positions to influence the outcome of future contests, including to alter the rules surrounding the awarding states’ electoral votes and to consent to legal proceedings to invalidate the popular vote.

Americans are raised on a belief that their nation’s constitutional checks and balances safeguard their democracy. Experts point out the norms underpinning those safeguards. These norms are being eroded in a period of extreme polarization. This has dire consequences.

“When those soft norms deteriorate; in other words, one party says, ‘We can’t win by these rules,’ and they start to act as a minority which seeks majoritarian power, that’s when you get the real risks to democracy in America,” said Harvard political scientist Pippa Norris in a talk hosted by Niskanen Center, a centrist think tank, earlier this year.

Norris was pointing to the visible “structural” flaws in the country’s politics that enable the Republicans to secure outsize power for their vote share, including the composition of the Senate, which skews disproportionately to rural America. At a time when the party’s base appears to be drifting toward what some scholars of comparative politics have dubbed a form of “authoritarian far-right” politics, it’s especially concerning.

This trend has been measured in various ways by political scientists. The latest offering came this month from Berggruen Institute, a Los Angeles-based think tank, which published along with researchers from UCLA this month a “governance index” that tracked quality of life, governance and democracy in 134 countries over the past 20 years.

Though its overall score per the index remains quite high, the United States’ assessed decline over the past two decades was one of the largest, on par with countries like Haiti and Hungary in that period of time. The U.S.’ overall score per the index was still quite high. However, the United States’ assessed decline over the past two decades could have been described as the ability of the country to implement collective reforms. The second measure is a measure the state of checks and balances from the integrity of elections to civil society to the effectiveness of media.

“The U.S. drop in state capacity and democratic accountability is not unique, but it is rare among advanced economies,” researchers Markus Lang and Edward Knudsen wrote me in an email.

“In democratic accountability, there has been some stagnation among developed countries,” they added. “Still, the steepness of the U.S.’s drop is unusual: its path parallels Brazil, Hungary, and Poland much more closely than that of Western Europe or the other wealthy Anglophone countries.”

Another study published this week tells a rather different story. A Eurasia Group Foundation survey of 5,000 respondents in nine major countries around the world — including Brazil, Nigeria, Germany and India — found optimistic views of U.S. democracy under the Biden administration. More than half of the respondents believed their country’s political systems should be more like the United States; 60 percent believed American democracy set a positive example for the world; and close to three-quarters of those surveyed said they would prefer the United States to remain the world’s leading power compared with China.

Some of these results can be chalked up to the greater global popularity of Biden and earlier Democrats over-hard line figures like Trump. These views may change with the upcoming elections, where Republicans appear to have momentum.

“Everyone is grappling with the question,” Alexander Stubb, former prime minister of Finland, said to me last month at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Biden or Trump? Biden or Trump?”

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