The 21st century has proven problematic for democracy around the world. The last decade has seen a steady deterioration of democratic governance in Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America. According to the recently released fifth annual Democracy Report “Autocratization Turns Viral” written by the University of Gothenburg V-Dem Institute, 68% of the world’s population lives under an autocratic governmental system. The report found a significant decline of liberal democracies around the world in the past decade dropping from 41 countries to 32.
The V-Dem Report crushes the prevailing stereotype that autocracies only exist in developing countries. According to the report, in North America, Western and Eastern Europe no country has advanced in democracy over the last decade. Among countries with the steepest decline from democracy have been Brazil, India and Turkey. Several countries including Hungary, Poland, Serbia, Slovenia and the United States have “declined substantially.’’
In a ranking of nearly 180 countries, the United States ranked 31st in the world on the Liberal Democracy Index. According to V-Dem data analysis, the U.S. experienced declines over the last decade in several areas critical to democratic discourse and practice such as equality before the law, individual liberty, freedom of expression and association, voting rights, clean elections, commitment to the common good and respect for different opinions in political debate.
The backsliding of democracy in the United States is connected to a variety of intersecting forces that have slowly led to the deterioration of democratic values and institutional practices. Democracy in the United States has always been beset by conflict, struggle and competition over values and public policy. Since the late 1960s, however, serious fissures have emerged in the framework of American politics.
Political disequilibrium has characterized much of the political system due to seemingly intractable problems. Racial strife, always apparent in the United States, has yet to be effectively addressed in the country. Wage inequality has led to substantial gaps between the rich and poor. The rise of a new wave of globalization has created significant pressures on the viability of communities and contributed to pronounced geographic anomalies between insular rural communities and global cities. Modern forms of communication systems, most notably social media platforms, have amplified and weaponized political debate leading to potentially insurmountable political, economic and cultural polarization.
Polarization has contributed to many Americans having a critical view of government. In a public opinion poll conducted by Pew Research in November-December 2020, 65% of Americans believed the U.S. political system needs “major changes” or should be “completely reformed.” A significant majority — 67% — thought “most” politicians are corrupt. Concerning their view on the state of democracy, only 45% were satisfied with the “way democracy is working.” Perceptions of government failure plays an important role in the rise of extreme political ideologies. It is not surprising that autocratic populism has seen a reemergence throughout Europe and the United States.
The Trump factor
Trump’s autocratic populism is more of a symptom than a cause for democracy’s declining influence in the United States. The drift toward autocracy is rooted in structural problems inherent in American democracy and a lapse in leadership within both the Republican and Democratic parties. According to the V-Dem Report the U.S. democratic decline occurred “in part because of Trump’s repeated attacks on the media, opposition politicians, and the substantial weakening of the legislature’s de facto checks and balances on executive power.”
Trump’s presidency was transactional, not transformational. As is typical of many autocrats, Trump possessed a Manichean worldview in which anyone who questioned Trump’s judgment or was not sufficiently loyal to him was considered evil. Likewise, he viewed the exercise of power as a zero-sum game. Winning was absolute. Compromise was viewed as political weakness and avoided. In a speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention, he clearly articulated an autocratic agenda when he stated, “I alone can fix it,” in reference to addressing the challenges he felt the country faced.
Trump’s term was devoid of any major policy objectives. He did not possess the political instincts or skills to build coalitions and work toward consensus to create coherent and meaningful public policy. He made no attempt to create policies that would benefit America’s working class such as increasing the minimum wage, improving conditions in the workplace or actively instituting programs to provide job training for workers displaced by globalization.
Trump, however, normalized autocratic rhetoric, weakened democratic institutions and legitimized extremism throughout his term in office. Supporting the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol building by extremists within his political base was his culminating act in a four-year autocratic assault on democracy.
How to reverse the backslide of democracy
President Biden’s first year in office suggests the political status quo is no longer sustainable. Although Biden’s infrastructure bill offered a glimmer of hope for bipartisanship, structural change beyond electoral politics will be necessary to return the U.S. political system to equilibrium. Strengthening democracy will require both parties to make political sacrifices.
The Republican Party must call a truce on the culture wars: Critical Race Theory, the teaching of history in public schools, sustained attacks on Black Lives Matter and criticizing Sesame Street’s “Big Bird” because he advocates COVID-19 vaccinations deepen the ideological divide between liberals and conservatives. They serve no purpose other than motivating the Republican Party’s base. From a public policy perspective, the culture wars do nothing to promote economic prosperity, strengthen damaged relations with our European allies or address the existential threats posed by climate change.
The Republican Party also needs to stop calling liberal politicians “socialists” and “Marxists.” Doing so only inflames extremist elements in both parties. Making reference to Antonio Gramsci and Karl Marx as being connected to the Democratic Party is not only ridiculous, it demonstrates deep-seated ignorance of political philosophy. It also inhibits the possibility of creating meaningful bipartisan cooperation in Congress.
The Democratic Party must also make changes. First, progressives in the party must be willing to accept incremental change as a political strategy and not see it as capitulation to the right. Some progressives have refused to compromise on specific social policy. Compromise is the essence of democracy. Progressive Democrats must take more proactive steps to work with moderate Republicans to find common ground on social and economic policy.
Democrats should also consider initiatives to modernize government. Political scientists Terry Moe and William Howell suggest a host of reforms including reducing the size of the bureaucracy, establishing greater independence for the Justice Department and security agencies, limiting the war powers and emergency powers of the president and eliminating presidential power to pardon. Both parties would accrue benefits from such reforms.
It is time to put to rest the myth that American democracy is infallible, and autocracy only exists in other countries. Meaningful reforms to reinvigorate American democracy are possible. As the midterm elections approach, the biggest challenge will be if Democratic and Republican leaders have the political will and courage to do the right thing for the American people.
Thomas J. Scott is an adjunct professor in the Social Science Department of Metro State University.