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U.S. falls to ‘flawed democracy’ in latest Democracy Index

The report seems to be arguing that Donald Trump didn’t cause the decline, but capitalized on it.

Greenpeace activists displaying a banner reading 'Resist' from a construction crane near the White House in January.
REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Don’t take this as another attack on President Trump, but 2016 was a bad year for democracy in the world and a setback for the quality of democracy, even in the United States.

That’s according to the latest update of the “Democracy Index” put out by the “Intelligence Unit” operated by the UK-based Economist Group, which publishes The Economist magazine and other publications. The Economist Intelligence Unit has been measuring changes in the quantity and quality of the global quotient of democracy over recent years.

In their latest report, these democracy raters stated that:

Almost one-half (49.3%) of the world’s population lives in a democracy of some sort, although only 4.5% reside in a “full democracy”, down from 8.9% in 2015 as a result of the US being demoted from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy.”

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If you’re willing to look at things in a bigger picture for a moment (which I highly recommend, in case you want to take a break from focusing on the last few months), the 20th century saw a huge growth in the spread of democracy, in surges after each of the world wars, and then again with the breakup of the Soviet bloc. Africa, Asia and Latin America all made big progress in the 20th century, and that was before the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) started measuring, rating and tracking democracy. That effort began only in 2006, with updates every couple of years, and the latest update hot off the presses.

And most of the movement has been toward more democracy in the early 21st century as well, until the setback in 2016 (as the EIU scores it). 2016 was the first year that the EIU rated the United States as enjoying anything less than “full democracy.” As they explained their scoring system, you need 8 or higher to rank among the “full democracies,” and the latest ranking for the U.S. dropped us from 8.05 in 2015 to 7.98 in 2016. So, you see, it isn’t that big of a change, but one that had been coming for several years and just enough to drop the U.S. from the “full democracy” ranks.

A healthy democracy requires a high level of popular confidence in the institutions of government and politics. It seems that the U.S. decline had mostly to do with a continuing decline in the U.S. electorate’s confidence in their government, their system and their elected officials, a decline that was in place before Trump stole the show. In fact, the EIU seems to be arguing that Trump didn’t cause the decline, but capitalized on it. The authors wrote:

Popular trust in government, elected representatives and political parties has fallen to extremely low levels in the US. This has been a long-term trend and one that preceded the election of Mr. Trump as US president in November 2016. By tapping a deep strain of political disaffection with the functioning of democracy, Mr. Trump became a beneficiary of the low esteem in which US voters hold their government, elected representatives and political parties, but he was not responsible for a problem that has had a long gestation.

The US has been teetering on the brink of becoming a “flawed democracy” for several years, and even if there had been no presidential election in 2016, its score would have slipped below 8.00. A similar trend of declining popular confidence in political elites and institutions has been evident in Europe over the past decade and helps to explain the outcome of the UK Brexit referendum in June 2016 as well as the growing ascendancy of populist movements across Europe.

Popular confidence in government and political parties is a vital component of the concept of democracy embodied by the Democracy Index model. Growing popular disaffection with the key institutions of representative democracy has been a factor in the democratic regression of recent years and in the rise of insurgent, populist, anti-mainstream parties and politicians in Europe and North America.

The U.S. ranked 21st among world democracies, the way the EIU scores it, just below Japan and tied with Italy. The six healthiest democracies, in order, were Norway, Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand, Denmark and our dear neighbor Canada.

I’ll try not to belabor the point. The Economist Intelligence Unit is not the one and only judge of the comparative health of democracies, over time and across countries.

Their workup includes a nice graphic (on page 14 if you decide to click through to the full report) that shows the percentage of Americans who express a high level of trust in the government to do the right thing most of the time.

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In the late 1950 and early 1960s it was over 80 percent. It has fallen fairly steadily for half a century and now stands around 19 percent. That’s obviously not all about Trump, not even close. But it’s a pretty big problem and it’s helpful in explaining, notwithstanding the vagaries of our ridiculous Electoral College system, why Trump slept in the White House last night.

Or scroll down to page 44 if you can stand to see a table that compares the U.S. and Canada across the five ratings that determine whether a nation is rated as a “full democracy.” Canada kicked our butts on every number, which is why they ranked sixth on the overall list of democracies, and we ranked 21st. It’s a very long, thorough and, I thought, smart report. But if you can make it to that U.S. Canada comparison, you are almost home free.

I have feared for several years now, long before the rise of Trump, that our system is breaking down. I hope I’m wrong. It wouldn’t take much of a reversal in these trends for our dear nation to re-enter the ranks of the “full democracies.”