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Health of democracies: U.S. is listed among ‘disquieting trends’

The list of “disquieting” countries also includes Brazil, India, Poland, Russia and Turkey.

Military families watching fireworks celebrating Independence Day at the White House.
REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Happy 5th of July.

Now that we’ve celebrated the founding of our democracy, I beg leave to call your attention to some views and reviews of how it’s going.

By fluke, perhaps, on the 4th of July a Germany-based outfit called the V-Dem Institute released its report on the health of democracy in the world and country by country. While V-Dem finds that levels of democracy overall are still near their all-time high, with more countries than ever holding elections, the report nonetheless identifies “disquieting trends in several key countries.”

The list of “disquieting” countries includes our own dear United States, as well as Brazil, India, Poland, Russia and Turkey.

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The problems in many of those “disquieting” democracies (or semi-democracies or, in the case of Russia, rigged democracies) can be characterized as cases of democratic backsliding that the report calls “autocratization,” a trend that V-Dem says brings about “decline of democratic attributes.” Yes, they do include the United States as one that is showing signs of autocratization, meaning too much political power in a leader’s hands with not enough checks and balances.

V-Dem’s formula for grading democracies allows it to assign an overall score to each of the nations. Of course, no such democracy scoring system is perfect. And those who have trouble believing that recent developments in the United States reflect any decline in the quality of our democracy can certainly ignore these democracy scorecards. But, personally, I think some Americans are so committed to believing in the excellence of our system that they may avert their eyes from trends to which they should be paying attention. Perhaps others, who perceive a bit of “autocratization” under President Donald Trump, will be inclined to agree with the downgrade.

Anyway, according to V-Dem’s methodology, there are 30 countries that rank ahead of the United States in the quality of their democracies. Scandinavian countries make up four of the top seven (or five if you count Estonia as Scandinavian). Norway and Sweden rank Number One and Two.

Here, in rank order, are the top 31:

Norway, Sweden, Estonia, Switzerland, Denmark, Costa Rica, Finland, Australia, New Zealand, Portugal, Belgium, Netherlands, France, Germany, Iceland, United Kingdom, Slovenia, Chile, Ireland, Canada, Uruguay, Czech Republic, Italy, Austria, Japan, Luxembourg, Latvia, Cyprus, Lithuania, Slovakia, United States of America.

Although the report was just published, it is based on ratings of conditions in each of the countries in 2017. The previous report rated conditions in 2015. V-Dem has been rating democracies since 2007.

Here’s a summary of the reasons that V-Dem gave for the decline in the U.S. ranking:

Following the election of Donald Trump, the United States is now significantly less democratic in 2017 than it was in 2007, but the pattern is slightly different. The backsliding is mainly found in the liberal components of democracy. Measures of effective oversight and use of the legislature’s power to investigate the executive, opposition party oversight, compliance with the judiciary, and executive respect for the constitution have all declined.

Thus, the V-Dem data testifies that the principal issue testing the resiliency of American democracy concerns the role of Congress in holding the executive responsible for following the constitution and adhering to the law. At the same time, we also register some significant negative changes in the overall fairness of elections, freedom of discussion, and the range of political perspectives in the media.

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One more line caught my eye, whereby V-Dem described the United States as suffering from a “weakening of legislative constraints on the executive,” (I take that as a reference refer to an unwillingness of the Republican-controlled Congress to rein in some of Trump’s less democratic impulses), and a “decline the quality of public reasoning.” I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at that last bit. Then the review focused even more directly on the current incumbent:

The U.S. ratings are also plunging for the extent to which the executive branch respects the constitution, which is one indicator of judicial constraints on the executive. The negative changes associated with executive respect for the constitution and legislative constraints are congruent with the untempered behavior of the current president and the unwillingness of the GOP—which controls the legislative branch—to censor him.

The report gave a few examples, such the performance of “the House Intelligence Committee investigation over possible collusion between the president and Russia, which House Democrats argued was prematurely ended and shelved. Its conclusion in 2018 illustrated the weakness of opposition party oversight and the decreased likelihood of Congress investigating and rendering an unfavorable decision against the executive.” And:

Party polarization has also resulted in a noticeable lack of confidence among Americans in the media; declarations that particular outlets constitute “fake news” likely exacerbate this lack of confidence.

Of course, I’m focusing on V-Dem’s review of the U.S. situation. More globally, V-Dem sees general worrisome trends. For example, over most of recent history, V-Dem has found progress toward the overall spread of democracy, and the quality of those democracies. But this latest report says that:

For the first time since 1979, the number of countries backsliding (24) on democracy is again the same as the number of countries advancing.

The anti-democratic backsliding that V-Dem sees in our poor dear nation has global implications for democracy, the report says. That’s in part because “an explicit denunciation of democracy as a foreign policy priority by the Trump administration does not bode well” for global democracy trends.

This is the first time I’ve seen the V-Dem ratings, but I have twice previously written about a similar democracy rating/ranking operation by the Economist Intelligence Unit. In 2017, the EIU, which had always rated the United in its highest rated group as a “full democracy” downgraded us into the next group down, which EIU calls “flawed democracy.” In 2018, they kept us in the “flawed category.”

The five least democratic nations, according to V-Dem, are: Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Eritrea, with North Korea being the very bottom.

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The references to the United States quoted above are from the general discussion of trends in democracy around the world. If you want the full discussion of V-Dem’s view of U.S. trends go to the full report and scroll down to pages 31 and 32, which are devoted entirely to the United States.