The United States is no longer a full democracy, according to the highly regarded Economist Intelligence Unit, which each year compiles a Democracy Index that “provides a snapshot of the state of democracy worldwide for 165 independent states and two territories.”
“The US, a standard-bearer of democracy for the world, has become a ‘flawed democracy,’ as popular confidence in the functioning of public institutions has declined,” explains the introduction to the freshly released Democracy Index.
That would be a troubling announcement in any week.
But coming in the first week of the presidency of Donald Trump, a man who has claimed that election systems are “rigged,” who lies about supposed “voter fraud” and who attacks the media outlets who call him out for those lies, the announcement is all the more unsettling.
For those of us who have for many years worried about the vulnerable state of democracy in America, the news is even more troubling because the Democracy Index analysis reminds us that this is about a lot more than Donald Trump.
“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,” explains the analysis. “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 country must maintain an 8.00 rating (on measures of the electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation and political culture). The US rating was 8.05 last year. It is now 7.98; and index ranking for the US has fallen to number 21—just behind Japan, just ahead of the Republic of Cabo Verde. The United States is not ranked with the world’s authoritarian states; it’s in the company of Bulgaria, France, India, and Mongolia. But the US is no longer ranked in the “full democracy” category with Australia, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom. And it is ranked well below social democracies such as Norway (#1 on the 2016 Democracy Index), Iceland (#2), and Sweden (#3).
For small-d democrats who are worried about Trump and Trumpism, the latest Democracy Index provides vital perspective. The new president is a bad player. He disrespects and disregards democratic values, encourages distrust of democratic infrastructure, and expresses disdain for the essential source of information in a democracy: a free and skeptical and questioning press that is willing to speak truth to power.
But even before Trump entered the presidential race, the crisis was real, and it was metastasizing.
Robert W. McChesney and I made this point in our 2013 book Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America and our 2016 book People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy (both Nation Books). We used the Democracy Index and other measures to warn that the combination of big-money politics; lobbying abuses that tip the balance of power to corporate interests; underfunded and dysfunctional media; assaults on labor rights; the gutting of voting rights; and the manipulation of election systems by partisans was undermining the infrastructure of democracy.
Undermining the infrastructure of democracy necessarily undermines confidence in democracy—which we suggested would create a crisis for the United States, a country that already has embarrassingly low levels of voter participation when compared with fully functional democracies. The 2016 Democracy Index provides a fresh measure of that crisis, noting that
The decline in the US democracy score reflects an erosion of confidence in government and public institutions over many years. According to the Pew Research Centre, public trust in government has been on a steady downward trend since shortly after the September 11th attacks in 2001. Donald Trump won the November 2016 presidential election by exploiting this trust deficit and tapping into Americans’ anger and frustration with the functioning of their democratic institutions and representatives. He positioned himself as the insurgent candidate, a political outsider taking on a “rigged system” who would “drain the swamp” in Washington, DC. However, his candidacy was not the cause of the deterioration in trust but rather a consequence of it.
It’s fair to quibble with that last line; at the very least, Trump’s rhetoric reinforces and extends the deterioration in faith in democracy. And there should be no doubt that Trump’s presidency will make things worse—just five days into his term, he was promising a major inquiry into “voter fraud” that even Republicans acknowledge does not exist. But that does not change the fact that Trump’s political rise can be seen as symptom of a broader democracy crisis.
These realities call for a multi-tiered response to Trump and Trumpism.
It begins with resistance to the most dangerous of Trump’s policies and proposals, and with the requirement of solidarity with those who are most threatened by those policies and proposals. But it also can and must address the democracy crisis.
It is more necessary than ever to embrace movements to get big money out of politics and to restore ethics to government, to defend voting rights and to make it easier to cast ballots, to reform our media and to sustain a truly free press. Groups such as Common Cause and Public Citizen, Free Speech for People and Move to Amend, FairVote and Free Press are working in these areas. They have track records of success, even in the most difficult of circumstances, and they recognize the importance of state and local initiatives.
The resistance to Trump and Trumpism begins with opposition to immediate threats to civil rights and civil liberties, and to the dismantling of safety-net policies, programs, and protections. But it must also address the threat posed by an ongoing decay of democracy that has as its consequence the empowerment of a Donald Trump and the rise of Trumpism.
(John Nichols is a co-founder, with Robert W. McChesney, of the media-reform network Free Press.)