By Dan Doss
The United States has long stood as the global bastion of democracy. It is considered by many as one of the oldest democracies in the world, if not the oldest. It spends 2 billion dollars a year on democracy promotion abroad and countless billions more on wars and covert actions that are supposedly to support and aid democracy and freedom around the world (Lawson & Epstein, 2019).
In recent years, however, the US has not been the shining example. Several well-regarded measures of democracy have downgraded the US’s rating, even no longer listing it as a democracy in some cases. In 2016, The Economist Intelligence Unit, an independent business-related group, classified the United States (US) as a “flawed democracy” for the first time (The Economist Intelligence, 2016). The drop happens when a country goes below an at 8 on a 10 point scale. The same year, the Polity Project, an academic democracy measurement scale, dropped the US from a +10 to +8 (on a scale from -10 to +10) because of a new Political Competition coding of “Factional Competition”, meaning that US democracy no longer had perfectly free competition but rather was divided between two factions (Center for Systemic Peace, 2021). The change in coding stemmed from the election of Donald Trump and the polarization surrounding it. Polity even classified the date of the presidential election as the inflection point when the US switched to “Factional Competition” and listed the main factions as supporters of Donald Trump and opposition (Polity5, 2018). In their 2020 report, Polity further dropped the US to a +5 on the 21 point scale, knocking them from a “democracy” to an “anocracy” (Center for Systemic Peace, 2021). In 2020, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance also dropped the US to a “flawed democracy”. Freedom house, one of the most popular measures of democracy, has also dropped the US in score from 89/100 in 2017 to 83/100 in 2021 (Freedom House, 2021).
Similar to Polity’s coding, most of the democratic erosion in the US stems from political polarization and is enhanced by economic inequality and lessening trust in institutions. This is due first to the political system in the US which encourages a false binary on every issue, every person must be either for or against every issue and idea. If you’re not, your vote goes to waste because only parties that have a chance at a majority have a chance at any say at all. Then the advent of the internet and social media allows anyone to connect with anyone else and form their own personal echo chamber where they hear only their own ideas or similar ones. Building on this, the US has some of the highest inequality in the world, ranking well into the bottom 50% and below any other western nation by GINI Coeffcient.
The polarization and democratic erosion has been building in the US for a long time but the turning point, at least in the mind of these measurers of democracy, was the buildup to the 2016 election. Conservatives were used to a country ruled by white men and suddenly had the first black president in office pushing through progressive reforms like the ACA or DACA for 8 years. They had been privileged and when you live your life from a place of privilege, other people getting that same privilege can look like you losing yours.
So when Donald Trump comes around and starts saying what they want to hear; that their livelihood is being stolen, that the progressives are out to get them, that he’s going to clean out of the establishment, that the news media is lying to them, they believe it. They push for him hard and start to see the progressives as the enemy because that’s what they’re told. At the same time, progressives see Donald Trump and all the terrible things he says and does and think that anyone supporting him must also be that same kind of terrible person. So now both sides think the other is the enemy. How can you have a functional democracy when each side thinks of the other as the enemy instead of a person?
Donald Trump rides this wave of backlash against Obama all the way to the White House and once he’s there, just continues to erode democracy in the US. He wages war on the free press as though they are an enemy of the people. He makes 30,000 false claims while sitting in what should be the most trusted seat in the country. He dismisses bureaucrats that don’t align with his narrative. All of this culminates in the 2020 election in which he loses but refuses to accept his loss and encourages his supporters to fight back against the election being stolen. Then his supporters storm the capitol building in an attempt to stop the certification of the election results. This fails and the election remains free and fair and Joe Biden takes office. The US system worked in preventing full-on democratic reversal, this time. Next time, we might not be so lucky. Things are still bad. There are politicians across the spectrum calling for ideas that would be destructive to our democracy. The US needs to accept and understand its democratic backsliding if it’s going to do anything about it.