In recent years the state of democracy, even in the United States, has been questioned and even described as democratically backsliding. This seems to be a scary thought for a country which prides itself on being the model for democracy. So how can Americans determine if their democracy is backsliding? Lust and Waldner (2015) describe three “legs” of a democratic system which can be affected as a result of this mentioned backsliding. Firstly, electoral procedures, which mainly has to do with free and fair elections as well as a rotating administration. Next are civil and political liberties, and finally accountability for government officials.
Free and Fair Elections?
Free and fair elections are a cornerstone of a liberal democracy. The United States does have free and fair elections by most definitions. There are effectively no restrictions on who can vote in elections since the Fifteenth Amendment and Civil Rights Act of 1964. Some do believe that the voter identification laws are a form of backsliding free elections, as they may negatively affect certain demographics of Americans. However, it is a contentious point as the laws protect against certain kinds of voter fraud (fake votes cast by dead individuals for example), and some believe they actually promote fair elections.
Regardless, all of the American population above the age of eighteen can cast a vote in the federal, state and county elections—assuming one is not a felon. Additionally at the presidential level, administrations change and power between ideological political parties change, which is an important part of the definition of free and fair elections. The issue comes in with the elections for the House of Representatives and the drawing of the congressional districts.
` Gerrymandering has become more and more of a problem to the point where the only purpose they serve is to keep political power in one party’s hands. The strangely drawn congressional lines help incumbents continuously win elections, which is an example of backsliding. The issue has become severe enough that in the state of Ohio, its Supreme Court ruled that the congressional map being drawn up was unconstitutional. Unfortunately, Ohio is having issues drawing a new one, so the anti-democratic map remains.
Civil and Political Liberties?
Similarly, to free and fair elections, civil and political liberties is a category in which the United States excels. Just in the first ten Amendments to the Constitution of the United States, there are a multitude of provisions dedicated to protecting the liberties of its citizens. Most important to the discussion of a successful democracy, is the First Amendment, and specifically the right to free speech.
Not only is free speech protected but, given precedents set by past courts, specifically, there is an emphasis on the protection of political speech. One can say whatever they wish concerning politics and political figures, as long as it is not proven to be libel, that is a pillar of the United States and very important to a successful democracy. While there are extensive provisions to protect liberties, in 2001, The Patriot Act was passed as a reaction to the events of September 11th. The Patriot Act, while portrayed by the government to be an anti-terrorism tool, greatly increased the power of the executive branch to an extent many believe to be a breach of civil liberties.
The National Security Agency, as a result of the Patriot Act, now has the capabilities to access virtually any information it chooses in the name of ending terrorism. In 2013, Edward Snowden exposed the NSA abuse of the Patriot Act powers it was given, as he leaked confidential government information to a few news outlets.It is hard to consider a population truly free if law enforcement and intelligence agencies have such extensive power over its citizens and can possibly bypass the legal system set up to protect that freedom.
Accountability for Politicians?
Accountability for politicians is the last “leg” of democracy described by Lust and Waldner. Politicians are held under the strictest of scrutiny when in office or being considered for office in America. They have to adhere to the restrictions of their positions and a moral code. If not the American public will refuse to re-elect or in the case of Richard Nixon, the politician will be forced out of office. In most cases, politicians are held accountable more than most anyone else in the United States.
Unfortunately this particular leg of liberal democracy has been challenged considerably by the last presidential administration–that of Donald Trump. The question of accountability for Trump began with his refusal to share tax records with the American public. This matter has gone through many congressional hearings and has even been discussed in front of the Supreme Court. Even out of office, Trump is trying to fight having to release his records.
`As another example, there are still questions surrounding Trump’s dealings with Russia and even though the impeachment trial did not necessarily confirm his treason, those trials are not necessarily the end all be all of investigations. Trump resorted to shutting down witnesses and denying testimony which is hardly the definition of accountability.
Evidence of Backsliding?
Although the United States is a largely successful democracy, and a model for much of the world, each of these categories have seen issues in recent years. Whether it is gerrymandering of congressional district lines, the overreach of government oversight with the Patriot Act or actions by former president Donald Trump, our democracy has shown signs of backsliding and erosion.