INTERVIEW

Is America the "world's greatest democracy"? In 2022, we don't even crack the top 50

Co-author of new Freedom House report on the decline of democracy talks about how the U.S. fell so far so fast

By Chauncey DeVega

Published March 15, 2022 6:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump | Capitol Riot (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump | Capitol Riot (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Nations are built on myths and lies — mixed, of course, with bits of the truth. The United States is no different, but our nation's myths and lies are more extravagant than most: America, we are told to believe, is an "exceptional" or "indispensable" nation, the world's greatest democracy, a shining city on a hill.

Those beliefs are delusional, sometimes to the extreme. While the American experiment in democracy is historically important, for most of its existence the United States was an overtly racist nation whose democracy was defined by exclusion: First and foremost the exclusion of Black people and women, but also the exclusion of Native Americans, many nonwhite immigrant groups and poor people in general.

Furthermore while claiming to be an exceptional nation and the world's greatest democracy, the U.S. has consistently supported authoritarian and antidemocratic regimes around the world whenever that was deemed to serve the "national interest."

Political scientists and other scholars have shown that the U.S. is currently organized as a plutocracy, in which elected officials are highly responsive to the interests and demands of large corporations and the richest Americans while routinely ignoring the democratic will of the majority.

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So-called democratic institutions, most notably the U.S. Senate and the Electoral College, grant disproportionate political representation (and therefore disproportionate power and influence) to overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly rural "red states," as compared to the far more populous and more diverse "blue states." California has 55 members of Congress, representing nearly 40 million people. Wyoming has three members, representing fewer than 600,000 people.

The U.S. Supreme Court, and the judiciary system as a whole, are also not representative of the country's current demographics, values and beliefs, and has become increasingly driven by partisan division. Instead of being a voice for the voiceless and the less powerful, in the best spirit of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, today's Supreme Court is largely an agent of right-wing authoritarianism.

One of America's two institutional political parties has been corrupted from within by a fascist movement that seeks to end multiracial democracy and replace it with a new form of Jim and Jane Crow American apartheid. In the wake of Donald Trump's presidency and the coup attempt of Jan. 6, 2021, America is experiencing an existential democracy crisis, its most significant internal challenge since the Civil War. 

But the United States is by no means unique in this regard, as explained in "Freedom in the World 2022: The Global Expansion of Authoritarian Rule," the new report from the international democracy watchdog Freedom House:

The present threat to democracy is the product of 16 consecutive years of decline in global freedom. A total of 60 countries suffered declines over the past year, while only 25 improved. As of today, some 38 percent of the global population live in Not Free countries, the highest proportion since 1997. Only about 20 percent now live in Free countries….

At the same time, democracies are being harmed from within by illiberal forces, including unscrupulous politicians willing to corrupt and shatter the very institutions that brought them to power. This was arguably most visible last year in the United States, where rioters stormed the Capitol on January 6 as part of an organized attempt to overturn the results of the presidential election. But freely elected leaders from Brazil to India have also taken or threatened a variety of antidemocratic actions, and the resulting breakdown in shared values among democracies has led to a weakening of these values on the international stage. It is now impossible to ignore the damage to democracy's foundations and reputation.

The report also warns that the U.S. "has fallen below its traditional peers on key democratic indicators, including executive elections, freedom from improper political influence, and equal treatment of minority groups." According to Freedom House's ranking of democratic health and freedom, the U.S. rating has dropped by 10 points in the last decade, to 83 points out of a possible 100. That score puts the U.S. roughly 62nd in the world, below every major Western European nation (and many others as well) and about even with Panama, Romania and South Korea. On the specific measure of "political rights," Freedom House now ranks the U.S. lower than such often-troubled nations as Poland, Bulgaria and South Africa, and only one point above Brazil.


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I recently spoke about this new report and other topics with Amy Slipowitz, a research manager for Freedom House who is co-author, with Sarah Repucci, of "Freedom in the World 2022." In our conversation, Slipowitz explained why the United States is no longer regarded as one of the world's leading democracies, and discussed America's democracy crisis as part of a much larger global trend.

She warned that Trump's coup attempt and the Capitol attack of January 2021 have greatly damaged America's role as a leading democracy and served to encourage and inspire authoritarians and autocrats around the world. Slipowitz also discussed the collaboration of illiberal forces in a campaign against democracy on a global scale, which includes assaults on democratic institutions, civil society, education and the rights of marginalized groups, particularly women, immigrants and refugees, and the LGBTQ community.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Given all the ways that global democracy is under attack and in crisis, how are you feeling?

There is a great deal of pessimism right now about the state of the world. The beginning of 2022 only solidifies that. Our new report, which focuses on 2021, found that this was the 16th consecutive year of decline in global democracy. The trend is clearly not reversing and might actually be deepening.

Beyond the data, I think we know that something is horribly wrong and clearly getting worse. 

The decline is occurring not just in authoritarian countries but also in democracies. It is also taking place in those countries hovering between authoritarianism and a democratic system. It is clear that the majority of individuals around the world are being impacted by this trend. On the ground, this decline in democracy and freedom is impacting people's political rights and civil liberties. The long-term decline in democracy is just more evidence that everyday people are really feeling the brunt of it. Eight out of 10 people live in what we at Freedom House would describe as a "partly free" or "not free" country. People who live in those societies are not able to access civil rights protections, freedoms of political participation and all the other rights and freedoms that they should be entitled to.

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How does the global democracy crisis manifest on the day-to-day, on the local, experiential level, for people around the world?

It depends on the context. These conditions even vary from one authoritarian country to another. And one's experiences also depend on who they are and what group they belong to within that country.

One example would be India. Democracy is in decline there. The people who are feeling the brunt of this are activists, independent journalists, civil society workers and academics. India's ruling party, the BJP [a Hindu nationalist party], has really embraced a form of majoritarian rule. In keeping with that, the BJP is enacting discriminatory policies that target the country's marginalized Muslim population as scapegoats. This is part of a larger plan by the BJP to advance its policy goals.

Turning to the United States, what can we say about America's democracy crisis as compared to countries such as India, Brazil, Hungary and other prominent examples? How is America similar or different in that regard?

There is a growing illiberalism within democracies such as the United States, Brazil, India and Hungary. In those countries we are seeing internal forces that are undermining democratic institutions. Moreover, those countries' democratic institutions are being undermined from within by elected officials. One obvious example would be how, in the United States, Trump and his supporters have claimed that Joe Biden did not win the 2020 presidential election and that the results were fraudulent. 

That kind of rhetoric has been echoed in places like Brazil, where Jair Bolsonaro is up for re-election in October. He's already laying the groundwork to claim fraud if he does not win. His claims include casting doubt on electronic voting machines.

One other common trend is how elections are being undermined, where credible outcomes are being attacked by illiberal figures who try to cast doubt on the entire democratic system.

Media freedom is also being attacked. Hungary is a great example, where the Fidesz party has really consolidated control over media outlets, and many have been acquired by government-friendly companies or allies of [Prime Minister] Viktor Orbán. The media's independence is under siege. Something similar is also taking place in Poland.

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In total, illiberal actors in all of these countries have different tools they can use to undermine democratic institutions, including election integrity, judicial independence and media freedom. All have pressured these pillars in some way, though through different tactics. It may be through harassment of journalists, judges and election workers; through consolidating ownership of media outlets; through packing courts with loyalist judges, or many other means. 

What about the attacks by illiberal and other right-wing forces on pluralism and civil society? Specifically, on the human and civil rights of ethnic and racial minorities, on the LGBTQ community or on women's rights?

In the new report, we highlight a dynamic we describe as "autocratic collaboration." This is where we see collaboration by individuals and groups within a democracy to undermine that country's democratic norms, principles and institutions. One way that is manifesting is through so-called family-values attacks on LGBTQ rights, women's reproductive rights and freedoms, and other areas of bodily autonomy and freedom. This is a common feature of illiberal forces, as covered in our new report.

Language such as "illiberal" or the "global right" can perhaps be confusing for the general public. Is there more precise or more transparent language that can be used to describe this democracy crisis?

Rather than trying to focus too much on specific phrases or words that accurately capture what is taking place, I believe it is more important to talk about what democracy actually means, not just in the United States but around the world.

The term "democracy" has really been co-opted. For example, China and Russia claim that they are "democratic" when that is clearly not true. We really need to clarify what democracy actually is. One of the ways that can be done is through better civics education and other initiatives. Making sure that people around the world understand what democracy means, and why it is the best system for a society and governance and one that does the best job of protecting people's rights, is very important.

OK, so in that spirit: What is democracy?

All too often democracy can get conflated with "free and fair elections" or at least credible elections. There are so many more components to democracy. Democracy is not just being able to vote freely or participate in politics. It is also the different mechanisms that can be used to hold the leaders of a country accountable for their actions.

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One example would be a system of checks and balances where the legislative branch can check executive power. An independent judiciary is another element. There also need to be counterbalances and checks outside of government, such as independent journalism. In total, there is a need for a healthy and robust civil society. There also needs to be government transparency, freedom of expression, freedom of association and the rule of law. A healthy democracy encompasses a range of elements.

The Republican Party and Donald Trump attempted a coup on Jan. 6, 2021. The Republicans and their allies are continuing to attack voting and civil rights as part of an effort to end multiracial American democracy. How do we locate those events, relative to the global democracy crisis?

The United States is a country that people around the world look to for examples of what is and is not acceptable. If a military leader in some other country sees that, in the United States, certain forces are undermining the outcomes of democratic elections, that gives said military leader cover to say, "Oh well, it's being done in the United States, so I can do the same or even worse."

If American democracy is under attack at home, it really diminishes the credibility that the United States has in its leadership on the international stage and its ability to promote democracy around the world. Ultimately, it is really important for not just the United States but other democracies as well to look to their domestic shortcoming, given that the impact can be international.

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What does the data reveal about the claim that America is the "world's greatest democracy"?

As determined by Freedom House, the United States has declined by quite a bit over the last decade. In our measurements of democracy that would be 10 or so points over the last decade, which is quite considerable. At present the United States is no longer alongside its traditional peers such as the United Kingdom and Germany. Democracy in the United States is now more like those in countries such as South Korea or Croatia. This reveals how much has happened internally in the United States over the last 10 years to weaken its democracy. But for better or worse, democracy's advocates — and its detractors — still observe what happens in the United States very closely, and take what is happening there to advance their own interests.

What are some of those specifics about the decline in America's ranking?

There are a number of things. I will focus on what we saw this past year. One is a rise in political violence and threats. Academic freedom is also under attack. Other issues include a lack of government transparency, the politicization of the judiciary and negative treatment of migrants and asylum seekers.  

What happens to a democracy when political violence becomes normalized?

Our new report flags the upcoming midterm elections and also the 2024 elections as possible flash points for violence. That conclusion is based on what we are seeing at present, with growing political polarization and the violence and threats that come along with it.

Political violence can reveal the cracks in a political system, one that was never strong to begin with or that has deteriorated over time. Democracy takes constant work. A democracy cannot just arrive at a certain point and then everything is somehow OK. It is important to consistently assess how your democracy is doing, and find the weak points and then figure out a plan to concretely address them.

Once a democracy begins to decline, can that trajectory be altered, or does that become a type of path dependency?

It is much easier to tear things down than to build them back up and improve upon them. There is a lot of work ahead, but I am an optimist. It is part of my nature. One of the measures that can be taken to reverse this long-term decline in democracy is global collaboration. Democracies really need to come together and stand up to authoritarian leaders. Democracies also need to stand up to the would-be autocrats in their own countries as well.

What can the average person do in this fight to save democracy?

Individuals need to educate themselves about events in their own country and around the world. Learn how autocrats and other illiberal forces are trying to suppress human rights and freedoms. Knowledge is important for resistance. Advocating for local democratic governance is also really important. The grassroots are very important for a strong democracy. People should also find ways to contribute to the democratic health of their own communities: Civil society is local too. It might feel small, but it will have an impact.

If American democracy were a patient who came to you for treatment, what would your diagnosis be?

There is significant damage to the organs, but there is medication that might help the patient pull through and recover. The patient is critical and will need to stay in the hospital for quite a while and go through a lot of rehabilitation. There is no quick fix here, and we need to get at the root of the problem.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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