American Democracy Under Threat
I have written a number of posts detailing, some might say ranting and raving, about how Republicans in particular have been destroying many of our governing norms and subverting the very concept of democracy. But democracy has also been failing on its own for a variety of reasons.
The immediate threats to democracy are easy to see. The failure of the Electoral College has allowed the loser of the popular vote to win the Presidency twice in the last decade and a half. The war on drugs and the increasing incentive for prosecutors to turn certain crimes into felonies has created over 6 million citizens who have been denied the right to vote, including 1 out of every 13 African Americans in this country. In 2012, nearly one quarter of the African American citizens in Florida could not vote due to felony disenfranchisement. Further voting restrictions such as voter ID, more stringent requirements to register, and reductions in the number of polling places and times of early voting also add to the erosion of democracy. Aggressive gerrymandering that packs like voters into one district again devalues certain voters. And the vast discrepancies of rules and regulations covering elections from state to state also erodes the equality of every voter and a resulting loss of faith in democracy. Finally, the sense of almost permanent gridlock in our legislative bodies fuels impatience with the current system as does the fact that bad actors with the right connections, (think Wall Street or companies that serially pollute), continually get away with what everyone sees as criminal behavior.
Unfortunately, faith in democracy also seems to be collapsing around the world and the preference for authoritarian regimes seems to be rising. We can see this phenomenon in Poland and Hungary in Europe, and in Venezuela in South America. The reasons for this are myriad but at least part of the issue is the difficulties that governments have had in dealing with globalization and the financial crisis. As in the US, perpetual governing gridlock is also a serious issue as special interests are continually able to block virtually any legislation. In addition, many of these countries have long had a history of authoritarian rule and the advent of democracy was a more recent phenomenon and, accordingly, strong democratic institutions had not taken full root.
Two political scientists have put together a “test” to see whether a democracy in a particular country is under threat. There are three factors that go into what they call “democratic deconsolidation”. According to the theory, “[t]he first factor was public support: How important do citizens think it is for their country to remain democratic? The second was public openness to nondemocratic forms of government, such as military rule. And the third factor was whether ‘antisystem parties and movements’ — political parties and other major players whose core message is that the current system is illegitimate — were gaining support.” According to these metrics, many liberal Western democracies may be in serious danger. But the most shocking results of their study is how much younger people have already lost faith in democracy:
In the United States, only about 30% of those people born in the 1980s believe that is essential to live in a democracy. Even more shocking was that under 20% of that group believed it would be illegitimate for the military to take control if the government was clearly incompetent and failing. With the election of Donald Trump, a true antisystem candidate, and the Republicans’ continual challenge to the legitimacy of Obama’s presidency, abandonment of the norms of governance, and, in this last election, the revelation that the party clearly put party over country, combined with a large segment of the population’s lack of belief in democracy, it is pretty clear that the “democratic deconstruction” of American democracy is well under way. And that should scare us all.