Notes on Democracy: Why Should We Worry?

By Parkes Riley

Democracy is of course always endangered everywhere, but what forces seem especially to be working against it in the United States?

Amazon lists its best selling books, and on January 31, 2017, eleven days into the Trump administration, the #1 best seller was George Orwell’s 1984. That’s impressive for a book published in 1949, since most best sellers, such as the #2 best seller, Hillbilly Elegy, are much more recent. It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis, was “temporarily out of stock” but was in the #11 position on the best seller list. The prominence of 1984 and It Can’t Happen Here suggests a certain anxiety about American democracy; for of course the thing that couldn’t happen, but did in Lewis’s novel, was a descent into fascism.

The United States has long taken pride in its democracy. “What Athens was in miniature,” Thomas Paine prophesied in 1792, “America will be in magnitude.” In 1871, in Democratic Vistas, Walt Whitman said “I shall use the words America and Democracy as convertible terms.” Is it possible that a proud tradition is coming to an end—or is likely to suffer years of serious eclipse? Of course it’s possible. The United States has powerful cultural traditions that will support resistance to encroachments on democracy, and these traditions may prevail. Still, those battling for democracy should know they’re up against formidable opposition.

A striking event of January 2017, quite separate from Donald Trump’s inauguration, was the appearance of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s index of democracies for 2016. Every year or two for about a decade, this organization, linked to The Economist magazine, has been providing detailed evaluations of democracies on a scale from 10 to 0. For the first time ever, the EIU has given the United States a score below 8—a score of 7.98, to be precise—and this has placed it among “flawed democracies.” The EIU covers 167 countries, and it now recognizes 19 “full democracies,” 57 “flawed democracies,” 40 “hybrid regimes,” and 51 “authoritarian regimes.” The top scorers were Norway with 9.93, Iceland with 9.50, and Sweden with 9.39. The lowest scorers were Syria with 1.43 and North Korea with 1.08. Norway got 10.00 for its “electoral process and pluralism,” 9.64 for its “functioning of government,” 10.00 for its “political participation,” 10.00 for its “political culture,” and 10.00 for its “civil liberties.” On these last five measures, the United States got 9.17, 7.14, 7.22, 8.13, and 8.24. Five years earlier, in the EIU report for 2011, the corresponding scores were 9.17, 7.50, 7.22, 8.13, and 8.53. The biggest decline was in “functioning of government”—and the United States may have scored undeservedly high for its “electoral process and pluralism.”

An organization based in New York, Freedom House, has been providing “subcategory scores” concerning “political rights” and “civil liberties” for a decade or so—in 2016, for 195 independent countries including some very small ones. The concepts it surveys are pretty close to the ordinary meaning of democracy, and their scores are well correlated with the EIU scores. Five countries got 100 from Freedom House: Finland, Iceland, Norway, San Marino and Sweden. At the bottom were Somalia, which the EIU didn’t evaluate, and Syria—both with 2. North Korea received a score of 3. The score for the United States might be expected to be high, since dark rumors have long linked Freedom House with the CIA. In fact, however, the U.S. got a score of 90—making it tied for 43rd with Cape Verde, Costa Rica, and Mauritius. The U.S. got only 10 out of a possible 12 on the “functioning of government” and only 13 out of a possible 16 on the “rule of law.”

In short, it isn’t just a London-based magazine that’s been fretting about American democracy—and the problems didn’t just emerge on Inauguration Day this year.

Among other reasons for concern about democracy is the fact that the country has a strong anti-democratic tradition. In its long history, prophets like Paine and Whitman have hardly been the only voices. The most highly reputed work of American political thought, at least relative to its number of pages, is James Madison’s tenth Federalist paper. This refers to democracy several times, but never charitably. Speaking of “pure Democracy,” it says “such Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives, as they have been violent in their deaths.” This is a harsh judgment, which has been disputed by scholars of ancient Athens, but it reflects a widespread view that the best democracy can never be the fullest democracy. Nowhere do the Federalist papers use the word “democracy” in a positive sense. John Adams, who was the most prolific of the Americans regarded as “Founders,” was no less eloquent in his criticisms of democracy. Adams called the poor a “rabble” or the “canaille”—a pack of dogs. He believed that a democracy, by honoring the majority principle, would give rule to such individuals; and he thought that a popularly elected body like our House of Representatives would require stringent checking and balancing.

A different reason for concern about democracy is that, during recent years, there has emerged a cohesive right-wing subculture. Fox News on television, Rush Limbaugh and many others on talk radio, and the Tea Party movement have had no real counterparts on the left of the spectrum: MSNBC has drifted toward moderation, Air America and other ventures in progressive talk radio have largely failed, and the Occupy movements didn’t prove self-sustaining. In the meantime, the labor movement, which once encompassed a third of the nonagricultural work force and was the backbone of the Democratic Party, has been in bitter decline and seems destined to be weakened further by laws and Supreme Court decisions. The emergence of Donald Trump and his millions of followers adds force to this subculture. So does its link with Evangelical Christianity—plus the fact that, on political grounds, churchgoing Republicans gave strong support to a leader whose devotion to religious principles was almost imperceptible. An especially troubling fact about this subculture is that its members associate together and communicate together, to the exclusion of others: they’re a lot like Catholics or Protestants in Northern Ireland, not to say Hutu and Tutsis in Rwanda. Another troubling fact is something they have in common with nativists throughout American history: they think they have special rights as relatively old settlers that other groups (e.g., Muslims) lack.

A third reason for concern about democracy is that there have been many adverse trends. The Reagan years were harmful, including its repudiation of the “fairness doctrine.” During the Clinton years it was possible to see new trends toward oligarchy: as unions lost force, donors gained it. Newt Gingrich helped foster antipathy between the parties, teaching Republican to call Democrats “corrupt” and “pathetic” and “sick.” The George W. Bush administration brought an obvious erosion of civil liberties: surveillance increased, and torture became debatable. Citizens United was a blow, along with other things done by the FEC. Lately voter suppression and gerrymandering have been prominent themes. The Republicans’ willingness to play games in Congress—to threaten a default on U.S. bonds, to thwart a Supreme Court nomination—provided new signs that collaboration between the major parties was becoming rare or impossible. All this came before “fake news” was a staple of political allegations and political practices, and before anyone knew about “alternative facts.” It’s occurred against an ominous background of relative economic decline.   

In the present view, there’s still another reason for concern about democracy that calls for an entirely separate discussion: as a people, we don’t have a clear sense of what a democracy is. We think we have, and often express, loyalty to our Constitution: but as debates between rival jurisprudential schools suggest, we don’t have any firm idea of what our Constitution says. Still, the points made already should make it clear that we have genuine reasons to worry. Our democracy had a “flawed” look, as well as adverse trends, even before we got an authoritarian in the presidency with conspicuously arrested development.