“If you’re not outraged,” the saying goes, “you’re not paying attention.” This trite maxim seems to have become a chief metric for measuring America’s democratic bona fides, and it’s leading to some ludicrous conclusions.
Every year, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) performs what we can only hope is an exhaustive review of the political conditions on every nation on Earth to produce its vaunted “Democracy Index.” The results of their 2017 survey are disheartening. As COMMENTARY’s Sohrab Ahmari chronicled, the rise of illiberal movements around the world has tracked with a crisis of confidence in the Western model of democratic capitalism, and that trend has not reversed itself. The EIU’s study found a precipitous decline in the number of people living in what it determined to be fully functioning democracies. Most of that decline is, however, attributable to the downgraded status of the United States. That’s right; America is no longer the beacon of democracy it once was.
America’s diminished status isn’t new. The EIU’s 2016 study, released in early 2017, demoted the U.S. from “full” to “flawed” democracy—a condition they define as still having free elections but lacking a functional government, a robust political culture, protections for civil liberties, and high levels of public participation in the civic process. According to the EIU, America’s infirmities did not improve last year. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the authors attribute the country’s ills to the rise of nihilistic populism, a symptom of which was Donald Trump’s presidency. “The popular reaction to an economic and political system which many voters feel has left them behind is presented as the cause of democracy’s ailments rather than a consequence of them,” this year’s study read.
America joins the ranks of “flawed” democracies, like South Korea, Japan, France, Israel, Taiwan, and Estonia. That doesn’t sound too bad. Among the “full” democracies that the United States trails are countries like Australia, Spain, and Uruguay—advanced nations, for sure, but which adhere to their own unique definitions of liberty and republicanism Americans would find alien.
This week, the Australian Broadcasting Company published a select sample from a cache of confidential cabinet-level documents, which it received after someone purchased an unopened filing system from a used goods store in Canberra. That has jumpstarted a debate over legislation that would essentially make ABC’s reporting a criminal offense. The country already has among the world’s most draconian anti-whistleblower laws in the developed world, but which its government defends as necessary for a nation plagued by terrorism. Spain has spent the last year doing its best to preserve its territorial integrity, going so far as to take control of the formerly autonomous government in the would-be breakaway province of Catalonia. Uruguay’s relatively stable and progressive politics render it the model South American nation for Europeans, and the country has made enormous strides since it emerged from military dictatorship in 1985. But the archives from this period remain mostly closed to the public, the reconciliation process has all but halted, and the country’s Supreme Court has reinstated a law granting amnesty to members of the military.
All of these material considerations seem to take a backseat to quantifiable metrics, including polls showing declining faith in institutions, new legislative initiatives, and participation in politics. That’s a problem. The collapse of institutional power, both public and private, is not a new phenomenon (and few have chronicled it in as compelling a fashion as BuzzFeed’s Katherine Miller). But, counterintuitive as it may be, that suboptimal reality is as attributable to the proliferation of new democratizing conventions as anything else. New phenomena like social media render organic and hierarchical mediating institutions (like the church, neighborhood, and industry) and their custodians obsolete. Lethargic central government is a feature of American democracy, not a mark of its decline—and certainly not a function of gerrymandering, to which the EIU attributes this phenomenon. When a party ideologically opposed to activist government controls many if not most of the levers of power, an inactive government is often the result. Finally and most critically, the idea that public participation in civic exercises is a mark of democratic health is a staggeringly shallow observation.
Civic participation in the form of attending protests, demonstrations, or even voting can an expression of faith in the political system, but so, too, can non-participation. The freedom to tune out of the political process is a privilege. “Full democracies” like Uruguay and Australia, for example, are two of 22 nations where voting is compulsory. They join with states like Turkey, Egypt, and the Democratic Republic of Congo in compelling their citizens to take part in the process. Even in immature republics and nations transitioning toward democracy, non-participation in political affairs is frowned upon; the stakes are simply too high. Feelings of powerlessness, dispossession, or a general antipathy toward the political system can create downward pressure on participation rates, as can simple laziness, but that is a cost/benefit calculation made by individuals. The ability to make that calculation is the mark of a free society. Non-participation in a mature democracy can also represent a vote of confidence in the stability and continuity of a political system and its core civic consensus, even if issues at the margins fuel the kind of passion and anxiety that shows up in public polling.
Surely, American civic culture has seen better days. The United States is not immune to the forces that have compelled the tide of democracy to recede. The appeal of anti-republican forms of political expression is finding a receptive audience in a generation that has never known a world in which Western democratic capitalism had a strong peer competitor. Moreover, with regard to the United States, some of the trends this year’s EIU study identified merit real concern.
But America’s democratic beacon does not radiate from the White House. The United States does not derive its authority as a model republic from the political culture in Washington D.C., or from fluctuating voter participation rates, or even from public trust in institutions. America’s model republicanism is a product of conventions that are remarkably resistant to radical change. The endurance of those precepts represented in the Constitution and practiced in thousands of cities, towns, and counties across the country even when a norm-bending figure like Trump is in the White House is cause for hope, not despair.
The Economist Intelligence Unit is open about its antipathy toward popular expressions of no confidence in the governing classes like Trump’s election and the Brexit referendum, but that is clouding its ability to gauge what constitutes a healthy republic.