The US has been downgraded to a “flawed democracy,” but not just because of Trump

Not going down without a fight.
Not going down without a fight.
Image: Reuters/Stephen Yang
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Does Donald Trump’s election mark the beginning of the end of liberal democracy? Some fear a weakening of civil rights, legal protections, and media freedoms, and haven’t been dissuaded by his first few days in office. A new report by the Economist Intelligence Unit confirms that democracy is in retreat in the US, but Trump isn’t to blame.

The US has lost its status as a “full democracy” and is now what the research group calls a “flawed democracy,” thanks to an erosion of public trust in political institutions that pre-dates Trump’s victory. In the EIU’s ninth annual Democracy Index, the number of full democracies around the world fell to 19, from 20 the year before. America’s downgrade puts it at 21 in the rankings, below Japan and even with Italy.

The US has been “teetering on the brink of becoming a flawed democracy” for years, the report says. Regardless of the result of the 2016 presidential election, the US was due a  downgrade. Trust has been declining in the US for decades, leaving the country’s institutions battling a “legitimacy crisis” and struggling to sustain representative democracy in its current form, the report says.

The decline began in the late 1960s with the Vietnam war, civil rights movement, assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, and the Watergate scandal. Over the past decade, it got worse following wars in the Middle East, a financial crisis, and persistent gridlock in Washington. And along came Trump:

By tapping a deep strain of political disaffection with the functioning of democracy, Mr Trump became a beneficiary of the low esteem in which US voters hold their government, elected representatives and political parties, but he was not responsible for a problem that has had a long gestation.

The decline in public trust in institutions also helps explain the UK’s Brexit vote and the rise of populist movements around the world. Still, the EIU judged that democracy improved in the UK, with the country’s index score rising from 8.31 to 8.36. The Brexit referendum drew a much higher turnout than in other recent votes, boosting the country’s political participation score.

In total, democracy, as measured by the EIU, declined in 72 countries and increased in 38 countries last year. Almost half of the world’s population lives in a democracy of some sort, but only around 5% live in a “full democracy.” Meanwhile, about 2.6 billion people live under authoritarian rule.

Norway topped the ranking and North Korea came last.

“Democracy is in trouble in the West, in the mature democracies of western Europe and the US, which are no longer obvious beacons for those striving for democracy in the nondemocratic world,” the EIU said.