The government of the United States got a downgrade this week: We're no longer a “full democracy,” according to the Economist Intelligence Unit's latest Democracy Index. For the first time, we were bumped down to “flawed,” thanks to an “erosion of public trust in political institutions.”
According to the report's authors, a flawed democracy has free elections but “weak governance, an underdeveloped political culture and low levels of political participation.” Other countries that share this dubious honor include Italy, Japan, France and India. Rankings are based on a country's electoral process, civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation and political culture.
That downgrade puts us at 21 in the rankings. Norway, Iceland and Sweden were ranked as the world's most vibrant democracies, followed by New Zealand and Denmark; Canada and Ireland tied for sixth place. Syria and North Korea came, somewhat predictably, in last.
Americans are days into Donald Trump's presidency and just a couple of months out from one of the most divisive elections in history. But the report caution that our problems go back much further. The country has been “teetering on the brink” for years, the report says. Faith in our public institutions — including Congress, newspapers and banks — has been in decline for decades. Just 19 percent of Americans trust the government most of the time. Three-quarters believe that most elected officials put their own interests ahead of the country.
“Trust in political institutions is an essential component of well-functioning democracies. Yet surveys by Pew, Gallup and other polling agencies have confirmed that public confidence in government has slumped to historic lows in the U.S. This has had a corrosive effect on the quality of democracy,” the report found. This has created a “legitimacy crisis,” the report says.
The United States is in good company. Democracy is looking sickly the world over. The scores of almost half of the world's 167 countries declined between 2006 and 2016, thanks to “the increasing role played by nonelected technocrats, increased voter abstention and curbs on civil liberties.” Just 5 percent of the world's population live in a “full democracy”; 2.6 billion live under authoritarian regimes.
Or, in the words of the EIU: “Democracy is in trouble in the West, in the mature democracies of western Europe and the U.S., which are no longer obvious beacons for those striving for democracy in the nondemocratic world.”