The US continues to be the leader of the free world. Only the US has the power, legitimacy, and credential to play that role.
While populism is on a rise in several countries and the global power dynamic is drifting towards becoming bipolar, societies with democratic ideals desperately need the US to act as an anchor for them.
The guiding role of the US has become further critical as democracies around the world feel headwinds. Unfortunately, the health of democracy in the US is not the same as it used to be. As per the Washington DC-based Freedom House’s score in freedom, the US is on par with Panama and Romania.
Democracy did not start to decline in the US with Trump becoming the President, nor it stopped after Trump departed from the White House. In the last two decades, the US elected Presidents three times though they didn’t win popular votes.
Allegations of racial biases over voters’ registration, primitive counting process, and role of big money in elections continue to put a question mark on the democratic process in the world’s most powerful democracy.
While two-thirds of the country’s population lacks a college degree, democratic institutions are perceived by a large population as only concerned about issues involving educated elites.
Legislative dysfunction is another major contributor to Americans losing faith in their political leaders. The far-right and far-left factions have made it almost impossible for the two parties to cooperate.
The humiliating experience of the Republican Party in facing the longest contest in 160 years of history for the House Speaker’s election shows the power of the extremes.
The historic turning point in the backsliding of American democracy occurred in 2020-21, when Trump questioned the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election. The peaceful transfer of power, the critical component of a democracy, was no longer a given in the world’s most celebrated democracy.
Most powerful democratic system
Americans used to find immense pride in having established and nurtured the world’s most powerful democratic system and often desired other countries to follow in their footsteps. After the end of the Cold War, the US foreign policy prioritised promoting the global spread of democracy.
The administrations of Clinton, Bush, and Obama were officially committed to spreading democracy, and at least for three decades, one of the central foreign policy goals of the US has been to spread democracy and assist democratically elected leaders.
In December 2021, US President Joe Biden held a virtual Summit for Democracy to highlight his administration’s commitment to defend democracy worldwide.
Biden is seriously concerned about America’s democracy. In November 2022, the US President warned his compatriots that democracy itself in peril in the US and appealed to voters to vote against election-denying lies and the dangerous rise of political violence. 31 per cent of Americans continue to believe that the last Presidential election was stolen, and Trump was the winner.
‘How Democracies Die’
Almost a similar number believes that it is unnecessary to persecute the people involved with Jan. 6 insurrection. Steven Levitsky, the co-author of an important book, ‘How Democracies Die’, rightly points out: “In a two-party system, if one political party is not committed to democratic rule of the game, democracy is not likely to survive for very long.”
When there is such a huge question mark over the health of American democracy, how can it aspire to keep promoting and assisting democracy as one of the central components of its foreign policy?
The reasons for the decline of democracy in the US are less due to individual populist actors rather more to institutional decay. While most of the democracies in the world work towards making it easier for people to vote, in the US, the trend has become the opposite.
Independent election bodies to conduct impartial elections are a common practice for democracies in the 21st century, but the US still has not got one. Many democracies have legal limits on election expenditure and campaign donations, but in the US, in the 2020 election campaigns, $14 billion were spent.
In its annual report in November 2022, the Stockholm-based inter-governmental watchdog group, International IDEA, found that half of the world’s democracies are in a state of decline. Not only democracies in developing countries but even half of the democracies in Europe have also suffered erosion in the last five years.
It is essential that the US political elites work together to fix their country’s democracy. For the US to continue to play the global leadership role and to promote and assist democracies worldwide, it must quickly fix the problems at home first.