FORO CUBANO Vol 3, No. 26 – TEMA: EN DEFENSA POR LA DEMOCRACIA –
Unsteadiness in the continent’s most stable democracy
Por: Alejandra Suárez
A great democracy must be progressive or it will soon cease to be a great democracy
For years, the United States has been recognized and categorized as one of America´s most stables and strong democracies. Alongside Canada, the United States ranks the highest when it comes to the quality of democracy and the stability of democratic institutions. In fact, for over a century, since de the 1900s, the United States has been cataloged as a “full democracy”, and in indices such as Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem), its performance is remarkable; in the past decade, the United States shows some of the highest rankings in the world when it comes to categories like Electoral Democracy, Egalitarian Democracy, Participatory Democracy, Deliberative Democracy, among others, and it has a significative advantage when comparing its figures with those of countries of the American continent, like Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, Peru, and some other countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, which have been struggling for over sixty decades to maintain a certain amount of stability, and to prevent its democratic institutions to collapse. And that is excluding some of the most fragile regimes of the region; according to The Global State of Democracies Indices, Nicaragua and Bolivia are in fact “hybrid regimes”, which means that these countries political system mixes characteristics of democracy and authoritarianism, and there are others like Venezuela and Cuba, which don’t longer fit in the democratic countries category but are defined as full-on authoritarian regimes.
Different from the other countries of the continent (excluding Canada which has also a strong tradition of democracy and even a higher rank than the United States in 2019 “The Economist Intelligence Units Democracy Index”, which will be discussed later), the United States has embraced a long tradition of stable democracy. For over two hundred years, with more than 40 freely elected presidents, in fair and clean elections, the United States has had an uninterrupted democratic regime, that has never suffered a dictatorship or a coup. Not only that, but the United States has been characterized by the defense, protection, and promotion of democratic values, not only in the continent but all over the world; its foreign policy has focused on the pursue of human rights, and it has always pursued values like justice and freedom. The country has invested all of its efforts to help many regimes in continents like Latin America and Africa, to reach the most desired liberal democracy. Its actions have been determined by the destabilization of socialist, popular and authoritarian regimes, and for a long time, has seen them as threats to the sustenance of peace and security around the globe. Through thick and thin, its main goal has always been to protect democracy at all costs, whether that is in Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, or the Middle East, the United States has not ceased to pay close attention to the democratic conditions all over the world. To date, the United States of America is recognized all over the planet as the world’s bulwark of democracy.
But the United States political conditions might be taking a radical turn since 2019. In that year, after decades of being cataloged as a “full democracy”, The Economist Intelligence Units Democracy Index categorized the United States as a “flawed democracy”. The index attributed this shift as a result of the public's low confidence in the government. The report emphasizes that this was already clearly in evidence before the election that saw Donald Trump become president, back in 2016 (Willige, 2019). Similarly, The Global State of Democracies Indices categorized the United States as a “mid-range performance democracy”, which left Canada as the only high-performance democracy of the continent, and put the United States in the same category with countries like Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, Paraguay, and other Latin American countries. It is not only atypical United States political situation, after so many years of uninterrupted stability, but it is extremely odd to see the world’s reference of democracy to be going through this kind of chaotic and turbulent situation, and even more, with the results of 2020 presidential elections, which have increased considerably the amount of polarization surrounding the political environment.
But things were turning chaotic even before the 2020 Presidential elections. Some authors attribute the United States present situation to some sort of an “anthropological condition”, that states that eventually, presidential regimes are always condemned to go through instability at some point, and are prone to abuse of power (Fisher & Taub, 2020). This also happens in countries where there are lifetime judicial appointments, which tend to create a logic of corruption and lack of transparency in this branch of power. An added factor to this situation is the United States electoral system. Simple majority electoral systems tend to create two-party systems that are more polarized, dysfunctional, and vulnerable to the seizure of power by extremists than multiparty systems generated by proportional representation. And majority system, which give a single party control of entire branches of government, "are not recommended for countries with deep ethnic, regional, religious or emotional and polarizing divisions" (Fisher & Taub, 2020).
Many years have passed and the United States electoral system continues to be one major topic of political debate; Should it stay the same and endure the long and traditional reign of the electoral college? Should it be transformed by a bill and insert itself in the modern mechanisms of participation implemented in Europe? And if it’s going to change, how is the proposal going to pass through such a divided legislative? 2020 presidential elections have just increased the discussion around the American electoral system; citizenship starts to feel underestimated, and thinks that the 538 delegates that make up the Electoral College, and not them, are in charge of electing the president and vice president of the United States.
Furthermore, the deep ethnic, regional, religious, or emotional and polarizing divisions mentioned above is not a minor matter when it comes to the United States current crossroad. For years, the Americans have well received an immense number of immigrants, who are looking forward to pursuing the so-called “American dream”. Mexicans, Cubans, Colombians, Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese, and many others, make up the almost fifty-one million migrants that the United States has received to date (Datos Macro, 2019). One of the main issues around this, is the ten million undocumented foreigners, a number that grows about 700,000 people annually (Redacción Consultas Migratorias, 2014). These conditions have made the United States political arena very diverse, and very prone to polarization. Latin migrants are often categorized by Americans as criminals and job stealers, but regardless of these statements, migrants have demonstrated not only to be a boost for the economy (Redacción Consultas Migratorias, 2014), but have proven to be an important political factor around election time, and have taken their side between democrats and republicans, increasing the tension in the United States marked bipartisanship.
This year, presidential candidates Joe Biden and Donald Trump fought side by side to win Latin support, with very polarizing campaigns, filed with ideological messages. The former ethnic division in the country doesn’t stay behind. Centuries of effort of the marginalized communities, such as the indigenous people, and the African Americans, that have struggled to obtain true equality, have marked a very violent and chaotic political stage. In a country with a long tradition of slavery, The Black Lives Matter Movement is not something minor. In the past few months, it has become one of the main topics around the United States, not only in the presidential debates but in the countries social and political agenda. It’s not often that we see protests and rallies like these occur in the United States, and much less with the magnitude of those that occurred in Chile, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Bolivia, and other Latin American countries; not in the continent’s most powerful and stable democracy. The United States is facing one of its biggest crises in years; the abuse of political power, the misuse of police force against civilians, and the lack of trust in institutions have made 2020 one of the most violent years in decades (BBC News Mundo, 2020).
The list of factors that explain the United States present situation goes on and on, and at this point, it’s not only a current issue, promoted by a single person or a single group of people, but more of a series of systemic failures that experts say explain why every objective metric indicates that the quality of American democracy is on the decline. V-Dem latest report “Autocratization Surges–Resistance Grows” covers a significant amount of quantitative data that measures hundreds of different attributes of democracy, and allows us to understand the political nature of the United States’ turbulent year.
According to the summary, autocratization is affecting Brazil, India, the United States of America, and Turkey, which are major economies with sizeable populations, exercising substantial global military, economic, and political influence. In recent years, the United States has suffered substantial declines in the level of democracy and is now, the only country in Western Europe and North America suffering from substantial autocratization (Varieties of Democracy, 2020). The report also states that only one country in this region has registered a substantial decline in liberal democracy: The United States of America. It has suffered a fall of 15% from 0.86 in 2008 when President Obama was elected to 0.70 in 2019 after three years of rule by President Trump, in the Liberal Democracy Index, despite of which, Western Europe, North America, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand and parts of Latin America remain among the most democratic countries and regions in the world.
There’s a lot to be said about the United States’ current democratic situation, one of the oldest democracies and still, one of the strongest in the world. 2020 has still a lot to determine regarding the North American country’s political and social future. Alongside the COVID-19 pandemic, the US and the whole continent will continue on facing one of the biggest challenges of its history. Although the present situation in the United States has raised doubts about the democratic character of its institutions and the stability of the political regime, the United States has been and will be for many years a democratic benchmark.
Decades of democratic promotion in national, regional, and international lines are not so easily left behind. Added to this, the country's legal tradition has allowed democratic institutions to come to be considered as sacred, and even as a sign of patriotism. It is no secret that the figure of Donald Trump in the multilateral and international scenarios has not favored such values, and has generated hundreds of tensions in practically all possible political stages. But democracy is not a person. Democracy is not only a type of political regime, or a form of government that we as a society aspire to achieve. Democracy is a set of convictions, values, and principles to be protected, to be respected, and to be reinforced every day. Yes, it’s filled with flaws and traits to improve, but it’s our best shot to make a just, equal, and inclusive world for all of us.
BBC News Mundo. (2020). Violencia armada en EE.UU. BBC News Mundo.
Datos Macro. (2019). Estados Unidos—Inmigración 2019. datosmacro.com.
Fisher, M., & Taub, A. (2020). ¿Reformar la democracia de Estados Unidos? The New York Times.
Redacción Consultas Migratorias. (2014). El verdadero problema de la inmigración y su verdadera solución. Observatorio de Legislación Migratoria.
Varieties of Democracy. (2020). Autocratization Surges–Resistance Grows DEMOCRACY REPORT 2020.
Willige, A. (2019). ¿Cuáles son las democracias más fuertes del mundo? Foro Económico Mundial.