US Is World Leader in Dysfunctional Democracy

The United States barely ranks as a "full" democracy.

Photo Credit: Image by Shutterstock, Copyright (c) Rena Schild

Almost half the world’s 167 countries claim to be democratic, but according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s latest global Democracy Index that is a mirage because popular discontent with democratic governments is growing worldwide.

“Europe is home to the most ‘full democracies,’ but it is here that popular discontent with democracy is most evident,” the Economist reported. “Only 12.5 percent of the world’s population live in a full democracy… More than one-third of the world’s population (some 2.6 billion people) still live under authoritarian rule.”

The United States is at the bottom of the barrel of “full democracies,” ranking 19 out of the 24 countries, just below the Pacific Island country of Mauritius and South America’s Uraguay. Northern Europe is still tops, led by Norway. Canada is seventh.

The survey’s scores are based on “five categories: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture.” The biggest overall trend is that across the globe people who governments claim to be democracies are increasingly frustrated, the Economist found.

“Despite the fact that the world economy is growing and six years have passed since the 2008 economic and financial crash, discontent with democracy is on the rise,” said Joan Hoey, editor of the 2014 report. “Popular dissatisfaction with democracy is being expressed in the growth of populist and protest parties, which, in some places, have come to pose an increasing challenge to the established political order. The tendency to dismiss the upsurge of populism in Europe as a protest vote or an anti-austerity backlash is a way of evading some uncomfortable truths about the state of democracy in Europe.”

The Economist didn’t mince words about American democracy, either.

“The U.S. remains at the bottom end of the full democracy category,” it said. “U.S. democracy has been adversely affected by a deepening polarization of the political scene, political brinkmanship and paralysis. Popular discontent with the workings of democracy is deep-seated here too.”

Globally, the worst countries are North Korea, Central African Republic and Chad. The least-democratic regions are the Middle East and North Africa, “with 15 (up from 13 in 2013) out of 20 countries being catagorized as authoritarian,” the Economist said, which lists countries as “full,” “flawed,” or “hybrid” democracies or “authoritarian” regimes.

“Only in Tunisia, which has been upgraded from a ‘hybrid regime’ in 2013 to a ‘flawed democracy’ in 2014, has there been any been any recent progress in democratization. Apart from this positive exception, the Arab Spring has given way to a wave of reaction and a descent into violent chaos.”

Clearly, the popular rebellions that prompted the Arab Spring gave way to new repression and worsening circumstances, as evidenced by Egypt's ranking at 138, between Kazakstan (137) and Oman (139).

Only Asia and eastern Europe “recorded a slight improvement” in their scores.

There is a sobering takeaway from the Economist’s report. As popular discontent with the governing classes is growing around the world, the ruling classes, including in many of the world’s supposedly democratic regimes, aren’t giving the public what they want.

Perhaps next year the Economist will rename its survey, "The Democracy In Name Only Index."  

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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