America’s Continuing Low Democracy Score and the Urgency to Improve It

| Present

Americans should know about the Democracy Index if we do not know about it already. In the latest report published by the Economist Intelligence Unit (The EIU), the US is described as a “flawed democracy” – for the fifth straight year, and lower than the 2020 score.

The Economist Intelligence Unit (The EIU) is a business of the Economist Intelligence Group, created in 1946 to help businesses, financial firms and governments “to understand how the world is changing and how that creates opportunities to be seized and risks to be managed.” The latest report, which was released in February 2022, reflects scores from 2021. The Democracy Index findings are crucial, especially at this point in our nation’s history as we approach the 2022 midterm elections.

The EIU’s democracies fall into four types of governmental regimes, based on their average score: full democracy, flawed democracy, hybrid regime and authoritarian regime. The criteria for scoring are based on 60 indicators, grouped into five categories: electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation and political culture. According to the Pew Research Center, “Full democracies are ones in which basic freedoms and liberties are respected, with few problems in how democracy is functioning. Flawed democracies have more substantial issues, such as low levels of political participation or problems in how the society is governed, though they still meet the basic requirements of free elections and respect for civil liberties.”

A hybrid regime is “a mixed type of political regime that is often created as a result of an incomplete transition from an authoritarian regime to a democratic one (or vice versa).” An authoritarian regime is “characterized by the rejection of political plurality, the use of strong central power to preserve the political status quo, and reductions in the rule of law, separation of powers, and democratic voting.”

The 2021 EIU Democracy Index reports a disturbing statistic. The overall score worldwide was 5.28, down from 5.37 in 2020; this is the largest decline since 2010 as the world was coming out of the Great Recession. By regime type, 59 countries are in the “authoritarian” category, or 35.3% of countries and representing 37.1% of the world’s population – by far the highest of all four categories. By contrast, only 21 nations are considered “full democracies.” The US as a “flawed democracy” is one of the 53 nations around the world in that category. While our overall score (7.85) is about the same as our sister nations such as France, Italy, Spain and Portugal, the US is in the same category as Hungary, for instance – now ruled by Katalin Novák, a protégé of strongman Viktor Orban. Our neighbor to the north, Canada, is ranked as a full democracy.

The US was not alone in receiving a lower score in 2021, but there were also improvements. According to the EIU, 13 nations changed their regime type – nine negative and four positive:

  • Chile and Spain: from “full democracies” to “flawed democracies”
  • Moldova, Montenegro and North Macedonia in Eastern Europe: from “hybrid regimes” to “flawed democracies”
  • Ecuador, Mexico, Paraguay and Tunisia: from “flawed democracies” to “hybrid”
  • Mauritania: from “authoritarian regime” to “hybrid regime”
  • Kyrgyz Republic, Haiti and Lebanon: from “hybrid” to “authoritarian”

The last year that the US was considered a “full democracy” by the EIU was 2015, with a score of 8.05. Why has our average score slipped in the past seven years? According to the report, on the positive side, the US had increased voter participation and “movements to address racial injustice.” However, “public trust in the democratic process was dealt a blow by the refusal of Donald Trump and many of his supporters to accept the [2020] election result.” In addition, the US exhibits “extremely low levels of trust in institutions and political parties, deep dysfunction in the functioning of government, increasing threats to freedom of expression and a degree of societal polarization that makes consensus almost impossible to achieve.”

As we have noted several times, many of our sister nations rank higher than the US does in the annual World Happiness Report and on other evidence-based measures. The Democracy Index mirrors these indicators; many of the same countries that rank high on the Happiness Reports are also considered full democracies. In order of score, the 2021 full democracies are Norway, New Zealand, Finland, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark, Ireland, Taiwan, Australia, Switzerland, Netherlands, Canada, Uruguay, Luxembourg, Germany, South Korea, Japan, United Kingdom, Mauritius, Austria and Costa Rica.

Where do we want to be as a nation? If we truly pride ourselves on the health, resilience and inspiration of our beloved democratic republic, we need to pay attention to the Democracy Index (and similar measures), recover some of the positive traits we have lost, and bolster traits that may have been weak even when we did enjoy a higher score. We know some of the things we need to do toward the goal of “a more perfect union:”

  • Strengthen the ability of all qualified citizens to vote in every election. Oppose unnecessary and egregious voter suppression laws that purport to combat voter fraud but which are not based on facts and evidence (voter fraud in the US is very rare).
  • Combat disinformation and misinformation – in all arenas – that discourage Americans’ faith in established systems and institutions and that in many cases encourage violence and lawlessness.
  • Promote equality and inclusivity, both socially and economically, and combat racism and white supremacy. Studies have shown that there are tremendous advantages to the majority of us by crafting a fair and just society.
  • Support and elect officials who work for the common good, not themselves, and who eschew authoritarian tendencies.
  • Support accountability (including indictments, convictions, financial penalties and/or prison terms) of those who break the social covenant – and our laws. At the same time, work toward reform of our criminal justice system so that it truly works for all law-abiding citizens. (It might be helpful to remind ourselves that many nations have long taken drug-related offenses and issues, for example, out of the law enforcement arena and into that of public health.)

The list could go on. The bottom line is that democracy is fragile and needs constant “tender loving care.” We can reverse the slide of our standing on the Democracy Index, but it takes all of us doing our part.