October 25, 2021

Is America still a democracy?

As of the end of 2020, the United States is no longer classified as a democracy by the Polity IV project.

The project, which seeks to evaluate countries based on the perceived democratic or authoritarian characteristics of the government of a given country, had classified the United States as a democracy for 244 years and had rated it highly.

However, this score began to decline in the late 2010s, as political polarization grew, and the country began to fall below the project’s democracy threshold after 2020. The government is now described as an “anocracy,” meaning it is seen as neither fully democratic nor authoritarian. 

This is in response to the actions of former President Donald Trump, who resisted legislative oversight, purged unloyal staffers and aides, and eventually encouraged a coup on Jan. 6, 2021. 

Trump’s actions resulted in the United States losing its status as the longest contiguous democracy, a title which now belongs to Switzerland, which has been a democracy for 177 years.  

Polity IV is far from the only research project which seeks to evaluate the democratic nature of nations. Other organizations such as Freedom House and the Economist Intelligence Unit provide other measurements and guidelines for evaluating democracy. 

Polity IV specifically analyzes how democratic institutions themselves operate, examining how many candidates are free to run, the power of the executive branch and the competitiveness of elections. 

In addition to democratic procedure, Freedom House also prioritizes individual rights and how well a government respects these rights, such as free speech, freedom to assemble and private property ownership. 

The EIU more closely aligns with Polity IV’s methodology, focusing on the ability of people to be involved in the government and free elections. 

All of these scales note a decrease in democratic quality for the United States, though for different reasons. While Polity IV cites Trump as the primary reason for its new ranking, Freedom House and EIU address another perceived threat: government response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Freedom House claims that, in the United States for instance, press freedom and freedom of information has been suppressed and police violence has escalated; other countries, such as Azerbaijan, are described as using quarantine measures as an excuse to crack down on organized dissent. 

The EIU report decries perceived loss of freedom of movement with border closures and rules on social distancing.

These developments portray a grim future for democracy going forward, assuming abuses in the name of safety and polarization and political instability continue to grow in the United States. 

What does this mean for us as a nation? It depends on your perspective and future developments. So far, the Biden administration has not demonstrated the same anti-democratic tendencies as Biden’s predecessor, and it is possible that the events of the Trump administration have been a fluke. 

On the other hand, it is possible that the Republican party in the future will use such tactics again to either capture power or maintain power again. 

It should be noted that there is no universal consensus on what democracy means among political scientists, and that analysis by any of these groups is influenced by their priorities and ideals. 

Freedom House, for instance, has a list of policy recommendations including a call for limitation to emergency pandemic responses that restrict freedom of assembly, which demonstrates a focus on individual rights.

These organizations all have bias, and their work should be considered with this in mind. 

The future of American and global democracy may not look bright, but this is not to say that the grim predictions presented here are set in stone.    

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