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OPINION: Is American Democracy in decline or in recovery?

As angry mobs storm the US Capitol or rampage through the streets of Rotterdam, as China boasts of its success against Covid-19, ageing leaders in Africa ignore their young population’s aspirations for change and the Arab spring is succeeded by a winter of violence, disillusionment and repression, should we dismiss democracy as a quaint idea of the past?

Sebastien Brack, Head of the Elections and Democracy Programme at the Kofi Annan Foundation argues that recent events in the US have in fact shown the resilience of democracy. He outlines a roadmap out of populism and back to democracy, which Kofi Annan called “the political system most conducive to peace, sustainable development, the rule of law and the respect for human rights.”

January 6th, 2021 – Capitol Hill, Washington D.C. USA: Trump Supporters Siege Capitol Building. Editorial credit: Julian Leshay / Shutterstock.com

The events of 6 January 2021 in Washington DC marked the culmination of four years of democratic erosion in the United States, leading many to question the capacity of American democracy to recover.

This question is crucial not just for the United States, but for the whole world, as competition between political models intensifies, and confidence in democracy wanes. Kofi Annan told us that democracy “is the political system most conducive to peace, sustainable development, the rule of law and the respect for human rights, the three pillars of any healthy society”. And indeed, far from discrediting American democracy, the checks and balances that reined in Trump’s power, his electoral defeat and the way America’s body politic eventually came together to usher him out, all highlight the resilience of the American constitution and institutions. That Trump was elected in 2016 and garnered more than seventy million votes in 2021 also provides a lesson in populism and its drivers, which threaten democracies worldwide. Luckily, there are solutions to restore the health of American democracy and contain populism everywhere.

Should we dismiss democracy as a quaint idea of the past? Or, in fact, is American democracy in recovery?

Democratic resilience

Anyone familiar with the United States’ constitution should not be surprised that the American democratic system resisted Trump’s menace. Protection of the new polity from the risk of authoritarian capture was at the centre of the founding fathers’ concerns when they separated powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches. They also sought to balance the centre and the periphery and protect minorities and individual rights.

Trump’s presidency illustrated the resilience of a document drafted over two centuries ago, as well as the vital importance of unwritten norms and customs. His plan was frustrated at every turn during his presidency and, in the end, the courts, a decentralized electoral system operated by honest Americans of both parties, the mainstream media, even Fox News, and finally the Republican Senate majority leader and his own Vice-President resisted his desperate efforts to overturn the elections’ results. As Biden put it, “democracy was tested, and democracy prevailed”.

Trumpism as a case study in the rise of populism

There may be a temptation to write off Trump as an aberration, whose departure will instantly resolve America’s democratic challenges. This would be a mistake, for Trump was a symptom of pre-existing conditions, some specifically American but others global, which have allowed many populists to come to power. In fact, democracy is now threatened by elected populists who subvert norms and institutions to remain in power more than by coups or revolutions.

But what drives the citizens of some of the world’s most prosperous countries to elect iconoclastic mavericks who want to bring down the very systems that led to their prosperity and stability?

Three factors stand out, all of which played a key role in the USA: a backlash against globalization; growing dissatisfaction with democratic governments’ perceived ineffectiveness; and the growing disintermediation of politics. Although globalization has raised hundreds of millions of people worldwide out of poverty and afforded consumers with a profusion of cheap goods, it has also led to wealth inequalities within countries not seen since the Gilded Age. On the one hand, some individuals and firms have been able to amass unprecedented fortunes from a global market, which they have then been able to shield from taxation thanks to global tax optimization and evasion. On the other, the working and middle classes in developed countries have seen their own incomes stagnate.

BROWNFIELD, TX – 10/09/2020 – Voting booths at polling station during American elections. Editorial credit: Moab Republic / Shutterstock.com

In parallel, populist candidates have tapped into the fears created by migration flows and population displacements over the past three decades, which shake many citizens’ sense of national identity, and are seen to threaten jobs and wages. Compounding these concerns is the perception that national governments are powerless to protect them or, worse, are complicit, due to lobbying by corporate interests in favour of big business and open borders.

As a result, public confidence in democracy has fallen worldwide over the past quarter of a century, but especially since the 2008 financial crisis. A recent study from the University of Cambridge found that in 2019 public confidence was at the lowest point on record in the United States.

Finally, populism has been facilitated by the steady decline of the institutions which traditionally moderated and channelled political passions, such as political parties, unions, churches, and the mainstream media. Increasingly dissatisfied, anxious, and atomized voters consuming ideologically polarised media provide an ideal public for populists’ siren songs.

In the United States, the rise of populism was also enabled by the emergence in the 1970s system of “primaries” as the mode of selection of presidential candidates. It removed the moderating (if undemocratic) role of party leaderships in choosing potential eligible candidates and rewarded more extremist contenders who could appeal to the partisan base.

Further, as noted in the report of the Kofi Annan Commission on Elections and Democracy in the Digital Age, the abolishment of the Federal Communication Commission’s “Fairness Doctrine” in 1987 allowed for the polarisation of American media. Broadcasters were no longer required to air contrasting and balanced views regarding controversial issues of public interest. The deregulation of the broadcast media following the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 exacerbated this polarization as new channels, like Fox News, targeted niche markets and reduced costs by cutting back on reporting in favour of ideological talk shows.

A roadmap out of populism

The Biden administration, and democracies all over the world, will have to tackle three baskets of issues if they are to stave off the risk of populism.

First, and most importantly, they must restore trust in government. The tone and style of the new President will help and a well-organized roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines, but ultimately, electoral reform will be necessary. Fortunately, a bill already exists – the “For The People Act” – that, if turned into law, would address many of the key issues involved, including limiting partisan gerrymandering and voter suppression and curbing the noxious influence of money in politics. Above all, the government must deliver: Congress urgently needs to pass some of the big legislation that has been stalled for years, such as the bills on pensions, infrastructure, and immigration.

Second, globalization needs to work for the majority. We have known since Aristotle that a large and healthy middle class is the bedrock of democracy. Yet, in many countries, the middle class has been stagnating for too long while wealth has concentrated at the top. The pandemic is rapidly increasing the gap between rich and poor: the value of stocks has soared while millions of ordinary people have lost their jobs. Addressing this will not just require not tax reform, but also curbing tax evasion, tax havens and tax optimization both by corporations and individuals.

Governments should also strengthen the social safety net for the majority, especially in the USA, where it is comparatively weak, to reduce the anxiety caused by trade, mechanization and AI that jeopardize the job security of many. And they must address another aspect of globalization that has driven middle- and working-class voters to populists: mass migration. Trump campaigned heavily on an anti-immigration agenda in 2016, as did the advocates of Brexit and the far-right AFD in Germany, which made significant electoral gains following the 2015 migration crisis. The concerns expressed by voters through the urns cannot simply be dismissed. Governments need to discuss them openly and offer credible solutions to manage migration for the benefit of all.

Third, the Trump phenomenon, ending with his unilateral censorship by Twitter and Facebook, highlighted the urgent and imperative need for regulation of social media, and re-regulation of traditional media. While attention has focused on Trump’s weaponization of Twitter, talk show radio and television networks bear a heavy responsibility for radicalizing millions of Americans. A study by the Reuters Institute shows that the USA has the most polarised media among advanced democracies, which the Kofi Annan Commission identified as a key vulnerability. It is time for a new Fairness Doctrine to break down the ideological echo chambers that have made civilized democratic debate and compromise so difficult.

Pipe Dream or Window of opportunity?

The bleak consensus seems that the US democratic system is too gridlocked to achieve the major reforms it needs. Yet there are several grounds for optimism.

First, Democrats have control of both houses of Congress and the White House, which creates a two-year window of opportunity to get major legislation through before the mid-terms.

Second, the Biden administration is competent and experienced, with the know-how to pass and implement policy rapidly.

Third, the dramatic events of the past weeks were a wake-up call that should usher in a new phase of bipartisan comity, or at least cooperation, on the Hill. Although initial signs are not encouraging, it would be in the interest of the Republican Party to eschew Trump’s brand of toxic populism and pass stalled legislation which enjoys wide popular approval, like the COVID recovery package and election reform.

Finally, the return of geopolitical competition could and should focus the minds of American lawmakers. Without a degree of bipartisanship that has been singularly lacking for years, effective government is impossible, and the United States will continue its slow democratic decline. The stakes for the USA, and democracies everywhere, have not been this high since the end of the Cold War. Much will depend not only on the Biden administration but also on the Republican Party and ultimately, on the people of the United States of America, who must put pressure on their elected leaders to do the right thing.

As Kofi Annan never tired of saying, “when leaders fail to lead, their people must make them follow.”