How Can the U.S. Turn the Global Tide That’s Moving Away From Democracy?

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By Angelina Paul
July 16, 2021

International political systems have been evolving over the last five years, intensified by the immense amount of change brought about forcefully by the pandemic over the past year and a half. The debate over whether democracy or authoritarianism is the most advantageous in dealing with new and unprecedented issues has re-emerged in light of the pandemic. Each day, the world is moving further and further away from democracy, and authoritarianism is dominating.

In a recent episode of NPR’s “Consider This,” Ari Shapiro discusses how threats to democracy are growing around the world. China has aggressively heightened its restrictions on free speech by punishing protestors in Hong Kong. Vladamir Putin has tightened state control over the internet in Russia where regulations now resemble the limitations on independent media during the USSR. Jair Bolsonaro was elected in Brazil, a President who has claimed that freedom in Brazil is in the hands of the military and has threatened to use the military as a weapon if he is not reelected (NPR, Morning Edition).

This year, Freedom House found that almost 75% of people in the world live in countries that became less democratic in the past year. They also found that the U.S. is among those countries, with another report concluding that the U.S. has dropped below their “democracy threshold,” (+6) to anocracy (+5) as of December 2020. The shift away from democracy in the U.S. can be attributed to a dysfunctional criminal justice system, growing wealth disparity, and the perception of an unfair electoral process on both sides of the aisle, for opposite reasons. 

The U.S., a beacon of democracy, is falling short. As a nation whose laws and processes are based on fundamentally democratic values, the constant internal criticism of our electoral process and the legal consequences of these critiques is causing a shift away from democracy. As one of the most influential countries in the world, other nations are criticizing the U.S. for having a negative impact on global democracy, due to our poor performance upholding democratic values domestically.   

Are Autocratic Characteristics Spreading in the U.S.? 

The struggle for democracy in the U.S. is a major cause of the increasingly negative  perception of the U.S.’s impact on global democracy. In 2020, 36% of Americans said that there was not enough democracy in the U.S., and this number increased to 45% in 2021 (DPI Report). The reliability of a country’s election system is a key indicator determining its level of democracy. In the US, the public’s perception of the fairness in elections is very low. Lack of confidence in the political system stems from both sides of the political system. On one hand, there is former President Trump spreading messages that the elections were rigged due to voter fraud, backed by many GOP members in Congress. On the other hand, many Americans also believe U.S. elections are unfair due to disenfranchisement of Americans they believe should be eligible to vote. The number of disenfranchised Americans is only growing as policymakers take on voter fraud as their main priority.

Trump’s influence has emboldened lawmakers to form new legislation that tackles election fraud. Although Trump administration election officials confirmed that the 2020 election was the most secure election to date, as of March, 361 bills with new voting limitations in 47 states had been introduced. In Georgia, Texas, and Pennsylvania, state legislatures have proposed laws to restrict mail-in voting, nationwide voter ID laws, and cracking down on late ballots. The goal of these bills is to create more secure elections. The benefit here is that the rare occurrence of voter fraud, of which there have been 31 instances since 2000 in over 1 billion casted ballots, could be eliminated. The cost is that many Americans, especially disproportionately lower income groups and minority voters, would not be able to vote, reversing our country’s trend to include more Americans in the democratic process (ACLU). 

Furthermore, the cost to implement these initiatives outweigh their stated benefits. States must use taxpayer dollars to fund the costs of implementing voter ID laws, which include educating the public, training poll workers, and providing IDs to voters. For example, Texas spent almost two million dollars on voter education after its Voter ID law was passed, and Indiana spent over ten million dollars to produce free ID cards between 2007 and 2010 (ACLU). These policies threaten fundamental democratic rights, such as the right to vote and the right to free and fair elections in the United States. 

The movement towards widespread disenfranchisement is also structural. Gerrymandering laws, or the process of drawing unfair congressional districts for partisan benefit, are predicted to skew election results for the next decade in states such as Texas, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Iowa, and North Carolina (Brennan Center). Even with public sentiment favoring Democrats, the process of gerrymandering through reapportionment and redistricting of House seats is enough to cause a change in control of the House even if public opinion did not change at all. 

Gerrymandering is an overwhelmingly unfair and unpopular practice among Democrats and Republicans. It dilutes the influence of the other party, creating “safe districts” where the overwhelming majority is either Democrat or Republican. In 2016, only 17 races out of 435 had a margin of less than 5%, displaying the detrimental effect of gerrymandering on political competition. Essentially,  it has extinguished genuine political competition, disincentivizing leaders to collaborate across party lines. When a Congressional Representative is elected to represent a district that is 80% Democratic or Republican, there is no incentive to compromise with the other party, and gridlock is inevitable. Furthermore, there is little incentive to vote if you are affiliated with the minority party in an uncompetitive district, disempowering and distorting citizens’ votes. Democracy is about fair representation, healthy competition, and bipartisan collaboration. Practicing Gerrymandering has ruined the integrity of a fair and equal democracy in the US. 

Is the U.S.’s Reputation Affected By Its Perception as a Threat to Democracy?

According to global perception, the U.S. has a significant impact on the international shift away from democracy. This past year, the Democracy Perception Index found that 44% of people around the world identified the influence of the United States as a threat to democracy, which ranked higher than the influence of Russia, China, or any other specific country. Overall, respondents from 53 countries agreed that the fifth largest threat to democracy worldwide is America’s influence. The United States’ closest allies, such as Austria, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, see the U.S. as having more of a negative impact on democracy. 

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Figure from DPI report

The data amplifies the concern of many countries that the U.S. has a net negative impact on democracy worldwide. According to V-Dem, in 2021, 68% of the global population now lives in autocracies, and we are now in the “third wave of autocratization,” meaning that the third global shift towards the decline of democratic regime attributes is currently taking place. Now, autocratizing nations include 25 countries or 34% of the world’s population. In a 2019 TRIP survey, IR scholars were asked for their predictions for the future, and 57% of the respondents expected there to be fewer democracies in the next five years.

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Figure from Future of the International Order Survey

Since the Cold War, the United States has always served as a role model for democracy. Our struggles to maintain the key aspects of democracy within our own country has had a snowball effect on the rest of the world. Not only does the U.S.’s domestic strife affect worldwide democratization, but it may be impacting our standing and respect with other countries on the global political stage. 

The American public agrees that it is important to have good standing abroad, with 87% of U.S. adults surveyed agreed that respect for the U.S. abroad is vital and 95% of international relations scholars also answering that it is important that the U.S. is respected. There is even bipartisan agreement that the U.S. needs to be respected abroad, with only an 8% gap between Democrat and Republican respondents, and the findings indicated that regardless of partisan affiliation, respondents agree that the U.S. is less respected abroad than it was in the past. 

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Figure from Pew Research Center

However, TRIP data shows IR scholars who identify as Republican are 14% less likely than Democrat-affiliated scholars to say America’s standing on the international stage is on the rise. Instead, they believe that the U.S.’s reputation has not changed in the post-Trump era. This is not a new trend. Pew Research notes that partisan-affiliates are more likely to believe the U.S. standing abroad is improving under an administration where the president is from their party.

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Figure data from TRIP Snap Poll 14

DPI reported that in 2021, there was a positive turn in favor of the U.S.’s influence on democracy. Many respondents who had previously seen the U.S. as a massive threat to democracy had changed their opinions. A 20% increase of German respondents’ answered that the U.S. has a net positive effect. This positive turn on the data in 2021 “of the US’s global influence on democracy has increased significantly around the world since the Spring of 2020, from a net opinion of +6 to a net opinion of +14,” (DPI Report). The report asserts that this positive increase in 2021 can be attributed to the election of President Biden. 

Is the Biden Administration Enough to Reverse the Anti-Democratic Wave?

Many IR scholars attribute the increase to the “Biden effect.” Since the 2020 election, the U.S. has had a positive influence on democracy worldwide, as many countries such as Germany and China see President Biden as a bigger champion of democracy than former President Trump. The perception of the U.S. as a positive influence on democracy is tied to our standing abroad, especially with our allies. A 2020 TRIP snap poll found that IR scholars strongly agree, with over 92% responding that foreign governments would be more willing to cooperate with the United States under a Biden administration than under a Trump administration.

Although experts agree that America’s global reputation is on the upswing after the 2020 election, the aftermath of the pandemic is still unfolding in many countries, and in others the pandemic is still in full swing. V-Dem predicts that the pandemic will have direct effects on global levels of liberal democracy in the long-term, with the consequences for worldwide democracy extending into the next decade. 

The question now is whether the “Biden effect” alone is strong enough to increase democracy worldwide. It’s still uncertain how much Biden can do to shift the world away from autocracy, and the Biden administration is receiving not much pressure from the American public to prioritize promoting democracy abroad. Pew Research reported that only 20 percent of American adults cited “promoting democracies abroad” in other nations as a top foreign policy goal, ranking last in a group of 20 foreign policy issues. 

President Biden has acknowledged the decreasing confidence in democracy worldwide. He expressed at the Munich Security Conference that because the U.S. is extremely influential abroad, we need to be a role model for other countries. Thus, the Biden administration must fix the aspects of democracy under attack in our own nation, such as addressing the increasing disenfranchisement of Americans and political extremism. In order to persuade other countries that democracy works, we must set a good example by first fixing our domestic problems, demonstrating to other nations that democracy is the best way forward.