“After experiencing a gradual decline in respect for political rights and civil liberties over the past decade, the United States is now facing an acute crisis for democracy.” So says a special report by democracy watchdog group Freedom House.
And who, you might ask, is Freedom House? Freedom House is the oldest American organization devoted to the support and defence of democracy around the world. Eleanor Roosevelt was a central figure in its founding. It is no enemy of the U.S.; on the contrary, it relies heavily on federal government grants.
In 1973, it launched its annual report, Freedom in the World, which assesses the level of freedom in each of the world’s counties. The latest issue is not kind to the U.S. It scores the country only 83 out of 100, dropping from 94 in 2010. While other major democracies such as France, Germany and the UK continue to score in the 90s, the U.S. now languishes among newer democracies such as Romania, Croatia, and Panama. (Canada scores an impressive 98.)
The decline isn’t surprising considering that this is a country in which an incumbent president attempted to overturn election results, a violent mob assaulted the Capitol, and lawmakers failed to hold the outgoing leader accountable. Not much democracy there.
All was well in the end but, as Freedom House points out in their report, “The crisis did not arise suddenly from an otherwise healthy political environment. U.S. democracy is in urgent need of repair.”
The report identified three major reasons for the decline. One was the excessive influence of money. A second was the unequal treatment of citizens including voting rights. The third was polarization caused partly by a rigid two-party political system but particularly by severe gerrymandering. It concluded that “it is the practice of partisan gerrymandering that has the most corrosive and radicalizing effect on US politics.”
There is nothing new here for those who have observed American politics for the past few decades, especially for the past four years. It is nonetheless interesting to see a detailed comparative analysis.
The report makes three recommendations: limit the influence of money in politics, remove barriers to voting, and establish independent redistricting commissions.
The Democrats are currently attempting to get major legislation through Congress to bring about the much-needed reform. Entitled the For the People Act, it will address all three recommendations suggested by Freedom House.
The bill has been passed in the House but now faces Republican resistance in the Senate. Republicans have no problem with limiting voting rights, spending big bucks or gerrymandering, so they will put up a fight. If the Democrats lose and the bill fails, we will continue to watch American democracy decline.
The United States, despite its degraded politics, remains the most important country to the future of democracy. Attempts to reform the system, such as the debate over the For the People Act, must therefore be watched with interest. It is important to democrats everywhere.