After the train wreck that was Donald Trump’s prime-time address to Americans, and the U.S. President’s temper tantrum over the refusal of Democrats in Congress to allocate funds for a wall along the Mexican border, it is not hard to understand The Economist Intelligence Unit’s move to designate the United States a “flawed democracy” for the third year running.
What has become of Ronald Reagan’s “shining city upon a hill” that, even if it had walls, “the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here?”
According to the 2018 edition of EIU’s Democracy Index, which was released on Wednesday, the United States is no longer a “full democracy.” Indeed, only 20 of the 165 countries ranked by the EIU – Canada being one of them – were considered full democracies in 2018. And most are tiny and homogeneous states where building political consensus comes easier than elsewhere.
While Mr. Trump’s election in 2016 was not responsible for his country’s downgrading, his behaviour since then has further undermined the state of U.S. democracy. His disregard for the truth and democratic institutions has made him the true enemy of the people.
Still, Mr. Trump is more a symptom than a cause of Americans’ declining trust in their own democracy. More Americans than ever seem to regard their government as dysfunctional. And the basic social cohesion that allowed them to work through their differences in previous decades – that fundamental faith in the system – has eroded rapidly in recent years.
“The highly partisan nature of Washington politics is contributing to this trend, as parties are increasingly seen as being focused on blocking one another’s agenda, to the detriment of policy-making,” the EIU concluded in the report that accompanied the index.
Mr. Trump has provided a sorry example of this dysfunction with his decision to allow a prolonged shutdown of the federal government simply because Democrats in Congress refuse to be complicit in his fear-mongering toward illegal immigrants. He may not be the first president to put his own political future ahead of sound policy, but his desperate attempt to extort funding for his promised wall further demonstrates his own despotic inclination and personal pettiness.
“I find China, frankly, in many ways, to be far more honourable than crying Chuck and Nancy,” Mr. Trump said on Thursday of Democratic Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer and House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “I think that China is actually much easier to deal with than the opposition party.”
Of course, he would. This is, after all, someone who envies dictators and behaves as if the assertion in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” is politically correct tripe rather than the very value that made America great in the first place.
Yet, as discouraging as the spectacle in the White House may be, it is in moments such as this that the true genius of the U.S. Constitution and the resilience of the country’s democracy are revealed.
“In America, the president cannot prevent the forming of laws; he cannot escape the obligation to execute them. His zealous and sincere co-operation is doubtless useful, but it is not necessary to the working of government,” the 19th century French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville wrote. “In everything essential that he does, he is directly or indirectly subject to the legislature; where he is entirely independent of it, he can do almost nothing. It is therefore his weakness, not his force, that permits him to live in opposition to the legislative power.”
U.S. democracy has evolved since de Tocqueville’s days, and the executive powers of the president are greater than they were at the outset of the republic. But, the framers of the U.S. Constitution intended to make governing hard to provide insurance against the whims of any one branch of power and to ensure that public policy is based on a broad consensus. They provided for checks and balances against the tyranny of both the majority in Congress and a single person in the White House.
“The people reign over the American political world as does God over the universe,” de Tocqueville wrote. “They are the cause and end of all things; everything comes out of them and everything is absorbed into them.”
Back then, democracy was still in an experimental phase. But almost every country in which it has since taken hold has looked for inspiration to the United States and its constitution.
For all its flaws, U.S. democracy is still an impressive sight to behold. Political turnout was up in November’s midterm elections, in which a record number of women won seats in Congress. In a sign of hope, Mr. Trump and his bile may be unwittingly reminding voters that “everything comes out of them and everything is absorbed into them.”
The city on a hill may not shine as brightly as it once did. But chances are it will again.