A Broader Perspective

Jackie Gingrich Cushman
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Posted: Oct 20, 2016 1:46 PM
A Broader Perspective

This political season has been so heated that many voters are looking forward to putting it behind them -- regardless of the outcome. For those of us who have been inundated with social media, cable and television political talk -- it can seem depressing and debilitating.

What we need is a broader perspective: a view not from the vantage point of U.S. voters, but from the world at large. We are in the middle of an election season that will culminate on Nov. 8, when citizens will have the opportunity to vote for the candidate that they want to hold office. This is an enormous responsibility and a right that many people in the world do not have.

According to the "Democracy Index 2015, Democracy in an age of anxiety," produced by The Economist Intelligence Unit, the United States ranks 20th in the world from the perspective of democracy. In the index, each country falls into one of four types of regime, based on its composite score. These are "full democracies" (8-10), "flawed democracies" (6-7.9), "hybrid regimes" (4-5.9) and "authoritarian regimes" (below 4).

When looking at the two ends of the spectrum -- the differences are clear. "Full democracies: Countries in which not only basic political freedoms and civil liberties are respected, but also tend to be underpinned by a political culture conducive to the flourishing of democracy. The functioning of government is satisfactory. Media are independent and diverse. There is an effective system of checks and balances. The judiciary is independent and judicial decisions are enforced. There are only limited problems in the functioning of democracies," according to the report.

In contrast, "Authoritarian regimes: In these states, state political pluralism is absent or heavily circumscribed. Many countries in this category are outright dictatorships. Some formal institutions of democracy may exist, but these have little substance. Elections, if they do occur, are not free and fair. There is disregard for abuses and infringements of civil liberties. Media are typically state- owned or controlled by groups connected to the ruling regime. There is repression of criticism of the government and pervasive censorship. There is no independent judiciary."

In the 2015 report, the United States had an overall score of 8.05, barely clearing the low end of the full democracy category. This score is a composite of electoral process and pluralism (9.17), functioning of government (7.50), political participation (7.22), political culture (8.13), and civil liberties (8.24). We fall short in the areas of political participation and functioning of government.

Political participation is important to a democracy. In presidential election years, about 50-55 percent of those eligible to vote do so. In off-year elections, the percent who participate is even smaller. "Democracies flourish when citizens are willing to participate in public debate, elect representatives and join political parties," according to the Economist. "Without this broad, sustaining participation, democracy begins to wither and become the preserve of small, select groups."

Why is participation low in the United States? Perhaps because of the increasingly partisan negative language that characterizes much of our political discourse, or perhaps because of the disgust felt by many at our government's inability to function as a whole.

According to the report, "One of the central problems of political life today is the absence of clear values binding the political elite together, which could provide it with a narrative to engage with its citizens... This crisis of self-belief and values explains much about the conduct of political life in the Western world today; without such an ethos, it is difficult for political elites to inspire the public and encourage public participation in democracy."

This disgust at political elites has given rise to populism, both here and abroad. "Its basic premise, that the existing political establishment no longer represents the people, is the key to understanding its widespread appeal," according to the Economist.

According to Peter Zeihan, president and founder of Zeihan on Geopolitics, "The party coalitions on both sides are already broken beyond repair. The last time this happened, it was in the 1930s. We had the Great Depression; we moved into World War II; we had the most popular president in American history, FDR," he told the CFA Institute Annual Conference in Montreal last spring. "It took us 15 years for the parties to settle into their new form, the form that we know today."

The next decade or so might well see a reformation of the major political parties. Let's hope this is done in a way that increases political participation and the functioning of government, and helps us become a more robust democracy.