Columbia University

Is the world’s oldest democracy finally dying? by Roya Hegdahl @ Columbia University

The United States has been regarded both domestically and internationally as a powerful symbol of western freedom and democracy. In the past year, however, public doubts have arisen.  Is this public opinion exaggerated by the media and opponents of the current government? Or is there something more substantial going on?

With revelations of Russian interference in the United States 2016 election, it’s no wonder the Freedom House rating, a common form of judging freedom in the world, has dropped the score of 1 to 2 in Political Rights this year. However, there is much more to be concerned about than just Russia.

This year President Donald Trump has set a number of unsettling precedents. According to the Freedom House rating system, some signs of infringement on Political Rights include political officials who do not disclose their assets to public and media scrutiny. Donald Trump is the first president who has not released his tax returns to the public, and only the second major party nominee not to do so, in over 40 years.

Trump also has a very undemocratic relationship with the media. He has pledged to make it easier to sue the news over defamation and calls the media the “enemy of the people”, has called credible sources “fake news” and has made other attempts at discrediting those who investigate him. In fact independent, critical media is a commonly used indicator of a free and fair democracy.

Donald Trump is also profiting from his own presidency–and that was part of his plan from the beginning. Immediately following the election, the now household name Mar-a-Lago a Trump-owned resort in Florida raised its membership fees to $200,000 and their profits have jumped from $15.5m in 2014-15 to $37m in the reporting period of January 2016-spring 2017. According to the recent book Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff, Trump planned on losing the presidency in order to open up other “untold opportunities” from which he could profit. Even though there are some accuracy problems that have been reported about this book, Trump is still profiting from his win whether planned or not–another precedent no other president has had to such a great extent.

But, even long before Trump was even a candidate there have been issues with the fairness of our democracy. For years now, United States legislators have engaged in unfair gerrymandering practices which have only recently been ruled as such by the Pennsylvania supreme court. Not only that but voter ID laws have been promoted by officials that, by their own admission, target their opposition party. And in a study carried out by Princeton University in 2014, the United States was shown to be controlled by the powerful elites.

Their conclusion was as follows:

Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”

In other words, the United States looks more like an oligarchy than a democracy.

Our freedoms in the United States haven’t been completely worn away and by most accounts, we are still considered to be relatively “free”. However, some of these warning signs truly are cause for alarm. Democracies do die. Democracies can backslide. The United States is not invincible nor immune to either of these things. It is up to us to keep it in check by demanding better representation, fairer laws, the limitation of financial conflicts of interest and a critical, free press.

1 Comment

  1. Sara Trenor

    February 17, 2018 at 4:59 am

    Threats to the democratic stability of the United States are found in today’s electoral laws, media credibility, and the messaging from the Executive Office of the President. You point to these attributes of the country’s current makeup-up, along with the influence of elites on public policy and President Trump’s financial conflicts of interest, as the reasons for a doubtful public. I recognize that these institutional aspects are concerning to a well operated democracy; however, your exclusion of many of the safeguards the country has to protect itself from peril as well as its historic ability to maintain democratic principles despite a hazy political climate, leads to inflated worries within your argument. First, the checks and balances that exist on both the state and federal levels work to keep both the majority and branches of government accounted for (e.g., the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling on gerrymandering you referenced.). Additionally, the power of the public whether its through votes or opinion, continues to be a strong force in holding officials responsible (i.e. pressure for the Russia investigation or the Alabama Senate special election result in January). While many of President Trump’s actions and statements are unprecedented, I think the safeguards the United States has in place will withstand the threats to its democracy.

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