Jan. 6 hearings in global terms: Troubled paradox of U.S. democracy

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On the one hand, American democracy seems in an undeniably rough state. The polarization intensified. Misinformation and distrust are commonplace. The divided public response to the evidence and testimony emerging from the January 6 committee hearings in Congress shows a lack of national consensus on a fundamental element of democratic life: the ability to effect a peaceful transfer of power from an elected government to the other.

Analysts warn that America’s aging electoral systems have – through gerrymandering and other undemocratic practices – begun to produce more and more outcomes that further favor tribalism, deepening the sense of zero-sum antagonism , the winner takes everything that crosses the body politic.

Where there is bipartisan unity is in the growing desperation and pessimism felt by most Americans about their political status quo. A recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll found that the majority of Democrats and Republicans think it’s “likely” that the United States will “stop being a democracy in the future.” According to another study, two out of five Americans would now support a military coup if they felt the circumstances warranted such an intervention.

And yet, the United States under President Biden can still appear elsewhere in the world as a bulwark of liberal democratic values. Many European officials have praised the unique role of the United States in galvanizing Western governments to deal with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and, by extension, in defending the international order. Far beyond arms transfers, the Biden administration sees its efforts as part of a larger fight for liberalism and democracy around the world.

“America and all who share our values ​​… must build on the unity we have shown in Ukraine to try to spread a broader revolution of dignity to people who seek to be free,” said Samantha Power, Administrator of the US Agency for International Development, in a speech last week.

The End of the Road to American Exceptionalism

It may even be a major challenge here, where everything speaks of democratic backsliding. Regardless of the outrage and investigations that followed the January 6, 2021, uprising, the Republican Party as a whole appears to be doubling down on former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him. It is pouring millions into new efforts in various states to recruit poll workers and observers to spot irregularities and potentially challenge ballots and the legitimacy of certain votes.

As my colleagues have reported, more than 100 GOP officials and politicians who won recent primaries appear to endorse Trump’s bogus fraud allegations. “Many will hold positions with the power to interfere in the results of future contests – to block the certification of election results, to change rules regarding the allocation of their states’ electoral votes, or to acquiesce in litigation to overturn popular vote,” they wrote.

Americans are raised to believe that their nation’s constitutional checks and balances protect their democracy. But experts point to the underlying standards that help secure those safeguards. In a time of bitter polarization, these norms are eroding, with disastrous consequences.

“When those soft standards deteriorate; in other words, a party says, “We can’t win with these rules”, and they start acting like a minority seeking majority power, that’s where you get the real risks to democracy in America said Harvard political scientist Pippa Norris at a conference hosted by the Niskanen Center, a centrist think tank, earlier this year.

Norris was pointing to visible “structural” flaws in the country’s politics that allow Republicans to wield outsized power for their vote share, including the makeup of the Senate, which skews disproportionately toward rural America. At a time when the party’s base seems to be drifting towards what some scholars of comparative politics have called “far-right authoritarian” politics, this is particularly worrying.

The war in Ukraine underscores a moment of democratic crisis

This trend has been measured in various ways by political scientists. The latest offering came this month from the Berggruen Institute, a Los Angeles-based think tank, which this month released with UCLA researchers a “governance index” that tracked quality of life, governance and democracy in 134 countries over the past 20 years.

Although its overall index score remains quite high, the United States’ assessed decline over the past two decades has been one of the largest, on par with countries like Haiti and Hungary during this period. The think tank measured significant declines in US ‘state capacity’ and ‘democratic accountability’ – the first measure could be loosely defined as the country’s ability to implement reforms and the second a measure of the health of checks and balances, from electoral integrity to the effectiveness of civil society and the media.

“The decline in state capacity and democratic accountability in the United States is not unique, but it is rare among advanced economies,” researchers Markus Lang and Edward Knudsen wrote to me in an e-mail. mail.

“When it comes to democratic accountability, there has been some stagnation among developed countries,” they added. “Yet the slope of the US fall is unusual: its trajectory is much more parallel to Brazil, Hungary and Poland than that of Western Europe or other wealthy English-speaking countries.”

Another study published this week tells a rather different story. A Eurasia Group Foundation survey of 5,000 respondents in nine major countries around the world – including Brazil, Nigeria, Germany and India – revealed optimistic views on American democracy under the Biden administration. More than half of respondents thought their country’s political systems should be more like the United States; 60% believe that American democracy is a positive example for the world; and nearly three-quarters of those polled said they would prefer the United States to remain the world’s number one power over China.

Some of these results can be attributed to the greater global popularity of Biden and former hardline Democratic figures like Trump. Those views could easily change in the wake of two upcoming election cycles where Republicans appear to be gaining momentum.

“Everyone is grappling with the question,” Alexander Stubb, Finland’s former prime minister, told me last month at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “Who is the footnote in the story? Biden or Trump?

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