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U.S. allies getting less democratic

| January 13, 2022 1:00 AM

Oppressed peoples have long looked to the U.S. as a hopeful example of freedom and democratic way of life. While that’s still mostly true, research indicates changes in our society have begun to erode our once-unchallenged reputation for living a democratic ideal.

While freedom still reigns by comparison to some, social problems and distrust, poorer health and access ratings compared to other western nations, along with more tragic incidents of mass violence, have made the U.S. example shine less brightly than it once did.

A November 2021 Pew Research study found “very few in any public surveyed think American democracy is a good example for other countries to follow.” On average, only 17 percent of people in surveyed countries called American democracy in its current state worth emulating.

Apparently, that impacts our ability to influence allies.

Recently compiled data from a Swedish research project and reported in The New York Times also indicate a sharper decline in our allies’ commitment to democratic principles. According to reports, U.S.-aligned countries have been backsliding at nearly double the rate of non-allies, which flies in the face of what American leaders and their counterparts in other democratic nations hope: That being allied with a democratic nation influences those allies to follow suit.

U.S. allies showed almost no democratic growth since 2010, and some have actually regressed, notably in basic areas of election fairness and judicial independence, the objective analysis showed. About 10 years ago the U.S. and its 41 allies (as defined by mutual defense commitments) accounted for only 5% of worldwide increases in democratic progress. But 36% of all “backsliding” occurred in U.S.-aligned countries – double the rate of non-allies.

This is the opposite of the trend during the 1990s, when on the whole, U.S.-allied nations grew more democratic.

The findings were recorded by V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy), a Sweden-based nonprofit that tracks countries using multilevel datasets to measure five democratic principles: electoral, liberal (emphasizing separation of powers), participatory, deliberative, and egalitarian. Its methods are transparent and considered rigorous.

Regressions in nations such as Bahrain, Turkey (a reverse course), and France have not been imposed by foreign powers, the researchers found, but from within the alliances, sometimes even amid pushes for greater freedoms. More leaders have been acting like strongmen employing a dictatorial style, showing less interest in collaborative processes or citizen input.

Worse, average people have been tolerating it, in some cases voting them into office despite it.

Increased polarization, politicizing courts, and reduced voting rights/access have concerned democracy scholars here and around the world. Some warn that this trend too easily takes us down a transformative path we might not foresee, and that will be hard to come back from, similar to what happened in Germany before WWII.

And before any of us is tempted to point fingers, the global trends since 2010 preceded both recent Republican and Democrat presidential administrations, although some acceleration has occurred more recently, the data suggests.

The findings make it harder for America to sell itself as a global champion for democratic principles and freedoms we so deeply cherish. Reality is always complicated, but watching an increasingly quantified, disturbing trend away from those principles could serve as a wake-up call for leaders and voters to measure actions and campaign rhetoric against them.

This doesn’t mean the U.S. is causing allies’ regressions, but it may indicate that something has shifted. Some point to Washington’s (and other nations’) support of foreign dictators or “meddling” through the years (e.g., complicated situations such as backing rebels in Afghanistan or Nicaragua). Others say our influence was never as strong as we’d thought in the first place.

There’s probably truth in both assertions. Certainly when the focus shifted from a Cold War to a less identifiable war on terror, goals for stability led to uncomfortable compromises and complexities.

Are we losing consensus for the democratization of societies and systems? Are our own problems simply eroding our appeal as a beacon to emulate? Or is it that we are more willing to trade perceived security at the cost of popular controls, checks and balances?

Ironically, when more control is ceded to fewer people and an imbalance of power results, the net result is less security, not more.

Next time, a pair of data sets offer a look at what we think about the state of our nation, what we think the world thinks of it, and what they actually think (don’t worry; there’s good stuff, too).

Should we care?

“In order to think through things clearly, we need other opinions and viewpoints in order to navigate into the nuance. We need civil debate to present opposing viewpoints and point out our blind spots. We need the ability to speak freely and civilly to one another.” ― Eric Overby, “Legacy”


Sholeh Patrick, J.D. is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Email Sholeh@cdapress.com.

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