Perspectives on American Democracy: Why We Should Worry

This past week the U.S. found itself isolated and received a stinging rebuke from our closest economic allies for unilaterally imposing tariffs on the insultingly flimsy grounds that the measure was necessary for U.S. national security.

The collective perspective of these otherwise friendly countries is a useful mirror that should (but likely will not) stir introspection regarding U.S. trade policies.

We can take a similar approach to assessing the state of democracy in the U.S. What do objective indicators, as well as views from the media in allied countries, tell us about our democratic trajectory?

Let’s start with objective indicators.

Freedom House is a highly respected and independent organization that works to promote democracy and to defend human rights, and which has been in existence for more than 75 years. Freedom House produces an annual report on Freedom in the World.

The 2018 report, assessing freedom for 195 countries on a carefully-crafted 100-point scale measuring the status of political rights and civil liberties in the previous year, downgrades the score for the U.S. from 89 in 2016 to 86 in 2017. The score was 92 as recently as 2014, and the 3-point decline from 2016 to 2017 is alarmingly steep.

FitW9_820px_United_States_Trajectory-cropped.pngAs the report indicates, “The past year brought further, faster erosion of America’s own democratic standards than at any other time in memory, damaging its international credibility as a champion of good governance and human rights.”

With any further slippage in 2018, the US will be as close in its freedom score to the highest ranking “partly free” country, Albania, as to the highest ranking “free” countries, Finland, Norway and Sweden.

To put this in perspective, while remaining in the “free” category, the U.S. now ranks markedly lower than countries at a similarly high level of economic development and comes closest in overall score to poorer former communist regimes that are now inside the European Union (though ranking lower than some of these countries, such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia).


Freedom Score

Finland, Norway, Sweden






Germany, UK, Spain, Estonia


Czech Republic, Slovenia




Italy, Slovakia


Croatia, US






The largest decline in the score for democracy in the U.S. was in the realm of political rights, which includes ratings for the electoral process, the functioning of government, and political pluralism and participation. There were downgrades in the first two of these categories. Lower scores in the “functioning of government” category followed from these questions: Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 

The report asserts of the U.S.: “in 2017 its core institutions were attacked by an administration that rejects established norms of ethical conduct across many fields of activity.”

The assessment continues: “The president’s behavior stems in part from a frustration with the country’s democratic checks and balances, including the independent courts, a coequal legislative branch, the free press, and an active civil society. These institutions remained fairly resilient in 2017, but the administration’s statements and actions could ultimately leave them weakened, with serious consequences for the health of U.S. democracy and America’s role in the world.”

Moving outside the U.S. to perspectives from friendly foreign territories, the Economist Intelligence Unit in its annual ranking of countries on democratic values recorded its second consecutive year of the United States falling below the threshold for a fully democratic society.

Scoring 7.98 out of 10, the United States ranks 21st globally – below 20 “fully democratic” societies — and is now categorized as a “flawed democracy.”

In the fall of 2015, German President Johannes Gauck, expressing admiration for American democracy on a visit to the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall in Philadelphia coinciding with 25 years of German unification, labelled these “holy sites of democracy.”

Two years later, the prominent journalist Jakob Augstein asked in the German news weekly Der Spiegel, “When will (American democracy) reach the point of no return?” (Wann ist der Punkt ohne Wiederkehr erreicht?)

Just yesterday, the British newspaper The Guardian featured an account of the erosion of democratic norms in the U.S.

The article focuses on the onslaught of attacks on institutions and rule of law. The piece quotes an American legal scholar, Eric Posner, who warns: “when you look at other countries that have slid into authoritarianism, what has happened is that the leaders of those countries have proceeded incrementally   . . . And you could slide into an authoritarian regime without a real crisis ever taking place, and I think that’s what people should be focusing on.”

Posner’s assessment echoes that of American political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, who in their recent book, How Democracies Die, establish that while democracies have in the past fallen to violent overthrow, democracies also have and can be undermined by elected leaders. The current incumbent of the White House has launched a dangerous assault on the “referees” of democracy, resembling actions of past authoritarians that have at first imperceptibly and then more visibly undermined other democratic regimes.

Those in the “America First” camp may wish to dismiss – and may even disdain – views of foreigners and foreign press, no matter how favorably inclined toward the U.S. these sources may be more generally.

But just as dismissing allied views of U.S. trade policy without deep introspection is a mistake, disregarding the growing swell of indicators and voices warning of democratic erosion misses the point. These observations tell us that American democracy has eroded.

Objective indicators show us that attitudes toward governing institutions already became negative in the U.S. prior to this administration, with citizens considering government overbearing, wasteful, intrusive and ineffective. This leaves the American electorate and political system vulnerable to a campaign portraying government as actively working to undermine policies of an elected government, as I wrote about last week:

This move is the stuff of authoritarianism.

A process of democratic erosion is underway in the United States. How far will it go, and when do we reach a point where the damage is irreversible?

Please follow the blog and associated news on my new Twitter account: @mpsmithblog:




3 thoughts on “Perspectives on American Democracy: Why We Should Worry

  1. ndarecca


    Good post though rather long. I’m trying to write shorter posts more frequently, when I find the time to write at all. Very few people read the damn things anyway. Do you have any ideas on how to reach a wider audience? Thanks,



    1. Thanks for reading, Nick. I am committed to the one post per week format. I am in the early stages of a book related to many of my posts, so I take the space I feel I need to complete the analysis. One thing that can expand readership is spending a bit of time on WordPress looking at blogs on related topics, commenting where it is productive, and referring to one of your own posts where there is a productive dialogue.


  2. Pingback: “Disruption” Imperils the U.S. at Home and Abroad – The Great Misallocation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s