MAJORITY RULE UNDER A CLOUD
Tharindra Gooneratne attempts to make sense of the gradual deterioration in democracy of a global flag bearer
The 25th of January marks an important occasion in the expansion of democracy throughout the world. It was around this date back in 41 A.D. that Claudius was accepted as emperor by the Roman senate. Claudius is recognised by historians as one of the first Roman emperors to grant extended powers to former slaves in the day-to-day running of the empire.
On 25 January 1327, Edward III acceded to the English throne and followed in Claudius’ footsteps by expanding the role of the British Parliament. And on 25 January 2011, the Egyptian revolution began with a series of street demonstrations that culminated in the ouster of longtime president Hosni Mubarak.
It is clear that 25 January has been a prominent date in the expansion of democracy and civil liberties… until now.
On 25 January 2017, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) declared that the US – long considered the bedrock of democracy in the world – had become a ‘flawed democracy,’ according to its annual Democracy Index. Even more surprising was the fact that the report clearly stated that the country would’ve been considered a flawed democracy “even if there had been no presidential election in 2016.”
Critics may argue that nations such as Japan, France and Italy have also been categorised as flawed democracies. But at the same time, countries like Malta, Mauritius and Uruguay (along with 16 other nations) have not. Which begs the question: Is this a temporary glitch or a reflection of more deep-rooted issues that threaten to jeopardise America’s standing as the undisputed champion of global democracy?
Despite the fact that the United States has one of the strongest electoral mechanisms in the world, whether its government is truly based on majority rule is up for debate.
For instance, the presidential election isn’t based on simple arithmetic but rather, a complex system known as the ‘electoral college.’ Therefore, a candidate may end up with fewer national votes than his or her opponent but still be elected to the most powerful position in the country – depending on how he or she fared in the electoral college.
In fact, this has happened no fewer than five times in American history with the most recent being last year’s presidential election where Donald Trump triumphed against Hillary Clinton despite garnering almost three million fewer votes nationwide.
A second interesting feature in the US is low voter turnout rates. For example, according to the Pew Research Center, voter turnout at the last presidential election was only 55 percent, placing the US at 28th out of 35 countries that are members of the OECD. An even more interesting statistic is that only 64 percent of the voting age population has registered to vote in the first place, compared to over 90 percent in countries such as Canada, Japan and the UK.
If almost half of a nation’s population doesn’t exercise its right to vote and the other half may not on occasion be able to elect its ruler despite having a larger share of votes, could we say with absolute certainty that the country’s government is based on ‘majority rule and the consent of the governed’?
According to the EIU, “the decline in the US democracy score also reflects an erosion of confidence in government and public institutions over many years.” The Vietnam War, the Watergate and Monica Lewinsky scandals, the Iraq War and the Great Recession have accelerated this erosion of confidence.
A recent study by the Pew Research Center has found that less than 20 percent of Americans trust the federal government to do what’s right ‘just about always,’ versus almost 80 percent who believed this in the early 1960s.
The growing trend of partisan gridlock within the federal government has only exacerbated matters. A study conducted by the Brookings Institution notes that almost 70 percent of legislative issues ended up in gridlock in 2011, compared to less than 30 percent in the early ’60s.
In the words of the Chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase James Dimon, “it would be much stronger economic growth had we made intelligent decisions and there was less gridlock.”
In fact, this mistrust of government has led to a far more dangerous development in America – viz. waning support for democracy. According to the EIU, only 30 percent of American millennials attach maximum importance to ‘living in a democracy,’ versus over seven in 10 of those born prior to the First World War. Even more worryingly, this seems to be a trend across many countries in Western Europe as well.
It is imperative not only for America but also the rest of the world that solutions are found to these deep-rooted issues. A crisis of confidence is dangerous and it is time for the champion of global democracy to prove that the recent results in the Democracy Index are only a blip.
How it can do so is up for debate.