A great many Americans are alarmed that the Trump administration appears to be undercutting the key institutions that define and preserve American democracy, and is doing so in small increments, each of which appears minor, but which taken together trend toward a strong-man state similar to what we see in Russia, in which one man rules behind the curtain of democratic-looking institutions. (I’ll bet you thought the “Wizard of Oz” was just a children’s story, with no political message.) How do we know which of his actions, if any, are detrimental to a healthy democracy? And how would we know when we were approaching a red line, beyond which it is no longer possible to save our democracy.
To answer these questions, I think we need to answer a prior question: What is a democracy? After all, we can hardly measure the health of our democracy if we don’t know what we should be looking for.
WHAT IS DEMOCRACY?
On the face of it, this seems like a simple enough question. But when you look more closely, you discover that it is not nearly as straightforward as it seems.
For example, we usually think of the ballot box as an essential element of a democracy. Ancient Athens is often cited as the first democracy. But the right to vote was limited to a very small number of people. Slaves could not vote. Nor did they have any say about anything. Women could not vote, of course, because they were considered intellectually incapable of dealing with complex issues of state. People who didn’t own land could not vote. Yes, it was a democracy, but a very limited kind of democracy. Really it was more of an oligarchy (rule by a small group of powerful people).
A similar situation existed at the time of the founding of our nation. At first, only land-owning men had the right to vote. Later, non-landowners were given the vote. Still later, blacks were given the vote. Much later, women were given the vote. It could be argued that blacks didn’t get the complete right to vote until the 1960’s, and that their franchise is still in dispute.
The old Soviet Union, which most of us would not have called a democracy, gave everyone the right to vote. They just didn’t offer much selection by way of candidates; the candidates were chosen by the Party.
Is today’s Russia a democracy? They have the same three branches of government that we have, although they operate differently. They have elections, and even opposition candidates. But the reality is that a strong-man named Vladimir Putin decides pretty much everything of consequence, and the institutions of democracy fall in line behind him. If Russia is a democracy, it is a democracy of a very limited sort.
HOW DO WE MEASURE THE HEALTH OF OUR DEMOCRACY?
As part of my undergraduate studies, I took a class called “Philosophy of Religion.” The very first question the professor asked us was, “What is a religion?” It didn’t take us long to realize that there was no single easy definition that would include everything that was obviously a religion and exclude everything that was obviously not. In the end, we came up with a list of characteristics of a religion and proposed that the more of these were true of an organization, the more likely we were looking at a religion. Oddly, we were never able to come up with a list that didn’t include the Republican and Democratic parties as religions.
I’m going to offer a similar list for defining what is and is not a democracy. I did not make this list up myself. It comes from brightlinewatch.com, which surveyed nearly ten thousand political science faculty from 511 US academic institutions, to come up with this list. I think it’s a pretty good list and is useful.
The usefulness of a list like this is that it gives us a way to identify threats to our democratic way of life. All you have to do is run through the list and ask yourself, for each item, Is this currently under attack? Later I will suggest the scoring system proposed by brightlinewatch.com if you would like to use that. I will also share my own evaluation of our democracy’s health, for whatever that’s worth.
19 CHARACTERISTICS OF A HEALTHY DEMOCRACY
- Elections are conducted, ballots counted, and winners determined without pervasive fraud or manipulation.
- Government protects individuals’ right to engage in unpopular speech or expression.
- Government agencies are not used to monitor, attack, or punish political opponents.
- Government does not interfere with journalists or news organizations.
- All citizens have equal opportunity to vote.
- All citizens enjoy the same legal and political rights.
- The elected branches respect judicial independence.
- Executive authority cannot be expanded beyond constitutional limits.
- Government effectively prevents private actors from engaging in politically motivated violence or intimidation.
- Parties and candidates are not barred due to their political beliefs and ideologies.
- Government officials are legally sanctioned for misconduct.
- The judiciary is able to effectively limit executive power.
- The legislature is able to effectively limit executive power.
- Elections are free from foreign influence.
- Government officials do not use public office for private gain.
- All votes have equal impact on election outcomes.
- In the elected branches, majorities act with restraint and reciprocity.
- Government leaders recognize the validity of bureaucratic or scientific consensus about matters of public policy,
- Political competition occurs without criticism of opponents’ loyalty or patriotism.
HOW HEALTHY IS OUR DEMOCRACY?
brightlinewatch.com uses the following scale to evaluate the health of our democracy against these nineteen criteria:
- The U.S. does not meet this standard.
- The U.S. partly meets this standard.
- The U.S. mostly meets this standard.
- The U.S. fully meets this standard.
- Not sure.
Rather than try to do a semi-objective benchmark evaluation of the state of our democracy, I decided to use this tool to help me identify where I see dangerous trends under the Trump administration. It’s pretty subjective, but maybe it will help me decide what things I should be most concerned about and where I should focus my resistance. You should use it in any way that is helpful to you.
|Elections are conducted, ballots counted, and winners determined without pervasive fraud or manipulation.||Mostly meets|
|Government protects individuals’ right to engage in unpopular speech or expression.||Mostly meets, under attack by states and executive branch|
|Government agencies are not used to monitor, attack, or punish political opponents.||Fully meets|
|Government does not interfere with journalists or news organizations.||Mostly meets, under attack by executive branch|
|All citizens have equal opportunity to vote.||Partly meets, voter suppression|
|All citizens enjoy the same legal and political rights.||Mostly meets|
|The elected branches respect judicial independence.||Partly meets, under attack by executive|
|Executive authority cannot be expanded beyond constitutional limits.||Mostly meets, executive orders|
|Government effectively prevents private actors from engaging in politically motivated violence or intimidation.||Mostly meets|
|Parties and candidates are not barred due to their political beliefs and ideologies.||Fully meets|
|Government officials are legally sanctioned for misconduct.||Mostly meets|
|The judiciary is able to effectively limit executive power.||Fully meets, under attack by executive|
|The legislature is able to effectively limit executive power.||Fully meets|
|Elections are free from foreign influence.||Mostly meets, under attack|
|Government officials do not use public office for private gain.||Does not meet, corruption in executive and legislative branches|
|All votes have equal impact on election outcomes.||Does not meet, contra electoral college|
|In the elected branches, majorities act with restraint and reciprocity.||Does not meet, not for the last 20 years|
|Government leaders recognize the validity of bureaucratic or scientific consensus about matters of public policy.||Does not meet, rejection of expert knowledge by executive and legislative branches|
|Political competition occurs without criticism of opponents’ loyalty or patriotism.||Mostly meets, under attack|
Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. I invite comments — whether you agree with me or not. I will reject personal attacks against me or anyone else.