Does the US have democracy

State and future of democracy in the USA

For years it has been debated whether democracy in the USA is crumbling. Some see them in danger: In 2017, in Donald Trump's first year in office, the country was downgraded from a full to a faulty democracy in The Economist's democracy index. The events of January 6, 2021, when Trump supporters entered the Washington D.C. House of Parliament. stormed in order to prevent the certification of the election results can be interpreted from this perspective as the preliminary summit of these developments. Others always emphasize the stability of the so-called "oldest democracy in the world", which has repeatedly proven itself to be impressively resilient even in critical moments over the past four years.

In the US, the long tradition of the rule of law and the robust separation of powers is often emphasized.

In order to test how stable US democracy really is, it is worth asking which criteria actually make up consolidated democracies. An established definition by the political scientists Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan sees it this way: Democracies are consolidated when democratic decision-making on three social levels is the only acceptable path. Firstly, it must be constitutionally ensured that political conflicts are only resolved within the framework of democratic institutions and regulations. These can be, for example, free and equal elections or constitutionally guaranteed rights to demonstrate. Second, democracy must be anchored in the behavior of all relevant political actors - such as parties - in such a way that no actor wants to abolish it. And thirdly, the majority of citizens must have internalized that democracy is the only correct way to govern a country, even in times of crisis.

The argument for the stability of US democracy is currently being formulated primarily at the first, institutional level. The long tradition of the rule of law and the robust separation of powers in the USA are often emphasized. For example, the historian Heinrich August Winkler recently said on Deutschlandfunk that he was betting on “American constitutional patriotism”; the journalist Matthias Naß wrote in ZEIT that “Institutions will survive”; and the Vice President of the German Marshall Fund Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff reflected in Deutsche Welle that Western democracies like the USA are much more robust than “fatalists” believe.

These comments also reflect the broad understanding in political science that democracies survive for two main reasons. First, because their institutions (for example constitutional courts) can act as robust veto players and defenders of democratic principles. Second, because transfers of power through free and equal elections also allow them to correct errors in the system. At the same time, however, the question arises for the USA to what extent the “victory of the institutions” over Trump - for example when he tried to challenge the election result in the courts after his defeat in November 2020 without solid evidence - was simply shaped by the luck that Trump acted without a long-term strategy or ideological goal, as the journalist Anna Sauerbrey emphasized in the Tagesspiegel.

How stable is the state of democracy in the USA?

Also on the second level of consolidated democracies after Linz and Stepan - the behavior of relevant political actors - the question of the stability of US democracy arises. On the one hand, this is the case due to the significant increase in right-wing extremist groups who planned the kidnapping of Michigan's Governor Gretchen Whitmer in October 2020 and which are now among the greatest terrorist threats for US security authorities.

On the other hand, this question is also justified in view of the development in the US party system. Before the 2020 election, experts like the philosopher Susan Neiman named the growing divergence between the Democratic and Republican parties as one of the greatest challenges facing US democracy. But debates about the growing political division ignore the real problem, namely that only one party follows the principles of representative democracy. The political scientist Adam Przeworski once defined democracies as systems "in which parties lose elections". The behavior of 147 members of the Republican Party who objected to the election result on January 6, 2021 in order to overrule the will of the voters is incompatible with this. In an international comparison, the Varieties of Democracy Institute at Gothenburg University sees the Republican Party as closer to autocratic parties like the Turkish AKP than to “classic” conservative parties in established democracies. And the historian and publicist Annika Brockschmidt emphasizes in ZEIT that parts of the Republican Party have not only recently started to be hostile to democracy, as strategies such as preventing voting (especially by minorities, who traditionally vote for the Democratic Party) or redrawing constituency boundaries have long been part of the party's repertoire for their own benefit.

On the third level of consolidated democracies, Linz and Stepan emphasize the importance of positive attitudes of citizens towards democracy. Political scientists Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky also write in their book “How Democracy Die” from 2018 that institutions alone cannot save democracies if they have no support from the population. In the USA, polls by the PEW opinion research center show that the majority of citizens generally consider democracy to be the best form of government. But almost 60 percent of those surveyed are also dissatisfied with how it works in the US. The problem is even more evident in a recent study by researchers Matthew Graham and Milan Svolik in the American Political Science Review. You do not ask whether citizens generally think democracy is a good thing, but whether voting decisions reveal this attitude. They found that only a very small proportion - 3.5 percent - of US citizens prioritize democratic principles in their election decisions or even punish political candidates for violations of such principles.

Has democracy in the US been damaged in the long term?

In summary, the answer to the question of the stability of US democracy on all three levels is at least divided. Ziblatt and Levitsky, who were criticized as black eyes after their book was published, recently told the New York Times, "We weren't bad enough." Although Joe Biden will be sworn in as president and Kamala Harris as vice president on Jan. 20, it is not an exaggeration to say that democracy in the US is damaged in the long run. Because anti-democratic institutions and strategies like the electoral suppression will continue to exist just as much as a party that is to a large extent no longer committed to democracy. The attacks on the election results in recent weeks also have the potential to undermine citizens' trust in the electoral system in the long term, create the powerful myth of a stolen election among supporters of Donald Trump and damage the international image of the USA. Not least for this reason, the author Malka Older in Foreign Policy even comes to the conclusion that democracy in the USA has at best received a “grace period”.

Discuss with us!

For the inauguration of the new US President, we will begin our new series of “Disputes”: What about democracy in the US and the international role of the “oldest democracy in the world”? The interview will take place online on January 19, 2021 from 5:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. Moderated by Dr. Julia Strasheim, Deputy Managing Director of the Federal Chancellor Helmut Schmidt Foundation, will discuss the historian and publicist Annika Brockschmidt and Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, Vice President of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF).

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