Jan. 6 hearings in global terms: Troubled paradox of U.S. democracy

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On one hand, American democracy seems in an undeniably rough state. Polarization has intensified. Misinformation and mistrust are rife. The divided public response to the evidence and testimony emerging from Jan. 6 committee hearings in Congress shows a lack of national consensus over a fundamental element of democratic life: the ability to conduct a peaceful transfer of power from one elected government to the next.

Analysts warn that the United States’ aging electoral systems have — through gerrymandering and other anti-democratic practices — increasingly started to yield outcomes that foster further tribalism, deepening the sense of zero-sum, winner-takes-all antagonism that runs through the body politic.

Where there is bipartisan unity, it’s in the mounting despair and pessimism felt by most Americans about their political status quo. A recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll found that majorities of both Democrats and Republicans believe it’s “likely” that the United States will “cease to be a democracy in the future.” Two in 5 Americans, according to another study, would now support a military coup if they believed the circumstances justified such an intervention.

And yet the United States under President Biden can still appear to those elsewhere in the world as a bulwark of liberal democratic values. Many European officials have hailed the United States’ unique role in galvanizing Western governments to confront the Russian invasion of Ukraine and, by extension, defending the international order. Far beyond weapons transfers, the Biden administration sees its efforts as part of a broader struggle for liberalism and democracy around the world.

“America and all who share our values … must build on the unity that we have demonstrated in Ukraine to try to extend a broader revolution of dignity to people seeking to be free,” declared U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power in a speech last week.

The end of the road for American exceptionalism

That may even be a tall order at home, where all the talk is about democratic backsliding. No matter the outrage and inquiries that followed the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, the Republican Party as a whole appears to be doubling down on former president Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him. It’s pouring millions into new efforts in various states to recruit poll workers and watchers to spot irregularities and potentially challenge ballots and the legitimacy of certain votes.

As my colleagues reported, more than 100 GOP officials and politicians who won recent primaries appear to endorse Trump’s false fraud claims. “Many will hold positions with the power to interfere in the outcomes of future contests — to block the certification of election results, to change the rules around the awarding of their states’ electoral votes or to acquiesce to litigation attempting to set aside the popular vote,” they wrote.

Americans are raised on a belief that their nation’s constitutional checks and balances safeguard their democracy. But experts point to the underlying norms that help guarantee those safeguards. At a time of bitter polarization, those norms are eroding, with dire consequences.

“When those soft norms deteriorate; in other words, one party says, ‘We can’t win by these rules,’ and they start to act as a minority which seeks majoritarian power, that’s when you get the real risks to democracy in America,” said Harvard political scientist Pippa Norris in a talk hosted by Niskanen Center, a centrist think tank, earlier this year.

Norris was pointing to the visible “structural” flaws in the country’s politics that enable the Republicans to secure outsize power for their vote share, including the composition of the Senate, which skews disproportionately to rural America. At a time when the party’s base appears to be drifting toward what some scholars of comparative politics have dubbed a form of “authoritarian far-right” politics, it’s especially concerning.

The war in Ukraine underscores a moment of democratic crisis

This trend has been measured in various ways by political scientists. The latest offering came this month from Berggruen Institute, a Los Angeles-based think tank, which published along with researchers from UCLA this month a “governance index” that tracked quality of life, governance and democracy in 134 countries over the past 20 years.

Though its overall score per the index remains quite high, the United States’ assessed decline over the past two decades was one of the largest, on par with countries like Haiti and Hungary in that period of time. The think tank measured significant drops in U.S. “state capacity” and “democratic accountability” — the first measure could be defined roughly as the country’s ability to implement collective reforms and the latter a measure of the health of checks and balances, from electoral integrity to the efficacy of civil society and the media.

“The U.S. drop in state capacity and democratic accountability is not unique, but it is rare among advanced economies,” researchers Markus Lang and Edward Knudsen wrote me in an email.

“In democratic accountability, there has been some stagnation among developed countries,” they added. “Still, the steepness of the U.S.’s drop is unusual: its path parallels Brazil, Hungary, and Poland much more closely than that of Western Europe or the other wealthy Anglophone countries.”

Another study published this week tells a rather different story. A Eurasia Group Foundation survey of 5,000 respondents in nine major countries around the world — including Brazil, Nigeria, Germany and India — found optimistic views of U.S. democracy under the Biden administration. More than half of the respondents believed their country’s political systems should be more like the United States; 60 percent believed American democracy set a positive example for the world; and close to three-quarters of those surveyed said they would prefer the United States to remain the world’s leading power compared with China.

Some of these results can be chalked to the greater global popularity of Biden and earlier Democrats over-hard line figures like Trump. Those views could easily change in the wake of two upcoming election cycles where Republicans look to be building momentum.

“Everyone is grappling with the question,” Alexander Stubb, former prime minister of Finland, said to me last month at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “Who is the footnote in history? Biden or Trump?”

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