Carole Owens: Worrisome decline of our democracy

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STOCKBRIDGE — In this divided nation, is there a measure both sides will accept?

Each year the Intelligence Unit of the Economist Magazine compiles the Democracy Index. It measures the state of democracy in 167 countries. It was published every two years from 2006-'10, and annually after that. It describes its function as follows:

"The Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index is based on five categories: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture. "

Based on 60 indicators, countries fall into one of four categories: full democracy, flawed democracy, hybrid or authoritarian regimes. They are defined as follows:

— Full democracies: civil liberties and basic political freedoms are respected, reinforced, and thriving. The governmental system has valid checks and balances, the decisions of an independent judiciary are enforced, and the media is diverse and independent.

— Flawed democracies: elections are fair and free and basic civil liberties are honored however there are infringements on rights and an underdeveloped political culture, low levels of participation in politics including voting turn out, and problems with governance adhering to democratic principles.

— Hybrid regimes: elections are not regular, free, and fair. Governments apply pressure on political opponents, the judiciaries, and the media. There is widespread corruption, harassment and an anemic upholding of the law.

— Authoritarian regimes: political pluralism has vanished or is extremely limited; government is a dictatorship with infringements and abuses of civil liberties, elections (if they take place) are not fair and free, the media is state-owned or strictly controlled, the judiciary is not independent, and the media is censored and suppressed.

The 60 indicators are extrapolated from the answers to 60 questions. In the past, four questions were given extra weight. They were:

Are national elections free and fair? Are voters safe and secure while voting? Is there influence on elections by foreign powers? Are civil servants capable of implementing policy?

A flawed democracy

The report for 2017 shows the worst decline in democracies across the globe since 2006. Fifty-one of the 167 counties are listed as Authoritarian Regimes, while 19 are listed as Full Democracies. In order, the 19 Full Democracies are: Norway, Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand, Denmark, Ireland, Canada, Finland, Switzerland, Australia, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, UK, Austria, Mauritius, Malta, Uruguay, and Spain.

The United States is not listed as a Full Democracy; it is listed as a Flawed Democracy. The U.S. is listed behind South Korea among Flawed Democracies.According to Fortune Magazine, "

While U.S. citizens could once claim to be part of the 9 percent of people in the world governed by a full democracy; they are now part of the near 45 percent who live in a flawed democracy."

The trend downward started in the U.S. more than a decade ago and accelerated. Social scientists, politicians, and professors warn us. Timothy Snyder, professor of History at Yale University, has written two books, "On Tyranny" and "The Road to Unfreedom," in which he warns of the ease of a government slipping into authoritarianism and the current trend in that direction.

There is criticism of The Index. Calling the Economist Magazine liberal, The American Thinker, a conservative magazine, takes issue with its methodology and findings. The Thinker questions some of the conclusions. For example, why is diversity necessary to a high score? They argue that if the process is democratic and the people vote for fewer women and fewer non-whites, that is not a less democratic process. They argue diversity is not synonymous with democracy. They also question the credentials and the possible bias of the experts who answered the questions.

While the Economist Magazine would be surprised to hear it was a liberal magazine based as it is in the United Kingdom, the position of the Thinker is understandable. It is a tenet of the conservative movement that America is the greatest democracy on earth. America is a flawed democracy does not have the same ring.

Snyder writes, "The Founding Fathers tried to protect us from the threat Today, our political order faces new threats We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience."

Snyder warns the survival of a full democracy is dependent upon truth and the rule of law. When one or both are threatened, democracy is threatened. The Democracy Index warns electorates have become so divided that truth is compromised and laws bent in pursuit of an ideology.

Will we learn? What happens to the audience in a theater if they stay put arguing about whether they can trust the accuracy of the fire alarm?

A Berkshire writer and historian, Carole Owens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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