- President Joe Biden has portrayed the end of the Trump era as the return of US global leadership.
- But experts say America is in no place to lecture the wider world on how to run a modern democratic state.
- “American democracy is not a model for anybody right now,” a political scientist told Insider. America’s democracy has been in decline for years, even before the Capitol siege.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
“America is back, ready to lead the world,” President Joe Biden said in late November as he introduced his foreign policy and national security team. The US is poised to “once again sit at the head of the table,” he said.
But Biden has been leaning on the tenuous assumption that the US still holds its place as the world’s leading democracy, and experts say it’s time for America to take a step back and listen to other countries whose democracies are in far better shape.
“The idea that Biden administration diplomats are going to go around the world saying ‘model your democracy after ours’ is terrible because it would display such a lack of awareness of the flaws in our system,” Archon Fung, the Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, told Insider.
“American democracy is not a model for anybody right now, but that doesn’t mean democracy is not a model,” Fung added. “If you’re interested in democracy, don’t look at American democracy â€” especially not right now â€” on how to have a good democracy. There’s a lot of other places that are doing it much better and we should be learning from them.”
Americans seemingly agree with the suggestion that the US should be learning from the wider world. A recent survey from Pew Research Centre found a majority of Americans believe the US government can learn “a lot” from other countries on how to handle the COVID-19 pandemic and improving health care. And majorities also said the US could learn “at least a fair amount ” from other countries on issues such as addressing climate change, improving race relations, and boosting the economy.
The US is classified as a “flawed democracy” by the Economist Intelligence Unit in its latest “Democracy Index” report. The index is based on five categories: electoral process and pluralism; the functioning of government; political participation; political culture; and civil liberties.
Countries classified as a “full democracy” scored much higher in these categories than the US. Canada, Norway, Iceland, Germany, New Zealand, Finland, Ireland, and Sweden, among others, were classified as “full” democracies.
The US fell from its status as a “full democracy” in 2016, which the report attributed to “a further decline in public trust in US institutions, a development that preceded the election of Donald Trump that year and indeed helps to explain his success in winning the presidency.”
“Popular dissatisfaction with how democracy is working in practice, both in terms of government dysfunction and a lack of political representation by the two main parties, has grown in recent years,” the report said in reference to the US. “Political polarization and partisanship have deepened, undermining the function of state institutions.”
Over the past decade, the US has steadily fallen in the Democracy Index’s global rankings, from 17th in 2010 to 25th in 2019.
But many US politicians continue to insist that the US is a beacon for the world.
‘The enemies of democracy will be happy about these unbelievable pictures from Washington, DC’
Just hours after a sitting US president provoked a violent insurrection that saw Congress evacuated and led to five deaths, congressional lawmakers from both parties continued to evoke flowery rhetoric about the US and the model it purportedly provides for other nations.
“We are the shining city on the hill. We give those struggling under oppression hope for a better future,” Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire said in remarks on the Senate floor on January 6.
But such messaging felt detached from reality after what was widely characterised as an attempted coup took place in the heart of America’s democracy, and stood in stark contrast to reactions beyond US borders.
Responding to the violence at the Capitol, leaders across the globe expressed horror and consternation about the impact on democracies worldwide.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson decried the events as “disgraceful.”
“Inflammatory words will lead to acts of violence â€” on the steps of the Reichstag, and now in the Capitol. The contempt for democratic institutions has a devastating effect,” Heiko Maas, the German foreign minister, said in a tweet. “The enemies of democracy will be happy about these unbelievable pictures from Washington, DC.”
To this point, US adversaries gloated over the Capitol riot and pointed to it as evidence that the US lacks the moral authority to lecture other nations on democracy. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, for example, said the violence at the Capitol revealed how “floppy and weak the Western democracy is, and how weak its foundations are.” And Chinese state-run media said the pandemonium on January 6 was a sign of the “internal collapse” of the US political system.
“Some self-awareness is called for,” Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in Foreign Affairs following the mayhem at the Capitol. “The US is not nearly as unique as many Americans believe, including when it comes to the threat of democratic backsliding. What has happened should put an end to the notion of American exceptionalism, of an eternal shining city on a hill.”
‘Trump’s push to overturn the election results may undermine democracy abroad’
Even before the Capitol siege, democracy watchdogs like Freedom House had warned of the erosion of democratic institutions in the US. Similarly,Varieties of Democracy, a project that monitors the health of democracy across the world, in its 2020 report said that the US became more autocratic in the Trump era.
“The United States â€” former vanguard of liberal democracy â€” has lost its way,” V-Dem’s 2020 report said,
Experts warn that former President Donald Trump’s anti-democratic antics over the past four years â€” especially during the 2020 election he lost â€” could provide an excuse for corrosive behaviour from world leaders elsewhere.
“Trump’s push to overturn the election results may undermine democracy abroad by legitmising anti-democratic behaviours. We have already seen leaders in Hungary, Turkey, and elsewhere emulate Trump’s rhetoric about ‘fake news’ to dismiss criticism,” Erica de Bruin, a political scientist at Hamilton College, told Insider.
De Bruin said the steps Trump took to overturn the election, including baseless allegations of mass voter fraud and urging officials to stop counting votes or to “find” additional ones, “may encourage other leaders to do the same, and will undermine the authority of the subsequent administrations to speak out against them.”
Biden’s ‘Summit for Democracy’ should focus on what the US can learn from other countries
The new president alluded to these goals, and the need to recalibrate post-Trump, during his inaugural address on Wednesday.
“The world is watching today. So here is my message to those beyond our borders: America has been tested and we have come out stronger for it,” Biden said. “We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again. Not to meet yesterday’s challenges, but today’s and tomorrow’s. We will lead not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example.”
Fung said Biden’s proposal to hold a democracy summit is a “great idea,” but added that the point of such an event should be “what we can learn from other places to make America that city on a hill that we would all love it to be.”
“We need to figure out how to have a big searching, inclusive conversation about how we got to this tragic place,” Fung said.