American Democracy

American democracy is precious. When the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1879, America became the first modern democracy in the world. Its Constitution served as a model for many countries that have since established democracies. But time has moved on and America’s democracy no longer ranks as a world model. Why not is well worth considering.

The section “American Democracy & the World” examines this issue. A related section presents: “Conservative and Liberal Perspectives” on current issues with American democracy. Building a stronger America at the “Local Level” is also discussed. In the final segment “Problems & Solutions” are examined.

Ranking of American Democracy

“The U.S. Constitution appears to be losing its appeal as a model for constitution drafters elsewhere,” (David S. Law and Mila Versteeg, The New York University Law Review, June, 2012.) Reasons given for the decline in using the U.S. Constitution as a model is “it is terse and old, and it guarantees relatively few rights.” In 2006, the following percentages of countries with democratic constitutions guaranteed the following rights, not covered in the U.S. Constitution: Women’s rights (91%), Freedom of movement (88%), Right to Work (82%), Right to Education (82%), Judicial Review (82%), Presumption of Innocence (74%), Right not to be expelled from home territory (73%), and Right to unionize or strike or both (72%).

Another reason cited for the decline is, “the U.S. Constitution is the most difficult to amend of any constitution currently in the world today.” This same article reports that “Other nations routinely trade in their constitutions wholesale, replacing them on average every 19 years. By odd coincidence, Thomas Jefferson, in a 1789 letter to James Madison , once said that ‘every constitution naturally expires at the end of 19 years’ because the earth belongs always to the living generation.’”

With this background, can we get an objective picture of how well American democracy is functioning today according to contemporary norms?

Yes. The prestigious British publication, “The Economist”, publishes “The Pocket World in Figures”, 2014 Edition which contains a Democracy Index. The Democracy Ranking was performed by the Democracy Ranking Association (Förderung von Demokratiequalität”), located in Vienna, Austria.

The following list shows democracy ranking for 2014. Note that America ranked 16th.
Democracy Ranking 2014 (Scores)

  1. Norway
  2. Switzerland
  3. Sweden
  4. Finland
  5. Denmark
  6. Netherlands
  7. New Zealand
  8. Germany
  9. Ireland
  10. Belgium
  11. Austria
  12. Australia
  13. United Kingdom
  14. Canada
  15. France
  16. United States

Note that The Russian Federation ranked 97th.

Let’s examine the basis for this ranking.

The Democracy Ranking aggregates the following dimensions into the final scores:

  • politics
  • gender
  • economy
  • knowledge
  • health
  • environment

The authors state:” The Democracy Ranking applies a broad understanding of democracy and the quality of democracy, emphasizing the importance of sustainable development. Sustainable development underscores that a comprehensive development and evolution of society, economy and democracy ultimately demands (in the long run) a co-development across different dimensions and sectors of a society as well as the economy, also acknowledging the importance of environment (natural environments) of society. Why did America, “the cradle of liberty” not rank 1st?

The authors explain: “…the U.S. ranks very high in global comparison but there is still a gap to the Nordic democracies and Switzerland. …the U.S. gained [since 2008-2009] in all of the non-political dimensions, however suffered from declines in the economy and on the political dimension. In politics, there were decreases in political rights and civil liberties, and there is also more perception of corruption. The containment of corruption must be better addressed. The slow-down in economic performance has put general pressures on American democracy. In the coming years, the U.S. is being challenged to create new momentum for further advances in quality of democracy. (p204)  (See “Democracy ranking, Edition 2014: The Quality of Democracy in the World”, David F.J. Campbell, Thorsten D, Barth, Paul Polzlbauer, and Georg Polzlbauer, page 17.).

Specific Problems with American Democracy

Impediments to fair elections and the ability of elected officials to carry out the “will of the people” (individual citizens) threaten American democracy. With regard to these issues, America in the 21st century is in danger. Citizen initiatives and collaborative efforts focused on the following problems are needed.

David Matthews, “The Ecology of Democracy” (p3-5), 2014 lists the following problems:

  • Citizens are not engaged
  • Issues are approached and discussed in ways that promote divisiveness
  • Citizens may get involved yet make very poor decisions about what they should do or which policies are in their best interest
  • Citizens’ perceptions that they can’t really make a difference in politics
  • Citizens may act, but their efforts go in so many directions that they are ineffective; they aren’t mutually supportive.
  • The absence of shared learning keeps democracy from working
  • Mutual distrust burdens the relationship between citizens and most major institutions.

Public interest organizations focused on American democracy and its problems:

  1. People for the American Way
    1. Fix Citizen’s United Problem
    2. Here is an activist Tool Kit
  2. Heritage Foundation – The Growth of Dependency on Government Threatens the Future of American Democracy
  3. Common Cause
    1. Money in Politics
    2. A Fair Economy
    3. Voting and Elections
    4. Ethics
    5. Media and Democracy
    6. The Filibuster
    7. ALEC
  4. Salon
    1. Voting Rights
    2. Modern Elections
    3. Put the Public Back in a Public Process
    4. Reverse Citizens United and Related Campaign Deregulation
    5. Restore Public Financing and Public Debates on TV
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