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Democracy is declining in the U.S. but it's not all bad news, a report finds

The January 6 attack on the Capitol raised alarm bells for a think tank studying democracy.
Samuel Corum
Getty Images
The January 6 attack on the Capitol raised alarm bells for a think tank studying democracy.

The United States has been labeled a "backsliding democracy" in a new report from the European think tank International IDEA.

"I think for many of those studying U.S. democracy, this should not come as a surprise," the report's lead author, Annika Silva-Leander, said.

International IDEA measured the global state of democracy in 2020 and 2021 using 28 "indicators" of democracy based on five "core pillars."

The core pillars were representative government, fundamental rights, checks on government, impartial administration and participatory engagement.

"What we see for the U.S. is a decline in effective parliament. And we saw that decline particularly up until the 2018 midterm elections," Silva-Leander said.

A historic turning point came when former President Donald Trump baselessly questioned the results of the 2020 elections, according to the report.

Silva-Leander said the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol "really raised the alarm bells in a more severe way than before."

Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as people try to storm the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Brent Stirton / Getty Images
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Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as people try to storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

The report places the United States' backsliding in a broader global shift toward authoritarianism, which the authors say was exacerbated by the pandemic.

It found the number of countries trending toward authoritarianism in 2020 outnumbered those moving in a more democratic direction, and that Trump's allegations during the 2020 election had a "spillover effect" on elections in Brazil, Mexico, Myanmar and Peru.

The report also found more than a quarter of the world's population was now living in democratically backward countries that, together with those living in outright nondemocratic regimes, made up more than two-thirds of the total population.

The U.S. can still help counteract global backslide, expert says

Susan Hyde is a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley.

She agrees with the finding that Trump refusing to accept the election result was a key moment, along with "the degree to which his followers have been willing to go along with that assessment, regardless of evidence provided to the contrary, and use violence to support that."

Donald Trump is singled out in the think tank's report on democracy.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
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Donald Trump is singled out in the think tank's report on democracy.

Hyde says the U.S. can help counteract the global backslide by continuing to promote democracy abroad.

"What the U.S. does in terms of promoting democracy is really powerful in creating an alternative to other powerful states like China, and to some extent Russia, who are becoming increasingly antagonistic toward the U.S. and toward other democracies," she said.

Hyde said the U.S. was most effective at promoting democracy when it admitted that democracy required maintenance and was an ongoing struggle.

"I think being very public about the struggle and what we're doing about it is something that can be effective as framing for democracy promotion in other countries. I don't think it's ever been the case that you're required to have a perfect democracy at home before you can promote it abroad," she said.

Still, it wasn't all bad for American democracy, according to Silva-Leander.

"We've seen increasing levels of electoral participation in the U.S., particularly in the last elections," she said.

"And we saw a 7% increase of voter turnout, which marks the highest turnout in any federal election in the U.S. since at least 1980. So that's one very positive development — that there is more political engagement and more participation in elections."

There were also more women appointed to Congress than ever before.

"We've seen a 50% increase of women's representation compared to a decade ago, the highest percentage in U.S. history now with 27% of members of Congress being women," Silva-Leander said.

"It's still low compared to many other countries, but it's an increase compared to where the U.S. was a decade ago."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mano Sundaresan is a producer at NPR.
Amy Isackson

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