America: A Flawed Democracy?

Earlier this year media outlets such as USA Today, the Daily News, and Fortune magazine declared that the U.S.A. had been downgraded from a full to a flawed democracy. This, they reported, was the judgement of the British Economist magazine’s Intelligence Unit which, since 2006, has been rating and comparing 167 countries of the world.

Some other countries similarly “flawed” were Italy, Portugal, Chile, Ghana, Paraguay, Senegal, the Philippines, and Brazil, while the 19-member club of “full democracies” included such states as the United Kingdom, Uruguay, Spain, and Canada with the laurels for first place going to Norway.

Comparing with one from the first league

To choose one country from that group, one wonders what criteria was used to declare that Canada was more democratic. It obviously had nothing to do with how the chief executive (prime minister or president) was appointed as Canada’s is chosen by members of parliament while America’s is democratically elected. Also, the right of the people to use initiatives to bypass recalcitrant politicians and change laws and constitutions themselves, as practised in many states below the border but not above it, was apparently not a factor. Surprisingly, one would think that members of the legislature being appointed by, and dismissed by, the voters would be a fundamental, and heavily weighted ingredient, but apparently not by the fact that members of Canada’s Senate, which has full powers to block all legislation, are appointed at the discretion of the prime minister and normally cannot be removed until reaching the age of 75. Also, considering a loose definition of democracy would be the power of the voters to control the laws and the people who rule over them, one might think the right to elect judges, attorneys-general, secretaries of state, sheriffs, county commissioners, superintendents of schools, etc. would also be relevant, but again, apparently not. In fact, it’s truly had to see any aspect where Canada does excel. True, America does not grant minorities a voice with proportional representation, nor does it utilise preferential (choice or alternative) voting, but then, neither does Canada.

So what does the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) declare as relevant factors in creating their annual Democracy Index? In coming to their conclusions, the EIU measure each country’s tally as the total of the answers to 60 weighted questions asked by whom they describe as their experts. Initially, the fact the result comes from a plethora of questions rather than a handful, might give the reader high confidence in it, until one notices that with over 70% of them, either their relationship to democracy is questionable or they are subjective in nature.

So what criteria was used?

For example, Question 29 awards points according to the percentage of women in the nation’s parliament. But if the voters, both men and women, choose for whatever reason fewer women, why should that be undemocratic? Similarly, Q. 28 credits those states where minorities have a voice in the political process. Does that mean one of the most monocultural countries in the world, Japan, loses points because it has no minorities to give a political voice to? With obvious disregard for Charles-Louis Montesquieu’s theory of the separation of powers from the Enlightenment, another EIU question offers full points if “…the legislature [is] the supreme political body, with a clear supremacy over other branches of government…”

With regards to subjectivity, Q.6 asks if “laws provide for broadly equal campaigning opportunities,” and even if “formally” they do, “in practice, [are] opportunities limited for some candidates”? Just how does one accurately estimate that?

In the section of questions headed ‘Functioning of Government’ the described experts are tasked with ascertaining: how pervasive corruption is; how open and transparent is the government; the public confidence in government, as well as in political parties; and the degree to which “special economic, religious or other powerful domestic groups exercise significant political power, parallel to democratic institutions”. Under ‘Political Participation,’ results are somehow measured on the “citizens’ engagement with politics,” “the preparedness of [the] population to take part in lawful demonstrations” and the “extent [the] adult population shows an interest in and follows politics in the news.”

Some questions even combine the two aspects. Q. 24 enquires into the popular perceptions of the extent to which citizens have free choice and control over their lives. But if in a completely free and fair vote, a nation’s citizens, in precarious times, chose security over freedom in their preferred political party, how is that a negative reflection of democracy? And to the degree that it might be, how on earth do you gauge the extent to which the citizens believe they have free choice and control?

Choosing the ‘experts’

With this gargantuan task to get the correct answers to these many fluid questions, one becomes interested to know who the EIU has chosen as its experts, as well as the scores they gave each county for each of the 60 questions. To find that out appears equally difficult.

The so-called Subscription Service of the EIU was happy to return an email giving perfunctory information about its Democracy Index, but when questions were asked about experts and individual scores, correspondence was no longer returned. As the Wikipedia entry on the EIU Democracy Index states, "the report does not indicate what kinds of experts, nor their number, nor whether the experts are employees of the Economist Intelligence Unit or independent scholars, nor the nationalities of the experts. Some answers are provided by public-opinion surveys from the respective countries. In the case of countries for which survey results are missing, survey results for similar countries and expert assessments are used in order to fill in gaps."

The results of these bordering-on-the-meaningless questions may be weighted, but sooner or later the aggregation of them is going to earn more points than such measures as whether the voters have the right to elect the executive, or if citizens’ initiated referenda are tolerated.

Which bring us to ask: is it really that difficult to create a list of questions eliciting answers that do not depend on polls, interpretations or opinions of “experts?” For example, in ascertaining if there is a free press, rather than asking if our expert believes there is “open and free discussion of public issues, with a reasonable diversity of opinions” or perhaps “formal freedom, but a …discouragement of minority or marginal views,” might not one ask: if non-government media is the majority source for news in the country; that subject to criminal or bankruptcy history, establishing a media outlet is an easily defined process and not subject to the arbitrary decision of a government official; that subject to exceptions such as libel, inciting criminal violence, or revealing state secrets, if anyone has ever been prosecuted for a published editorial?

In fact, many questions eliciting a degree of democracy can be objective, and when weighted, would seem to be a reasonable indicator of measuring democracy.

That even dictatorships such as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany) have aspired to assume the cachet of being considered democratic, would mean that to be described as such is a universally acclaimed good. If “intelligence” organisations should appoint themselves a public arbiter of this virtue, one would think they should adopt the professionalism to endeavour to be as correct as is feasible possible, rather than allow themselves to be viewed as sloppy in their procedures, or even using their position to create procedures to manufacture answers that align with their personal prejudices and preferences.

Philip Lillingston is the publisher of the website which looks at various aspects of democracy as well as maintaining a glossary of political terms.

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