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How the U.S. became a 'backsliding democracy,' according to a European think tank


The U.S. has long considered itself the foremost voice for democratic values in the world. Voter engagement, checks and balances on government, impartial administration - all factors that make up a modern democracy. But a think tank called International IDEA says right now the U.S. is a backsliding democracy. The group watches and reports out rankings on governments around the world. And when I spoke to the report's lead writer Annika Silva-Leander, I asked her about her evidence of U.S. decline.

ANNIKA SILVA-LEANDER: So what we see for the U.S. is declines in effective parliament. And we saw that decline particularly up until the 2018 midterm elections. And I think that was, to a large extent, also due to the weakened effective congressional oversight that was occurring at the time, including the obstruction of congressional inquiries and refusal of the executive branch to cooperate with impeachment proceedings. So I think the indicator on effective parliament is the one that has been severely affected as opposed to judicial independence, which is the case in other backsliding contexts and also declines on freedom of expression and freedom of association and assembly.

CORNISH: Is there a way to kind of slow a backsliding process? Can you reverse the backsliding? How do you look at this?

SILVA-LEANDER: Democratic backsliding processes are not irreversible. So they can be reversed and slowed down. I think, for example, in cases where legislation has been passed and constitutional reforms have been passed that, for example, weaken judiciaries, the backsliding process can be undone by removing that legislation or those constitutional revisions. I think also long-term work when it comes to education - educating younger generations in newer and older democracies about the practice of democracy, the value of democracy, I think, is also an important part of the equation that people and young people, newer generations even in older democracy do not take democracy for granted. I think that's more long-term work.

CORNISH: This is the first time that your think tank has rated the U.S. as a backsliding democracy. But the U.S. is supposed to be sort of the flag bearer of democracy. Was this strange? You know, how do you look at this?

SILVA-LEANDER: I think for many of those studying U.S. democracy, this should not come as a surprise. But we definitely - what we've seen - the culmination of this deterioration, which occurred in January 2021 with the events in the Capitol, I think, really raised the alarm bells in a more severe way than before. But this is a process that has been occurring in the last couple of years. I would say that this is a culmination of events and trends that have happened in the last couple of years.

CORNISH: I guess the last thing I want to ask, finally - is there a flipside to this, meaning are there areas where democracy in the U.S. has actually gotten stronger?

SILVA-LEANDER: We've seen increasing levels of electoral participation in the U.S., particularly in the last elections. 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. 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. It's still low compared to many other countries, but it's an increase compared to where the U.S. was a decade ago.

CORNISH: Annika Silva-Leander from the think tank International IDEA, thanks so much for talking with us.

SILVA-LEANDER: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Audie Cornish
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
Mano Sundaresan is a producer at NPR.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.