Post #321: Downhill from the Summit for Democracy

The just-concluded Summit for Democracy was intended to be a rallying point for democratic and nearly-democratic states, with pep talks on confronting rising authoritarianism and building democratic institutions.  One hundred countries were invited. (The invitation list is at https://www.state.gov/participant-list-the-summit-for-democracy/.)  Most of them are considered by Freedom House to be “free” based on its ranking system, which ranks 210 nations and territories. But nearly a third (32) of the invited countries are rated as only “partly free” or “not free.” China (9) and Russia (20) were not invited, of course; their governments reacted angrily. To the credit of the organizers, several countries generally close to the United States but with authoritarian leaderships were also not invited: Turkey (32), Saudi Arabia (7), Hungary (69), Thailand (30), Qatar (25), Singapore (48), and Egypt (14). Most of their governments were angry, too. (I have listed the scores of all the invited countries below.)

Biden spokespersons reacted defensively to criticism of the uneven invitation list. They gave all kinds of reasons for what the event was not about, such as not deciding which countries are truly democratic, not drawing new cold-war lines, and not letting US domestic politics be the reason for the summit. But in fact the purpose of the event was the event, part of Biden’s ideological and values-based approach to international affairs (https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/biden-democracy-autocracy-summit/2021/12/06/67558116-56ad-11ec-929e-95502bf8cdd5_story.html). Frankly, I don’t think history will take note of this event, since I find it hard to imagine that democratic prospects in any country, invited or not, will be influenced by speeches at conferences.

The Disconnect

Surely the biggest problem for the Summit is at home: the disconnect between democracy in theory and democracy in practice in the host country. Freedom House ranks the US at 83, alongside South Korea and Romania, a considerable fall from the pre-Trump years when it ranked in the mid-90s. I don’t have to belabor the obvious: Democracy American-style is under attack from right-wing authoritarianism and white nationalism, and is failing. The “shining example” espoused by the country’s founders has lost its sheen. Opinion polls such as Pew Research regularly conducts may show that, compared with China or Russia, the US still has a more favorable rating among international audiences, but that will not fool anyone.

Evidently not young people: As the Summit approached, Harvard University’s Institute of Politics reported that a new national poll of America’s 18- to 29-year-olds found that nearly two-thirds (64%) have more fear than hope about the future of democracy in America. Those surveyed, regardless of party, cited politicians, money, and the media as the main reasons for democracy’s decline.(https://iop.harvard.edu/about/newsletter-press-release/nearly-two-thirds-young-americans-fearful-about-future-democracy).

“Politicians,” yes, but not just any politicians. As the Washington Post editorialized December 8:

It is easy to take for granted the mechanics of U.S. democracy, which have functioned without fanfare for generations, and to imagine that someone, somewhere along the line would stop a wayward canvasser, county clerk, secretary of state or state legislature. If not civil servants or elected officials, then at least the courts would have final say. This naive view ignores the damage that a prolonged controversy involving highly partisan state officials would do to the U.S. political system’s legitimacy, which Mr. Trump and his acolytes have already undermined.  . . . Democracy works because people of good faith oversee the votes and respect the outcome of free and fair elections. Increasingly, the Republican Party threatens this foundational principle.

One critic of the Summit for Democracy observed that if another country that receives US aid tolerated the dismantling of democracy such as has happened in several US states, “it would immediately be called out as a threat to democracy. U.S. diplomats would be writing furious cables, and decision makers would be threatening to cut off the flow of assistance” (Washington Post article of December 6 cited earlier).

Save the Republic vs. The Big Lie: It is hard to believe we Americans are in a fight for the survival of constitutional government against right-wing authoritarians who quite literally wants to take the country down. This banana Republicanism, led by a would-be dictator, may well be on the cusp of success. As Barton Gellman, the Atlantic writer, is saying, January 6 was mere practice for the seditionists. Maybe we should pay attention to democracy’s development elsewhere—such as to Chile’s election of Gabriel Boric, who hopes to implement a new constitution centered on human rights and environmental protection; and to South Korea’s pardon of the corrupt former president, Park Guen-hye, who had been impeached, convicted, and jailed.

President Biden would do well to focus on these realities rather than pretend that celebrating democracy at a summit will strengthen it. He needs to push for ending the filibuster, fight for voting rights and social well-being, and name and shame the enemies of democracy.

Summit for Democracy: Invited Participants and Freedom House Scores

https://freedomhouse.org/countries/freedom-world/scores


Note on Rankings: Countries ranked from 70-100 are considered “free,” those below 70 but above 39 are “partly free,” and those below 40 are “not free.”

Albania 66
Angola 31
Antigua and Barbuda 85
Argentina 84
Armenia 55
Australia 97
Austria 93
Bahamas n.a.
Barbados 95
Belgium 96
Belize 87
Botswana 72
Brazil 74
Bulgaria 78
Cabo Verde 92
Canada 98
Chile 93
Colombia 65
Costa Rica 91
Croatia 85
Cyprus 94
Czech Republic 91
Democratic Republic of Congo 20
Denmark 97
Dominica 93
Dominican Republic 67
Ecuador 67
Estonia 94
European Union n.a.
Fiji 60
Finland 100
France 90
Georgia 60
Germany 94
Ghana 82
Greece 87
Grenada 89
Guyana 73
Iceland 94
India 67
Indonesia 59
Iraq 29
Ireland 97
Israel 76
Italy 90
Jamaica 80
Japan 96
Kenya 48
Kiribati 93
Kosovo 54
Latvia 89
Liberia 60
Lithuania 90
Luxembourg 97
Malawi 66
Malaysia 51
Maldives 40
Malta 90
Marshall Islands 93
Mauritius 87
Mexico 61
Micronesia 92
Moldova 61
Mongolia 84
Montenegro 63
Namibia 77
Nauru 77
Nepal 56
Netherlands 98
New Zealand 99
Niger 48
Nigeria 45
North Macedonia 66
Norway 100
Pakistan 37
Palau 92
Panama 83
Papua New Guinea 62
Paraguay 65
Peru 71
Philippines 56
Poland 82
Portugal 96
Republic of Korea 83
Romania 83
Saint Kitts and Nevis 89
Saint Lucia 91
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines 91
Samoa 81
Sao Tome &Principe n.a.
Senegal 71
Serbia 64
Seychelles 77
Slovakia 90
Slovenia 95
Solomon Islands 79
South Africa 79
Spain 90
Suriname 79
Sweden 100
Switzerland 96
Taiwan 94
Timor-Leste 72
Tonga 79
Trinidad and Tobago 82
Tuvalu 93
Ukraine 60
United Kingdom 93
Uruguay 98
Vanuatu 82
Zambia 52

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3 Comments

  1. Good point and reason for important discussions.The disparity between
    definition and practice of representative forms of government
    immediately rouses suspicion in my mind when used to define many
    countries. My mom was a communist who hated Russia because they WEREN’T
    communists.. My dad was a Social Democrat who searched in vain for a
    Social Democracy.The USSR was not a consortium of socialist countries,
    the Peoples Democracy of Congo is an undisputed dictatorship .Will the
    proud United States of America become on of those whose stated form of
    government varies greatly from it’s stated definition? We’re headed there…

       Thanks for thought provoking messages Mel…  Hope you and yours are
    safe in these times, Eric

  2. Thanks for this, Mel. While I am way over 29, I am very, very worried, and I, too, wish Biden and his gang would focus more on voting rights, the Supreme Court, etc.

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