Have you been feeling like democracy is in trouble lately? According to this report, you're right.
We've discussed before how young people are losing their faith in democracy. The problems of democratic government are many, and the failure to resolve them can lead to a decline in the trust people have for public institutions, political apathy, tribalism, and worse. While democracy offers us many good things, it is highly dependent on popular support to function.
But, unpopularity might be the least of democracy's problems.
The annual Democracy Index report by the Economist Intelligence Unit shows that democratic governments are in trouble everywhere. Of the 167 countries ranked this year, 89 of them received lower scores than last year. The scores reflect a wide range of liberties, attitudes, and norms that are vital elements of a free society.
How does it work?
The report ranks countries on a scale of 0-10 in the categories of electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, government functionality, political participation, and political culture. Each of those categories is further composed of a dozen, more concrete, indicators. The scores are then aggregated to create a single score for the state of freedom and democracy in that country.
A country's overall score then places it in one of four categories: full democracy, flawed democracy, hybrid regime or authoritarian regime. The map which shows how each country ranks is rather interesting.
As you can see, darker greens correspond to higher scores for the health of a democracy. Red and yellow countries are hardly democratic at all. Credit: The Economist Intelligence Unit.
So, how bad is it?
This year less than half of the world's population lives in a democracy "of some sort." While the margin is thin, a one percent swing would tip the scale; it is symbolic of the decline of democracy over the last decade. One-third of the global population lives in outright authoritarian regimes, primarily due to the massive population of the People's Republic of China. The percentage of the world's population that lives in a "full democracy" fell to less than five percent.
Asia was a significant driver behind this decline. India, a democracy since independence, saw a substantial fall in its score due to increasing religious and ethnic unrest. Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam all descended further into authoritarianism, and the recent religiously focused election for the governor of Jakarta caused Indonesia to see a major drop in its score.
The average Asian country is now a hybrid regime, as opposed to the full democracies which are typical in Europe and North America. The average Latin American country is a flawed democracy, although Uruguay has the distinction of being the only developing country which is also a full democracy.
Uruguay's government is already rather unusual. As former president Jose "Pepe" Mujica donated nearly his entire income to charity.
Why did this happen?
While some of the global decline is attributable to the gratuitous use of authoritarian tactics, such as the Spanish response to the ever-rebellious Catalonia or the crackdowns on dissent in Venezuela, some of it was due to much more subtle problems in the established democracies.
The report cites a "serious decline" in trust for governmental institutions for the decay of the United States' score, which fell low enough in 2015 to earn the title of "flawed democracy." The authors suggested that the decline was caused by factors which go back to the 1960s and helped facilitate the election of Donald Trump.
The authors also warn that many elements of a falling score can create vicious cycles, such as increasing polarization preventing government functionality. The decline in functionality almost inevitably leads to further erosion of confidence in public institutions.
Is there any good news in the report?
Some nations managed to improve their scores. The Gambia, in particular, saw so much improvement that it was promoted to a hybrid regime. Norway can celebrate its eighth year at the top of the list, scoring 9.87 points after a slight drop from last year.
It is also important to remember that while many nations are listed as "flawed" democracies, being even a hundredth of a point below the cut off is the same as being a full point below it. This year the United States tied with Italy at 7.98 points, making both nations "flawed" democracies.
The authors also see some reasons to be optimistic. "If 2016 was notable for the populist insurgency against mainstream political parties and politicians in the developed democracies of Europe and North America, 2017 was defined by a backlash against populism," they write. As the decline in democratic norms in many nations was the result of populism gone mad, the reversal of the trend might offer hope for democratic norms in those places.
Last year was a difficult year for democracy around the world. Between direct challenges to freedom in places like China, Vietnam, and Venezuela and a deterioration in democratic norms in places like the United States, the world became a little less safe for democracy. If this report will be the beginning of a new trend or a blip on the march of democracy is yet to be seen.
One of the lesser-discussed but potentially most disastrous appointments is in education: Betsy DeVos. Her anti-intellectual agenda would take root in the nation's youngest minds, filtering down through descendant generations.
Richard Hofstadter is in vogue. Since Donald Trump’s ascension the term ‘anti-intellectualism’ has been used endlessly, in part thanks to the President's announcement that, “I love the poorly educated.”
Hofstadter’s work is more nuanced, of course. He recognized intellectual appreciation is cyclical, dependent upon cultural forces. Obama has been derided as professorial, a quality many other Americans appreciate; journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates recently expressed awe over just how intelligent a mind he has. With Trump we’ve entered a new (or old) phase of the cycle.
This can be witnessed in his cabinet appointments. A secretary of state with questionable economic ties to oppressive regimes; a secretary of energy who wants to abolish that agency (if he could only remember its name); a labor secretary who disdains higher minimum wages but loves carnivorous women in bikinis; a climate change skeptic running the EPA.
One of the lesser-discussed but potentially most disastrous confirmations is in education. Betsy DeVos criticized Trump and even raised funds for other GOP candidates, but she fits perfectly into the ‘poorly educated’ narrative. Like other picks she wants to shrink the agency she’s being put in charge of by handing over power to state and local agencies while promoting school vouchers.
The voucher program supports free-market competition, a running theme in the coming administration. For example, Jim O’Neill, a potential pick to run the FDA, has stated that the government needs less oversight and fewer clinical trials; he claims the market will figure it out. DeVos toes a similar line in education. She plans on breaking up the “government-run monopoly” public school system in favor of private, charter, and—we can argue, especially—religious school training.
DeVos and her husband, Dick, are billionaires with a strong belief in Christianity—she once stated that school choice will “advance God’s kingdom.” They’ve argued public schools have “displaced” the church in American life. As an activist DeVos has made it her mission to undermine the system through vouchers, shepherding young minds into schools that aren’t subject to that inconvenient First Amendment.
In Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Hofstadter reminds readers that religion is not inherently opposed to education. In fact intellectual life flourished due to Protestantism in the 18th and 19th centuries—the same church DeVos was brought up in. But oh, how religions change. What happened was not purely American, Hofstadter argues, but a natural consequence of intellectual development in religious communities. A fracture between “mind and heart” started the slow dissolution of intellectual pursuits.
Long before America was discovered, the Christian community was perennially divided between those who believed the intellect must have a vital place in religion and those who believed that intellect should be subordinated to emotion, or in effect abandoned at the dictates of emotion.
As the country grew and tribes splintered the race for a pure Christianity commenced. As enthusiasm for boisterous new movements evolved the “learned professional clergy suffered a loss of position.” Rational religion, Hofstadter argues, declined as citizens relied more on their reptilian paralimbic survival mechanism: my way or no way.
Let’s consider Hofstadter’s sentiment in light of a more current understanding of neuroscience. No matter how logical a thinker one might be, our brains are designed to respond to our environment quickly and accordingly, meaning emotional reactions always occur first. There are techniques (such as meditation) that strengthen the resolve between the paralimbic system and the prefrontal cortex, the reasoning portion of the brain. This means you’re able to feel an emotional response but not immediately lash out in fear, disdain, or hatred. You’re able to see many sides of an argument without always defaulting to your own.
The problem is this process requires an education to understand. By appealing to and championing emotions over all else—by espousing a specific religious ideology, for example—people like DeVos short-circuit the slow and arduous process of critical thought necessary to differentiate between imagination and reality. They believe their way is the way. Once that happens silencing your opposition is easy. You have made yourself believe you have a divine mandate, which trumps all earthly rationality. Education becomes secondary to allegiance to that belief. And if education contradicts or stifles that belief, it must be eradicated at all costs.
That’s a dangerous mindset in an ailing public school system. American education is the most expensive in the world, yet recent results are lackluster; we currently rank fourteenth in the world. Since 90 percent of private schools are associated with a religious group, DeVos’s ‘choice’ is really not one at all. She’ll be attempting to indoctrinate broad swaths of children into a system that teaches a particular way of viewing the world, one that is more emotional, less rational, and in accordance to what she believes.
We call cities bubbles, but so are nations. America is the only developed country besides Australia with elected officials who deny climate change. Some of those same figures give credence to creationism. It’s hard to take seriously men and women spouting such ridiculous ideas, yet their prominent positions of power afford them the ability to legislate. That’s only going to get worse with the coming administration.
DeVos is right on one thing: public schools are in trouble. Not only do we need to focus more on science and math, especially as the latter discipline pertains to critical thinking in statistics (so we’ll stop believing biased polls and research, as well as fake news), we need a stronger appreciation of and education in the arts, fitness, nutrition, and sexuality. Growing legions of under-cultured brains do not make for a sound cultural mind. While it’s wonderful that six-year-olds can develop apps, learning how to treat your partner and respecting other cultures is equally if not more important in the larger scope of life.
Overlooking Betsy DeVos is dangerous. She has an agenda, one that will accomplish the worst fate of all: turning the clock back centuries on young minds through magical and biased thinking.
Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/4/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.