I switched on the television this morning to witness quite a bizarre speech by the American President. It started off upbeat and confident; that of someone on the verge of a victory, with only notes of caution – moderated to account for the unexpected – but citing success in State after State after State. Then suddenly the tone changed, becoming accusatorial and threatening, Trump claiming “this is a fraud on the American public, this is an embarrassment to our country” alleging fraudulent use of postal ballots. I was perplexed; what started off as a victory speech u-turned into one undermining the legitimacy of the process claiming “we are going to the United States Supreme Court. We want all voting to stop.”
I don’t know why I was baffled by what I saw. In many ways the short presentation was emblematic of the way Trump has presided – speeches filled with contradictions, challenges, division, vitriol and contempt. Unfortunately, adjectives that could be equally applied to political debate in many countries across the world in current times.
It made me think of a statistic I found a while back which showed the gradual disengagement of younger people with democracy. Not the same source, but reflective of the issue, I came across the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2019. The annual study of 167 countries looks at five measures – electoral process and pluralism, the functioning of government, political participation, democratic political culture and civil liberties. In combination, the study recorded a level of 5.44 out of 10, the lowest level since being established in 2006. I am not sure when the 2020 findings are released but my guess is that this year will post another record low.
The graph below shows the scores of the individual components of the index since 2008.
With the exception of political participation, all of the measures are in decline. The EIU attributes these trends to division – growth of elite/expert governance, growth of unelected influence, decisions being taken behind closed doors – and a decline in civil liberties, including media freedom and freedom of speech.
Somewhere along the line it would seem there is a disconnect within the system. Whilst on many measures we see improvement in the lives of many, this does not seem to correlate to an increase in our overall well-being or happiness. It is as if the traditional governance structures in our society are at best viewed with deep suspicion or, at worst, no longer considered fit for purpose. Moreover, these views are not confined to nations seeking to free themselves of autocratic leaders but are reflected in nations enjoying a free and fair vote.
No doubt the US Presidential election result will be far from clear cut or, indeed, gracefully accepted. Whether it is Biden or Trump who prevails, we are unquestionably in for weeks or even months of angst and dispute, conspiracy and accusation. When it is all concluded, the biggest loser in my mind is that of democracy.