To Save Its Democracy, the United States Needs a Dose of Its Own Medicine

Americans have long worked abroad to promote democratic practices and institutions. Now, more than ever, those lessons must be applied at home.

People wait in line to vote on June 9, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia.
People wait in line to vote on June 9, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

Imagine the following scene: A country is burning. Minority communities and their allies are flooding major cities to protest human rights abuses and inequality. The president is a divisive demagogue who openly endorses violence against his critics in a cynical effort to bolster his waning support. The media, once a respected institution, has become caught in real-life crossfire, at risk of arrest and attack. And the police are no longer respected as guarantors of the rule of law but are instead seen as a threat to public safety.

Smoke plumes are visible in the capital city; government buildings and neighborhoods are tagged with anti-establishment graffiti while police headquarters are set ablaze; storefronts are shattered; police and ambulance sirens blare while helicopters buzz overhead; and citywide curfews are imposed.

This is precisely the kind of country that the United States regularly invests millions of dollars in to promote democracy. But today we are not speaking of the Democratic Republic of the Congo or the Philippines or Venezuela. It is the United States itself. The irony is that the U.S. government is crying out for the kind of democracy aid program that it regularly implements “over there” in so-called developing countries.

The U.S. government is crying out for the kind of democracy aid program that it regularly implements “over there” in so-called developing countries.

To be sure, the fault lines ingrained in the DNA of American democracy are nothing new. And while jarring, neither the killing of George Floyd by a uniformed white police officer nor the eruption of anguish that has followed should come as a shock.

Institutionalized racism and inequality, growing fissures between the haves and have-nots, and a political system that blatantly favors campaign war chests over candidate quality have long tarnished the United States’ democratic standing. And these concerns did not materialize overnight but are instead the inevitable outcome of the refusal of the world’s self-proclaimed “most powerful democracy” to recognize and genuinely address its own shortcomings.

Indeed, the United States urgently needs the sort of democracy promotion program that its leaders, often on a bipartisan basis, have long advocated abroad.

The complacency exhibited by U.S. political leaders is deeply entrenched, especially in Washington, where officials of all stripes appear to be oddly comfortable overseeing the steady erosion of the country’s democratic norms. The malaise has a deep cultural component that has its roots in the notion of American exceptionalism. According to this worldview, the United States is portrayed, envisioned, and often believed by its citizens to be fundamentally different from its global counterparts—often in a manner that elevates it above criticism.

This tendency to idealize U.S. democracy has been reinforced by the work of some of the organizations analyzing global democratic trends—such as Freedom House—which for too long framed the American project as the epitome of what a democracy should look like—the very standard, in other words, by which other countries are judged. Although organizations like Freedom House and others have recently raised serious concerns about the downward trajectory of U.S. democracy, as well as its global ramifications, this has yet to fully permeate the national consciousness.

As a result, this often distorting feedback loop, and the prevailing presumption of the United States’ strong institutions and good intentions, has served to mask the country’s fundamental flaws. Over the past several years in particular, these have included the continued economic and political marginalization of minority groups; the woeful underrepresentation of women in elected office; heavily gerrymandered electoral districts that create an uneven political playing field; the fomenting of political violence by extremist elected officials; and the grossly distorting influence of big money in politics.

This background helps to explain why there has been a bizarre acceptance of flawed political processes in the United States, including elections. The most extreme example was the U.S. political establishment’s endorsement of Brian Kemp as the governor of Georgia in 2018, despite glaring irregularities and the systematic discrimination and disenfranchisement that secured his victory. Kemp, who simultaneously served as Georgia’s secretary of state while running for office, clearly worked to make voting more difficult for his rival’s supporters, especially for people of color, who overwhelmingly backed his opponent, Stacey Abrams. Unsurprisingly, just this past week, Georgia was again the focus of widespread criticism for its abysmal handling of local elections.

Despite the damage that such exclusionary processes inflict on democracy, American political leaders have actively worked against each other to prevent reform. The fact that HR 1, the aptly titled For The People Act, which passed the House of Representatives in 2019—and would have expanded access to the ballot box, reduced the influence of big money in politics, and strengthened ethics rules for public servants—was blocked by the Senate is a perfect illustration of this predicament. The Republican leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, openly mocked the bill and vowed to not allow a vote on its substance—the sort of patently anti-democratic behavior that the U.S. government often condemns abroad.

President Donald Trump—a leader whose only consistent trait has been to rhetorically, and in practice, violate key principles of democracy and human rights—has helped accelerate America’s backsliding. All too often, however, commentators focus on Trump as if he alone explains the country’s democratic decline. In reality, he is more a symptom than a cause of a fractured political system that has been marked by growing polarization and distrust for many years.

In light of the evident decay of U.S. democracy, it is striking that, in recent years, the U.S. government has spent considerably more time, energy, and resources trying to make “democracy work” beyond its borders instead of at home. From its modest beginnings in the late 1980s, global spending on democracy promotion is now estimated to total around $8 billion to $10 billion a year (though U.S. spending has declined in recent years, even under the Obama administration). To be clear, these investments are not a bad thing—when implemented strategically and with a long-term focus, pro-democracy programs are a cost-effective way to protect and enhance the rights and livelihoods of millions of people across the world.

Imagine if the dedicated staff who work for the U.S. Agency for International Development were to travel home from their placements in countries such as Nigeria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh to conduct an evaluation of elections in North Carolina, Georgia, and Wisconsin.

However, imagine if the dedicated staff who work for the U.S. Agency for International Development were to travel home from their placements in countries such as Nigeria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh—several of the top recipients of U.S. democracy assistance—to conduct an evaluation of elections in North Carolina, Georgia, and Wisconsin. They would surely conclude that many of the projects they have been implementing abroad could help strengthen the U.S. political system at a time when it is desperately needed.

What the United States needs today, in fact, is a program of democratic renewal, learning from what has been most effective around the world. This should include immediate measures designed to reduce the risk of political instability—and potential violence—around the upcoming November elections and a longer-term reform process to rebuild confidence in the political system.

First, the United States needs a truth, justice, and reconciliation program to address the mistreatment of racial minorities by the police and related security forces. In countries such as South Africa, where the apartheid regime explicitly sought to exacerbate racial divisions, programs like this have both promoted healing and begun to identify further reforms that are needed for countries to move forward.

Ideally, this initiative would coincide with a peace pact accepted by the main political parties that would commit them to adhering to democratic principles and to not—tacitly or otherwise—incite violence in the lead-up to the November election. This approach, for example, has been effective in staving off political violence during elections in Guatemala.

Second, it is clear that major electoral reforms are needed to end the practice of gerrymandering and to prevent voter suppression—the deliberate use of unnecessarily demanding requirements for an individual to register to vote and to exercise basic democratic rights. As the Brennan Center for Justice and the Center for American Progress have both documented, the past decade has seen a “swelling cascade” of targeted efforts to suppress the vote of racial minorities.

This has often been justified on the basis that it is a much needed democratic reform, but in reality this kind of voter fraud has rarely been a significant problem in the United States—despite the outlandish claims of Republican leaders and Trump. (In fact, the most recent documented example of outright fraud involved ballot-tampering efforts on behalf of a Republican member of the House of Representatives in North Carolina, who stepped down in the wake of the allegations.)

The November election is too soon for truly systematic reform to be introduced, but it is possible to mitigate some of the fallout. For example, carefully targeted and well-funded Get Out the Vote campaigns, in countries such as Ivory Coast, have had considerable success at boosting registration rates among historically disenfranchised communities like minorities, women, and youth. The United States has a history of “rock the vote” campaigns, but in 2020, these need to be far more comprehensive and connected to existing efforts by state governments to lower the cost of voting, ideally including automatic voter registration or same-day registration, which has already been rolled out in 16 states and the District of Columbia.

And finally, the divisive use of social media and partisan attacks on all forms of media need to be brought to an end starting with Trump himself. To their credit, officials at Twitter recently made the decision to publicly fact-check Trump’s misleading tweets, and Snapchat also applied their terms of service to Trump’s incitement. In Kenya, following intense post-election violence in 2007, a program of “peace journalism” training was introduced to encourage professionals to think about the consequences of their statements.

Of course, this must be done carefully so that it does not lead to greater censorship, but along with extensive digital literacy campaigns—which should be taught in schools as well as over the airwaves—it can help reduce the spread and potency of misinformation. Together with careful media monitoring and the prosecution of those involved in hate speech or incitement, this could reduce the risk of election unrest.

In the long term, strengthening the system of checks and balances against the executive will also be critical. The Trump years have demonstrated—the ability of Congress to impeach the president notwithstanding—that many of the constraints assumed to be in place were rather informal and easily broken by a leader willing to flout precedent and commit unconstitutional, and potentially illegal, acts. The Economist Intelligence Unit has already demoted the United States from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy”—alongside countries as varied as Namibia, El Salvador, and Thailand—after it moved downward across a range of indicators, including inequality, political authoritarianism, and lack of trust in government.

This situation is bad for the United States and for the world writ large. Beleaguered activists abroad still look to Washington, imperfect as its politics may be, for hope and for solidarity in their democratic struggles. To betray these aspirations and fail to correct glaring democratic deficiencies at home is to betray the promise of democracy that American leaders have long preached to the world—and to their own citizens—for generations.

Jeffrey Smith is the founding director of the pro-democracy nonprofit organization Vanguard Africa. Twitter: @Smith_JeffreyT

Nic Cheeseman is a professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham and the author of How to Rig an Election. Twitter: @Fromagehomme