U.S., European Countries Taken to Task for Democratic Polarization, Backsliding
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WASHINGTON, DC — A study released today by the Transatlantic Academy reveals that North America and Europe are facing an increasingly worrying and severe democratic disconnect. In Europe, serious democratic backsliding can be seen in a number of countries, and the distance between ordinary citizens and the politicians and bureaucrats in Brussels compromises democratic legitimacy. The problem is not one of polarization, but the absence of space for effective democratic decision-making in the face of markets and international institutions. In contrast, in the United States gridlock and polarization are growing more extreme, and in Canada there is concern that the political system places largely unaccountable power in the hands of the prime minister. Democratic governments on both sides of the Atlantic are neither as responsive nor as accountable as they need to be in an era of hard choices and rising non-democratic powers.
The Democratic Disconnect – Citizenship and Accountability in the Transatlantic Community, the 2012 collaborative report by North American and European fellows of the Transatlantic Academy, analyzes the state and future of the liberal order in the Atlantic community. It assesses the new challenges, dangers, and opportunities faced by Western governments and civil societies as they confront severe economic and financial constraints, demographic shifts, and an increasingly globalized, multipolar world. The study argues that the solution to democracy’s crisis lies in reinvigorating liberalism, not in searching for or accepting the inevitability of authoritarianism. Western democracy can and must be renewed, and the starting point should be a focus on reconnecting citizens with their public institutions.
“Democratic crises are not new but what is different today is the cumulative and accelerating impact of globalization, technology and markets on democratic accountability and concepts of citizenship. The major trends and challenges behind this new democratic crisis is what the Transatlantic Academy fellows grapple with in this study, as they offer ways for the transatlantic community to reinvigorate its democracies,” said Stephen F. Szabo, executive director of the Transatlantic Academy, in introducing the study.
The Democratic Disconnect – Citizenship and Accountability in the Transatlantic Community was authored by the 2012-13 Transatlantic Academy fellows: Seyla Benhabib, Yale University; David Cameron, University of Toronto; Anna Dolidze, University of Western Ontario; Gábor Halmai, Princeton University; Gunther Hellmann, Johann Wolfgang Goethe University; Kateryna Pishchikova, Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna; and Richard Youngs, FRIDE.
To effectively help revitalize democracy in the transatlantic space, the report offers a number of key actions. These include:
(1) Improving Citizen Access to and Participation in the U.S. Political System. A series of electoral debacles, such as the “hanging chads” in Florida in the 2000 presidential elections and the long voter lines in the 2012 elections, demonstrate that the United States is falling far behind its Canadian and European peers in democratic procedures. Making voter registration efficient and fair, and ridding the system of vote-suppression techniques are badly needed initiatives. More generally, federal and state legislation plus adequate resources are required to bring the “mechanics” of voting up to contemporary international standards.
(2) Redistricting Reform in the United States. Gerrymandering has been a blight on U.S. politics since the early days of the republic. Partisan redistricting produces districts that have little to do with democratic representation and a lot to do with the interest of political elites and reducing political competition. As in most other established democracies, and in California since 2012, redistricting should be done by independent electoral commissions.
(3) Democracy Promotion in Hybrid Regimes. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, a number of European countries embarked on the path to democratization but stalled along the way. These “hybrid” regimes, which contain a mixture of liberal and illiberal institutions and actors, should be more effectively engaged by the transatlantic community. This would entail shifting the focus from privileging links with governments or opposition leaders to direct engagement with different groups in public, private, and civic realms. Only by enhancing long-term links with different stakeholders in society and empowering them can democracy promotion be truly effective in countries stuck halfway between democracy and authoritarianism.
(4) EU as Guardian of Liberal Order within Europe. If a member state of the European Union seems systematically to undermine the rule of law and restrict democracy, Brussels has a responsibility to act. The European Commission should be required to cut subsidies for infrastructure projects, or impose significant fines. The Commission could also take a member state to the European Court for infringement of the treaties, and other European leaders should make it clear to offending leaders that there are consequences for leaving the broad European road of liberal democracy. Hungary and Romania, which joined the EU in 2004 and 2007 and since have both undergone some degree of democratic backsliding, could be potential areas of focus for Brussels.