Is the US Still the City Upon the Hill for Liberal Democracies Everywhere?

A caricature of the violent caning of Senator Charles Sumner by Representative Preston Brooks in the US Congress in 1856. October 3, 2011. (Elycefeliz/Flickr Creative Commons)

A sense of exceptionalism is bred in people of the United States, starting as early as preschool. From its very genesis, the US was a “City Upon A Hill,” an ideological beacon of light that Puritans sought to erect as a shining example for the rest of the world. Even in 2015, exceptionalism finds its way into the rhetoric of politicians across party lines.  It seems to imply “We are Number One.” Number one in what exactly? Prisoners? Guns? Military spending? Drone Strikes? Entitlement? You get the picture.

The patriotic sentiment does seem to stem from a deeply held belief that the US exemplifies the ideal nation-state: a Liberal democracy. However, with unsettling rates of inequality, a failing education system, Congressional gridlock and money insidiously creeping into every piece of legislation, how much of a Liberal democratic role model is it really?

Many now question whether the US has evolved into more of an oligarchy than the democratic republic that, at least theoretically, lies at the foundational doctrine of the nation. While many still use the same rhetoric found in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, the backdrop of reality has marred it with emptiness. “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups and Average Citizens,” a study conducted by Princeton and Northwestern universities, sought to determine the foundation of American sovereignty in the United States: do the citizens truly govern, or is it the elites who have appropriated control of practically every political institution? Though there’s enough empirical evidence to suggest that it’s the top 1% who dominate policy decisions, like the way in which the Koch brothers “choose” the Republican nominee for President, the study used a statistical model to analyze its data. In fact, researchers found that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.” What’s more disturbing, however, is the disparity between the interests of The People and those of special interest. According to the study, “the net alignments of the most influential, business-oriented groups are negatively related to the average citizen’s wishes. So existing interest groups do not serve effectively as transmission belts for the wishes of the populace as a whole.” In a system where the majority of citizens will generally lose when pitted up against the interest of the economic elites, there’s much less of an exceptional democracy and more of an obfuscated oligarchy.

Even without the allure of democracy, the US has begun sending a message to the international community that their system is inefficient—worse, it has entered a state of political paralysis. When NPR asked Thomas Risse of the Free University in Berlin how the partisan political machine may appear to outsiders, he admitted it seemed “pretty dysfunctional,” reflecting a pervasive sentiment towards the US that a good piece of the American populace neither sees nor cares much about. A look at the Pew Research Center reports on international public opinion of the US paints an alarming picture of countries considered allies. The percent of those with a favorable view of the US in France, the United Kingdom, Germany, China and Turkey hovered around 75%, 66%, 51%, 50% and 19% respectively. For countries that the US expects to support its national interests, their public opinion poses significant obstacles. The US must consider the implications of unfavorable public opinion and the inevitable influence it will have in foreign policy—there is only so far that military power can advance a nation lacking the respect and admiration of the international community.

However, it isn’t just opinion. The United States falls short of the vision it projects to the world.  In fact, the 113th Congress of the United States has won the title of least productive Congress in history, passing a mere 234 bills; it also managed to completely shut down the government. At what point do these shortcomings become enough of a pressing issue to constitute reform measures? 

Afghanistan 151 Cyprus 42 Kenya 97 Sierra Leone 109
Angola 133 Djibouti 145 Republic of Korea 21 Singapore 75
Benin 90 Dominican Republic 59 Liberia 101 Sudan 153
Bolivia 83 Ecuador 79 Malawi 89 Tajikistan 156
Brazil 44 El Salvador 64 Mexico 57 Turkmenistan 160
Burundi 134 Equatorial Guinea 164 Nicaragua 94 Uganda 96
Chile 32 Ghana 68 Nigeria 121 USA 19
Colombia 62 Guatemala 82 Palau N/A Uruguay 17
Comoros 127 Guinea 143 Panama 47 Uzbekistan 154
Republic of Congo 146 Guyana 78 Paraguay 71 Venezuela 100
Costa Rica 24 Honduras 80 Philippines 53
Cote d’Ivoire 126 Indonesia 49 Seychelles N/A

Figure 1. Selection from The Economist’s 2014 Democracy Index showing the rankings of countries with Presidential government systems.

Given a rather pervasive acknowledgement that the United States isn’t the democracy it once was, might it have failed to prove that a Presidential system isn’t conducive to populist-style sovereignty? The above chart maps countries with Presidential systems of government with their democracy ranking. The Economist’s 2014 Democracy Index, a measurement for the state of democracy in 167 countries, placed the US at a mediocre 19. Putting that into context, anything under 25 is considered a “flawed democracy”. Evidently, aside from Costa Rica and Uruguay, the United States isn’t in good company. The Democracy Index methodology relies on 60 indicators pertaining to political culture, civil liberties, political participation, functioning of government and the electoral process. Of the eighteen countries ahead of the US in the entire ranking, all but one (Uruguay) have some form of a parliamentary system. The question, therefore, becomes whether this pattern is a mere coincidence; or, is there some causal relationship between the health of a democracy and its government system? More specifically, has the US failed as a proof-of-concept for the Presidential system’s ability to foster a perfect Liberal democracy?

Amending the constitution has become nearly impossible, and yet, couldn’t a parliamentary system save the health of a once-flourishing democratic system? Perhaps the financial corruption, ubiquity of interest groups, inefficiency and cost of elections are not only causes, but also symptoms of an inefficient and exclusive political structure. Could some of these issues be mitigated by shifting away from a presidential system? In terms of efficiency, parliamentary systems appear to reign supreme (within the context of democracy, at least). Since the majority party garners enough legislative authority to pass most of its priority bills, they can mitigate the effects of gridlock. And, since the prime minister or chancellor is elected by the parliament, there is ideological cohesion. Imagine how much more legislation could have been passed had a majority party won sufficient control of Congress—no matter the ideological tendencies, there would, at least, be a faster period of trial and error for policies that don’t work. When asked if other democracies have similar structural issues, Jane Mansbridge, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, retorted, “Do other democracies have this problem [of gridlock]? The answer is no. Not many.”

In the past few years we’ve seen ugly partisan politics on the Hill and a marginalization of those who aren’t aligned with the two party systems. The US would undoubtedly benefit from a more variegated political system – like in many European countries – where even the Green Party, a political niche, holds several parliamentary seats. Not only would it add diversity to Congressional debate, but it might also attenuate the extremism of politicians. There might be less pressure from the Republican Party, for example, were the Tea Party truly a different entity—not one mangled into the more moderate Republican caucus. Moreover, politicians would have more liberty to vote against the Party when they don’t fear the looming threat of competition in later elections. Nevertheless, that comes with other threats as well: could the US see the rise in radical rightists now taking hold across Europe? What would it mean to have those voices entering the debate on the Congressional floor? While some politicians might see plurality as an opportunity to become more moderate, new parties with extreme ideas may also amass quite a following.

The United States doesn’t like to take advice from other countries on account of it being “exceptional”. However, when 18 political systems surpass its own democracy rating, it could be time to re-evaluate and learn from the success of more efficient governments like Finland, Germany and the UK. What does the US stand to lose if the image it once projected for the world, and the values it fights for abroad in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, cannot be upheld at home?

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff, editors, or governors.


Justine Breuch

Justine Breuch is a sophomore majoring in Political Science and Computer Science at the Brown University. She has interned at Generation Citizen, a non-profit that seeks to civically engage underprivileged students through education. Additionally, she spent a summer working at B Lab where she discovered her interest in social enterprises. Justine’s research interests include US foreign policy in the Middle East, women’s rights, and European diplomatic relations. After spending the summer of 2013 at the University of Paris (Sorbonne), she examined French Politics and US and Latin American affairs in independent courses–topics she hopes to investigate further at USC. On campus, Justine is the Director of Education Policy at the Roosevelt Institute, a writer and designer for the Daily Trojan, and member of Lavalab. She joined Glimpse from the Globe as a Correspondent in the fall of 2014.