Organizer: Georgetown Democracy and Governance
The United States has been engaged in supporting democratization and good governance around the world for decades. Amidst calls to reform and revitalize American democracy at home, what lessons can the United States draw from taking an international perspective?
Join a panel of experts to discuss how the U.S. can benefit from such lessons and how their own global experience informs their work here.
With American democracy in decline, a new report urges that reforms addressing racial and political inequities are sorely needed.
For the first time in nearly 15 years, Freedom House released on Tuesday an in-depth report analyzing America's flawed democracy and what fixes are needed. This analysis comes on the heels of the nonpartisan research organization's annual report, in which it found the United States was part of a worldwide decline in freedom.
This downward trend in American democracy, according to Freedom House, accelerated during Donald Trump's presidency and ultimately amounted to an acute crisis when insurrectionists stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.
"The erosion of U.S. democracy is remarkable, especially for a country that has long aspired to serve as a beacon of freedom for the world," the new report says. "The prominence and global influence of the United States mean that its woes have a uniquely damaging effect on democracy in the rest of the world."
Freedom House puts a number on that "erosion," giving the U.S. a democracy score of 83 out of 100 in its 2020 assessment — an 11-point drop from 2010.
"Democracy movements in other countries look to the United States for inspiration and support, and authoritarian leaders falsely point to America's problems as proof of democracy's inherent inferiority and as a sort of license for their own abuses of power," said Sarah Repucci, author of the report and vice president of research and analysis at Freedom House.
Repucci pinpointed three issues that have driven this long-term decline: unequal treatment of people of color, special interest influence in politics and partisan polarization.
The U.S. has struggled to uphold the ideal that all citizens are equal since its founding, the report says. Recent protests against police brutality and racial injustice brought a renewed focus to the country's disparate treatment of people of color, in particular Black Americans.
The increasing cost of elections and heightened influence of money in politics have also been detrimental. Americans have become more cynical because they see elected officials as beholden to these special interests, rather than their constituents.
Partisan affiliation in the U.S. has become intertwined with racial, ethnic and religious identities, meaning political attacks on the opposing party have become more extreme and personally threatening. The rise of polarization has made reaching a consensus appear impossible, and the country's two-party duopoly has only exacerbated this issue, according to Freedom House.
To strengthen these weak points in American democracy, the report recommends:
- Reducing barriers to voting and restoring federal preclearance of state voting rules.
- Ending gerrymandering by establishing independent state redistricting commissions.
- Passing legislation to improve transparency and close loopholes in campaign finance laws.
Despite the problems facing the U.S., there is still plenty of reason for hope, said Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House.
"The threat is not over, but we have faced dark days in our democracy before and found redemption by turning back toward our core values. It is time to do so again," he said.
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More bad news for democracy defenders: A new report confirms worldwide declines in freedom for the 15th year in a row, and the United States isn't helping matters.
Freedom House, a nonpartisan research organization, on Wednesday released its annual report, Freedom in the World, detailing how global democracy was further weakened by the Covid-19 pandemic, economic and physical insecurities and violent conflict. While the United States is still considered "free," the country's score has continued to decline over the last decade, dropping 3 points in 2020 alone.
Countries were graded based on the political rights and civil liberties enjoyed by their populace, rather than government performance. This report is the latest in a series of studies calling attention to global issues involving democracy and corruption.
America's democratic integrity took serious hits from the contentious 2020 election, which was plagued by disinformation and attempts to undermine the results, led by former President Donald Trump. The country's response to the pandemic and instances of police violence against protestors advocating for racial justice also negatively impacted its score, per the report.
As a result, the U.S. scored an 83 out of 100, its lowest score to date and an 11-point drop since 2010.
"Only a serious and sustained reform effort can repair the damage done during the Trump era to the perception and reality of basic rights and freedoms in the United States," the report concluded.
Overall, 73 of the 195 countries analyzed in the report received lower freedom scores in 2020 than the year prior. Only 28 nations saw improvements. (The 94 remaining countries didn't have any significant changes.) This difference in the number of countries that improve versus worsen — the so-called "democracy gap" — has been growing over the last 15 years and saw its widest rift last year.
The 2020 report labeled 82 countries as "free," which is the fewest since 2005 and they account for less than 20 percent of the world's population. Meanwhile, the number of countries considered "not free" reached an all-time high of 54. And 59 countries were considered "partly free."
While Freedom House noted many losses for freedom last year, the report also recognized the resiliency of democracy and the many people around the world committed to fighting for it.
"Our report concludes that democracy today is beleaguered but not defeated," said Freedom House President Michael Abramowitz. "Its adversaries have grown more powerful, making the world a more hostile environment for self-government, but its enduring appeal among ordinary people — which we've already seen this year in places like Russia and Myanmar — bode well for the future of freedom."
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At a time of extreme political polarization, a bold and comprehensive proposal reimagining civic education shows a path toward a healthier American democracy.
The "Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy," released Tuesday, provides guidance to national, state, local and tribal leaders on how to strengthen K-12 history and civic education practices and standards. This roadmap is the culmination of 18 months of collaboration by more than 300 scholars, educators and practitioners from a variety of ideological, demographic and professional backgrounds.
For decades, the public education system has failed to adequately prepare adolescents to be informed and engaged citizens. But this roadmap aims to change that by ushering in a renewed focus and investment in civic education.
When this project started in October 2019, "our constitutional democracy was not in good shape," said Paul Carrese, founding director of the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University and one of the project leaders. "Now we are all pretty convinced that our constitutional democracy is in peril."
"America's current state of polarization and civic dysfunction is the byproduct of our failure to invest in civic education for many decades," he said. "We've forgotten how to listen to each other, how to reasonably disagree on issues and why these civic virtues matter."
The federal government spends on average just 5 cents per student every year on civic education, compared to $50 per student on STEM curriculum, according to the 36-page report. And fewer than a quarter of eighth graders are considered proficient in civics by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
"Just as we invested in STEM education in response to the Cold War, the Sputnik moment, and the economic challenges of globalization, now in response to our dysfunction and failures of governance we need an equivalent scale of investment for civic learning," the report says.
At this stage, costs for the proposals have not been estimated.
"While EAD anticipates that funding would be needed from states, the federal government and/or philanthropy to support implementation of the EAD approach at the state and local levels, EAD has not developed or provided budget targets," said Peter Levine, an associate dean and professor of citizenship and public affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College and one of the project leaders. "Rather, those behind the initiative want to prompt the conversation about what it will take to prioritize and invest in history and civics education."
This roadmap is designed to provide the country's 60 million K-12 students with high-quality civic learning opportunities, to supply 100,000 schools with the learning resources they need to be "civic ready" and to train 1 million teachers in these subjects by 2030.
Educating for American Democracy is not a national curriculum or a mandate, but rather a starting point and framework for state, local and tribal educators to further develop lesson plans and curricula. The roadmap underscores the importance of exploring America's plural, yet shared, history through an honest accounting that acknowledges both the good and the bad.
Favoring depth over breadth, the roadmap includes seven themes, with no particular hierarchy: Civic Participation, Our Changing Landscapes, We the People, A New Government and Constitution, Institutional and Social Transformation, A People in the World, and A People With Contemporary Debates and Possibilities.
Rather than a list of facts or historical events, the themes are focused on questions that inspire and encourage students to become more engaged citizens.
"A history question would be, 'Who are we, the people of the United States, and how has the nation's population changed over time?' But a civics thematic question would be, 'Why is constitutional democracy dependent on the idea of the people?'" explained Levine.
The next steps are to curate the project's website to include thousands of examples of instructional resources and to work with state officials and civil society partners on implementation.
The Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy was funded with $1.1 million in grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Department of Education. The project was driven by a team of experts from iCivics, Harvard University, Arizona State University and Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life and Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.
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