Politicians in the US (and many ordinary Americans) like to boast about how this country is the greatest and the oldest continuing democracy. The former claim has always been dubious since from the beginning the country has gone out of its way to limit the right to vote to a favored class: first by not giving Blacks and women to vote, then by placing restrictions like poll taxes and literacy tests that excluded the poor, and to this date seeking to find novel ways to discourage poor and minority communities from voting by making them jump through various hoops and by gerrymandering electoral districts so that the elected representatives are not representative of the electorate.
Democracy has always been a vague and slippery concept. Whether a country is one or not depends upon how one defines it. Since claiming to be one carries significant moral heft, many countries want to have that label so it is often defined self-servingly so that people of a particularly country can claim that it is one, even if in practice it falls far short.
But how about the second claim, that it is the longest consistent democracy? That claim depends upon when one considers that the US became a democracy. Even if one lets pass the claim that it became a democracy in 1776 or even 1800 despite its major shortcomings, more objective observers claim that in recent times it ceased to be so for a while and instead became what is known as a ‘anocracy’, a state falling short of. democracy.
Barbara Walter, a professor of international relations at the University of California, San Diego, and a permanent member of the Council on Foreign Relations, explains that an anocracy lies somewhere between a democracy and an autocracy, and describes the differences between the three.
“The first was what we call anocracy, and that’s just a fancy term for a country that’s neither fully democratic nor fully autocratic. Some people call it partial democracy. Fareed Zakaria has called it illiberal democracy, but those are the countries that tended to be most likely to experience civil war. Turns out that if you’re a full liberal democracy, you don’t tend to experience civil war. If you’re a full autocracy, you’re also at lower risk of civil war. It’s those countries in the middle that experience violence. The second factor, and this turns out to be even more important is whether in these weakening partial democracies, citizens begin to organize themselves politically, not around ideology, but around identity. So they start forming ethnic or religious political parties, or racially based parties with the goal of gaining power so that they can essentially exclude everyone else. So you could imagine I’m sitting in a conference room in Washington, D.C., and we’re talking about Ukraine or we’re talking about Iraq, and I’m watching as the US’s democracy is declining and we know that it has declined in the last 5 years. It was first downgraded in 2016 because of elections that were deemed not entirely fair. It was downgraded again in 2019 as a result of the refusal by the executive branch to answer subpoenas.
[T]he Center for Systemic Peace, a nonprofit organization that every year gives countries a measure of the quality of their democracy. By the end of the Trump administration, the United States was downgraded to an anocracy for the first time since 1800. And so the United States is no longer considered the world’s longest consistent democracy. That honor now goes to Switzerland.
Switzerland is now the world’s oldest consistent democracy? How dare they! Clearly it is time to invade that usurping country.
Listen to the full interview
The Center for Systemic Peace, the body that makes these determinations, is partially funded by the US government which puts its impartiality in doubt. The fact that even it has lowered the US’s rating makes that all the more significant.
For the past twenty-five years, CSP/INSCR data resources, such as Polity, have been generously supported with funding from the US Government (through association with the Political Instability Task Force, PITF); that financial support was terminated on 29 February 2020. Beginning with the year 2019 annual updates, updated CSP/INSCR data resources will be embargoed until a new funding mechanism is implemented.
NOTE: The USA dropped below the “democracy threshold” (+6) on the POLITY scale in 2020 and was considered an anocracy (+5) at the end of the year 2020; the USA score for 2021 returned to democracy (+8).
You can read their 2016 State Fragility Index for all countries, based on 14 criteria. The larger the number, the more fragile a democracy it is, with the best score being zero. There are 23 countries with that score. The US score is three.