Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Threat to Democracy

The health care reform debate in the United States brought a primary question about democracy to the forefront: “Does a democratic state have a responsibility to guarantee its citizens a basic level of well being?”

The opposition decided that civil liberties and health care were mutually exclusive. Providing 46.3 million people [1] with healthcare constituted a fundamental denial of all Americans’ individual rights. Proponents of the health care bill fought back. They argued that no one in the United States should be forced into financial ruin because of a medical condition. The government needed to regulate maniacal health insurance agencies.

Both sides extolled American democracy.

Both sides also belied reality. Democracy in the United States is not as robust as it might seem. Since 1978, only about half of eligible voters in the United States voted in elections.[2] In 2006, a national survey asked Americans to rate their satisfaction with how democracy is working on a scale of 0 to 10—nearly half gave it a rating of 5 or below. [3] Despite this, Americans remain confident that democracy is superior to any other form of government.

But American confidence in democracy does not match experience, at least not in the Americas. In Latin America, countries are asking a slightly revised version of the United States’ question: “Can a democratic state guarantee its citizens a basic level of well being?”

Latin America has had two decades of free elections, high inequality, and uneven access to basic services. Most governments in Latin America respect civil liberties and political rights. [4] However, for a good many people in these countries, living in a democracy does not mean having access to good education, job opportunities, or even clean water and reliable electricity. Many governments’ social spending favors the rich, with the poorest fifth receiving less than their fair share. [5] Governments spend lots of money on higher education that rich kids get for free, but neglect primary schools that serve mostly poor and low-income children. [6] Nearly half of the region’s workers are in the informal sector, which are often low-quality, low-productivity jobs that offer little or no chance of upward mobility. [7] Wealthy neighborhoods pay for private generators, while poor communities who pay for city services experience rolling blackouts. Constitutional referendums in Venezuela and Ecuador as well as the political schism in Honduras are just three examples that show that, when push comes to shove, respecting civil liberties and political rights is not enough for democracy to survive.

The deterioration in security, increasing disregard for democratic institutions, and surge in violent civil unrest in many Latin American countries are clear indicators that democracy is in trouble. The same is true for the United States. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. [8] The United States performs well below average on student achievement tests in math and science. [8] We trail other developed nations in environmental preservation and alternate energy. In 2005, we watched as one of our cities drowned in a hurricane we knew was coming, because infrastructure failed. Our bridges and highways are increasingly falling below standards. [10] As of 2009, over 300,000 Americans were in danger of losing their homes. [11] We are already the most unequal industrialized nation in the world. [12] Gaps in incomes continue to grow, and our middle-class continues to shrink. [13]

Latin America is the canary in the democracy mine. Latin American governments have failed to ensure a basic well being for their citizens, and now citizens in several countries are opting out of democracy. Our accolades notwithstanding, half of Americans in the United States don’t invest any time or energy in our democracy. If we continue to avoid common sense, and entertain the Republican ideology of refusing to ensure our citizens’ well being, we shouldn’t be surprised when apathy towards democracy turns to rejection.

[1] US Census Bureau 2008
[2] 45% to 63% US Census Bureau
[5] ECLAC Social Panorama 2007
[12] World Development Indicators, World Bank