My husband and I recently spent two weeks in Paris and Amsterdam, enjoying the BBC instead of the litany of talking heads that is now American news. It was refreshing to be reminded that there is a whole lot more to talk about than Trump, and that there is an entire globe-worth of countries that are not the USA. The lead story (okay, besides The Wedding) was that underdog Fiji was leading the international rugby field. Filling out on-line forms while traveling is another reminder that America isn’t at the top of the country list: you have to scroll down to the bottom, where United States of America falls between Uganda and Uruguay. In the listing of languages, it is not the American, but rather the British, flag which represents “English.” Oh, right, that’s where we got it.
There are other lists that we aren’t first on.The time we spent in Amsterdam also reminded us that the Netherlands and its fellow Baltic countries are among the top ten on the 2018 World Happiness Report . Maybe the happiest of all are those who take a puff or two in Amsterdam’s coffeeshops, and its Red Light District sure makes people smiley: “My, such a lifelike mannequin, oh my God that’s a woman.” The 2018 World Happiness Report focusses on immigration: countries in which immigrants can partake in a country’s quality of life score high on happiness. That’s what get’s you in the Top Ten. With walls at our borders, labelling immigrants as dangerous, and pulling families apart, it’s a wonder that we are even 18th on the Happiness Report.
The list that I find even more startling is Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index. Ten years ago, we were solidly in the middle of the Full Democracy pack, behind but not divorced from the Nordic countries and our English-speaking allies, England and Canada. Today, we are but one of 50-some Flawed Democracies, a list that includes African, Caribbean and Latin American countries that our Trump referred to as “shitholes.” We are among countries with low political participation, a failing electoral process, diminishing trust in government, and endangered civil liberties.
How is it possible that the United States of America, the country that my father proudly represented for his two decades in the Foreign Service, is no longer the world’s leading democracy, nor, in fact, a Full Democracy at all? What has happened to slide us down the scale to Flawed Democracy?
It is tempting to point the finger at Trump. But he is not the cause of our malaise: he is simply the beneficiary.
The Economist finds that Americans’ trust in government has been sliding downhill since the 1960’s, taking our political confidence with it. We’ve been worn down by the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, civil unrest, Watergate, disastrous wars in the Middle East, the financial crash of 2008, the gridlock and dysfunction on Capitol Hill. And the pillars of middle America — jobs, churches, labor unions — crumbled. The system had failed us. We stopped going to the polls.
Then Trump came along, promising to Make American Great Again, and he rode the hopes of the politically disenfranchised right to the White House. It’s been the War of the Red and Blue ever since.
The Netherlands has the opposite approach to governance. Rather than be defined by ethnicity, religious and other strata, the Dutch reconcile their differences in order to stabilize government. They consciously develop and maintain power-sharing arrangements in order to reduce strife and promote non-violence. The very survival of democracy trumps all. Wikipedia calls it Consociationalism.
Yes, the word’s way too close to socialism and hard to pronounce, but the concepts are not foreign. I believe that Americans care more for our country than we do for our separate camps. Recently, two Washington Post columnists spoke of unity: EJ Dionne from the left said: “…we believe in a government that answers to the aspirations of the vast majority…” Speaking from the right, David Brooks said: “Red or blue, we are stuck together permanently in this country. And as the saying goes, the only way to get out of this mess is to get into it.”
We must approach each other without raising our voices to find and built on common ground. It’s a mess. Let’s dive in. It’s the least a full democracy asks of us.