Photo: Travis Warren/flickr

Hmmm… The venerable Economist magazine’s research arm yesterday booted the United States off its list of “full democracies,” demoting Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” to a mere “flawed democracy.”

This happened in the wake of the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States. However, the impeccably right-wing British magazine’s Economist Intelligence Unit generously concluded, it was not because of it.

That is to say, the researchers for the pretentious news magazine for people who wish they were rich didn’t blame the decline in American democracy on Trump. They blamed Trump on the decline in American democracy.

Canadian readers will be relieved to note that Canada remains on The Economist’s shrinking list of full democracies — which now includes only 19 countries and 4.5 per cent of the world’s population, down from 8.9 per cent in 2015 thanks to the loss of 300 million or so Americans.

According to Democracy Index 2016, entertainingly subtitled Revenge of the “Deplorables,” the Land of the Free was turfed from the full-democracy category because popular trust in the institutions of democracy there has fallen to “extremely low levels.”

“This has been a long-term trend and one that preceded the election of Mr. Trump as U.S. president in November 2016,” The Economist declared. “By tapping a deep strain of political disaffection with the functioning of democracy, Mr. Trump became a beneficiary of the low esteem in which U.S. voters hold their government, elected representatives and political parties, but he was not responsible for a problem that has had a long gestation. The U.S. has been teetering on the brink of becoming a ‘flawed democracy’ for several years.”

Actually, this situation has been apparent to many observers of the American scene for a while now, although lots of us might attribute it to flaws in the U.S. political system other than merely the trust deficit identified by The Economist

Yesterday’s development seems not to have been covered by Canadian media with as much enthusiasm as the frequent press releases from the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute declaring that Canada in general and Alberta in particular are in decline on its risible “freedom indexes.” Perhaps this is because The Economist’s effort doesn’t reinforce the narrative of insufficient Americanism favoured by the folks who run the mainstream media in this country.

Regardless, it seems to me The Economist’s gloomy assessment of the state of U.S. democracy presents a problem for the Canadian right, and in particular right-wing political parties here in Alberta, which have a long history of holding the United States up as the sine qua non of democracy for Canada to imitate.

Bad American ideas like an elected Upper House based on regional representation, fixed election dates and term limits for politicians have all been championed enthusiastically by Alberta’s right — despite the fact the sclerotic money-dominated separation-of-powers system they spring from is a fundamental cause of the deep democratic malaise afflicting U.S. voters.  

Surely having the reliably right-wing Economist of all publications giving the Republic to the south the bum’s rush from its very short list of properly functioning democracies — all of them parliamentary systems similar in principle to Canada’s, interestingly enough — cannot help those Canadian political parties that normally sound like the chorus from West Side Story in their praise for America.

It didn’t used to be like this. Who can forget the days when The Economist optimistically held up Danielle Smith, the Wildrose Alliance’s then-new leader, as the very model of a modern market fundamentalist?

“Her calls for smaller government are popular with Albertans, whose views often align more closely with American Republicans (of the tea-party persuasion) than with eastern Canadians,” The Economist’s scribe panted in 2010 during what was obviously a quick pass through Alberta. “Many also like Ms. Smith’s unabashed defence of exploiting the tar sands (she argues that it is not clear that human activity causes climate change).”

Ah, those were the days! A time so innocent the Tea Party was still quaintly respectable, the Wildrose Party was “soaring in the polls” with government in its high beams, and there was no need for the PR department to come up with new euphemisms for bitumen that didn’t sound quite as grubby as tar.

Only seven years later we have a social democratic NDP government in Edmonton, a mildly progressive Liberal one in Ottawa and a president of the United States who is not very likely to sell many Canadians or even Albertans to the benefits of the “flawed democracy” to the south.

Well, flawed or not, thankfully the United States is still rated a democracy, at least according to The Economist’s flickering lights.

There are still two more Economist categories our neighbours can stumble into: “hybrid regimes” like Turkey and Ukraine, and “authoritarian regimes” like Zimbabwe, Russia and North Korea.

With Trump at the helm, who’s to say our American cousins won’t be there soon enough?

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog,

Photo: Travis Warren/flickr

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David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...