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Some countries which identify as democracies, weren't invited to the democracy summit


Two big world powers were not invited to President Biden's summit on democracy last week. China and Russia did not attend and could not. However, Chinese officials hosted their own democracy dialogue. Officials pushed the idea that they are democratic, too, even though China is a one-party communist state with no free media that routinely jails dissidents. So why do they use the phrase democratic system? Why do they talk about China as a democracy? We called Seema Shah, head of the Democracy Assessment Project at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, who co-authors the Global State of Democracy report.

What does it mean that so many countries say they are democracies, whether we recognize them as such or not?

SEEMA SHAH: I think what it means is that a democracy is still the gold standard. And it's a value judgment in a way. To be able to be called a democracy means something, and what it means is that people have control - have some control and a voice in decision-making, which means that the government reflects the will of the people.

INSKEEP: OK, so what is their case that they, China, are a democracy?

SHAH: Well, they say that democracy doesn't look the same everywhere, which is, of course, true. It doesn't look the same. And so what they point to, for example, is the fact that, you know, they have representatives that go out into the country and talk to people at the local level to hear their thoughts on various issues and that that is eventually taken back and incorporated into policy. And so they say that's one example of how they are a democracy; it just doesn't look the same as it looks, for instance, in the United States.

INSKEEP: That sounds to me like market research.

SHAH: (Laughter) Well, I - you could call it that. I mean, we also believe that democracy looks different in different places. But the core of it is that - there's two parts to how we define it. One is that people have control over decision-making and decision-makers, and the second is that everyone has equal access to that decision-making and to the levers of power. And so even if you're going out into the country to talk to people, if that's all you're doing, it's unlikely - right? - that you can systematically cover your entire country in a meaningful way.

INSKEEP: Well, let's work through Russia's case for being a democracy. They have elections that are multiparty elections. Vladimir Putin, at least theoretically, has to run for reelection against other people who openly oppose him and parties that disagree with him. Does that make it a democracy?

SHAH: No. I mean, that's not enough because, again, what happens to individuals or organizations who dissent in Russia? If you're being accused of poisoning opposition individuals, then that's not a democratic space. That's not an open space to debate.

INSKEEP: So Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader, if he is poisoned, leaves the country, comes back and is immediately put in prison, which is where he is now, that's not democratic.

SHAH: That is not democratic because there's no way for him to express his opinion.

INSKEEP: How's the United States doing?

SHAH: It's not in a great place. It is one of seven backsliding countries this year, according to our analysis. I will say that, overall, the United States remains a high-performing democracy. However, it is backsliding. The predictors of backsliding are declines in checks on government and in civil liberties. What it means is that the fundamental building blocks of democracy are being dismantled from inside the system. And that is now what we're seeing in the United States.

INSKEEP: What do you mean by a check on government? And what is a check on government that is weakening in the United States?

SHAH: So one of the most important checks on government that's weakening is what we call effective parliament, which essentially means the strength of the legislature. Congress has not done so well in its ability to check the executive branch. Its investigations of the executive branch have not gone well, and that's caused a decline in that particular indicator.

INSKEEP: So when former President Trump, when he was in office and ignored the subpoenas of Congress, that degraded democracy in your rating?

SHAH: Correct.

INSKEEP: Is the United States distinct in having such a big divide among the public in how democracy is troubled? The majority of the country, according to surveys, understands that Joe Biden won the presidential election and is the president of the United States and was elected by the people. And a lot of those folks may be troubled by the Trump presidency of the past and feel that Trump's abuses are the reason that democracy is unhealthy. But there's a significant minority who believes the lie that Trump won the election, that it was stolen somehow and might tell us that democracy is in trouble for that reason. Is it unusual to have that kind of dramatic public divide in a country?

SHAH: I think, increasingly, no, it's not so uncommon. All around the world, we are becoming polarized because the way we get our news is so filtered, right? And we're talking to people who think like us and believe in the same things like us, and there's less and less opportunity to talk to people across the political divide.

INSKEEP: Thinking about everything that you've told me, I feel like what really happened is that the form of democracy triumphed. Almost everybody acknowledges that they need to have the form of democracy, but it's still a continuous fight, country by country, to actually have democracy.

SHAH: It is. It's a continuous struggle. And part of that is the beauty - it's beautiful to have a democracy where you can always talk about how to make it better, and there's room for change, and there's room for debate, and you can redesign things to make it more responsive to what people want. That's beautiful. But it takes a lot of work, and it takes a lot of political will.

And I think - actually, that's one of the things we say in the report - is that many democracies were sort of seduced into a kind of laziness, right? It's been working for so long, and everyone endorses it, and we know this is the best thing. But that has made us a little bit blind to issues now that are putting democracy at risk. And a lot of those issues are very, very long standing. Racial inequality in the United States is a long-standing issue. Gerrymandered districts - long-standing issue. You know, huge discrepancies in equality, economic equality and access to opportunity in education, health care - those are things that have sort of haunted the United States for a long, long time. So if anything, this is a moment to self-reflect and to think about how we address these issues that are unresolved and that impact the most vulnerable and most marginalized parts of society.

INSKEEP: Seema Shah, thank you so much.

SHAH: Thank you. Thank you so much for the opportunity.