I was reading Wikipedia's Democracy Index and it shows the United States as a "Flawed Democracy". Reading in more detail, the article points out that the US has low scores in "Functioning of Government" (6.43) and also in "Political Culture" (6.25), but I don't understand those terms.

Why is the US listed as a "flawed democracy" in the Democracy Index? How should I interpret that?

I guess my real concern is if there is a problem, then I would like to understand it first, and then somehow vote to improve it.


3 Answers 3


The Economist Intelligence Unit (a subsidiary of the Economist group best known for its publication) publishes its Democracy Index every year. It seems that the latest, 2021, requires registration, but last years is freely available. It answers your question fairly comprehensively, starting on page 42. In summary:

  • The US also remains in the “flawed democracy” category, having fallen out of the “full democracy” division in 2016
  • Principally blamed on "further erosion of public trust in the country’s institutions — a development that preceded the election of Donald Trump as president that year"
  • Other reasons given are:
    • extremely low levels of trust in institutions and political parties
    • deep dysfunction in the functioning of government
    • increasing threats to freedom of expression
    • a degree of societal polarisation that makes consensus on any issue almost impossible to achieve
    • differences of opinion in the US have hardened into political sectarianism and institutional gridlock
    • public trust in the democratic process was dealt a further blow in 2020 by the refusal of the outgoing president to accept the election result
    • The consequence of the long-running culture wars in the US and the heightened political polarisation of recent years is that social cohesion has collapsed and consensus has evaporated on fundamental issues, such as election outcomes, public health practices and even the date of the country’s founding
    • The cleavage in US politics has long been amplified by the mainstream media, including the main network TV channels which make no pretence of impartiality, but in 2020 social media companies intervened in a way that is likely to reinforce the divisions in American society
    • Personal freedoms also declined in 2020
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    Personal freedoms also declined in 2020 As I noted in my own answer, there's no explanation here. What personal freedoms declined? Australia and the UK ("full democracies") both had hard Covid lockdowns for months on end. The US had some... but restrictions lifted soon after, depending on where you lived. Does that factor into this? They never explain any of that.
    – Machavity
    Jul 13, 2022 at 15:18
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    @Machavity They give some explanation beyond Covid lockdowns: it also reflects a rise of militarised tactics by the authorities to suppress non-violent demonstrations. One example was the aggressive clearing of Lafayette Square near the White House in June 2020, when the National Guard used chemical agents and other riot-control techniques to disperse a crowd before the announced curfew. The demonstrators were peacefully protesting against police brutality and the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man.
    – User65535
    Jul 13, 2022 at 16:20
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    Hm... Most of the EIU reasoning revolves around 'polarisation'. But this is societal change, not (at least directly) the result of democracy as a system of governance. Now it turns out that democracy itself can't cope well with hard polarisation. So what is actually flawed here? Democracy as such, the US just being in an advanced stage of the 'polarisation disease'? Or the US, for trying to use tools (i.e. democracy) which are unable to solve its problems?
    – Zeus
    Jul 14, 2022 at 3:58
  • 42
    @Zeus Many would argue that the two party system strongly contributes to and supports any polarization that occurs. Jul 14, 2022 at 4:26
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    If it was republished now I'm pretty sure it would also list "attempts by legislative bodies to take control of elections away from independent bodies" would be added. Jul 14, 2022 at 19:18

the US has low scores in "Functioning of Government" (6.43) and also in "Political Culture" (6.25), but I don't understand those terms.

Lack of Compromise Politics.

This is what I think the "political culture" index reflects.

Normal politics has always depended on trading off what one side wants againsts what others want. It absolutely depends on compromise to work. Without compromise you have political deadlocks and chaos.

In the US it seems that far too many issues, big and small, are now pursued along bitter hard line approaches. Compromises are begrudging at best and absent at worst.

In practical politics we need politicians to be pragmatic about getting things done. The fact that a solution is not the ideal one you want should not be bar to making an agreement. One piece of a pie is better than no pie at all.

Politicians in the US (although not only the US) are increasingly adopting hard line stances and engaging in political retoric which attract and entrenches extreme positions. In a healthy political culture a politician always leaves themselves room for compromise because they know eventually that achieving any practical goal will need compromise. In the US politicians are now adopting positions where they have no wiggle room.

Politicians are, I think, afraid to express the view that, yes, compromise is a necessary and a good thing.

This is fear is amplified by a media which feeds off the polarization of every political issue. Politicians who fail to meet the unreasonable expectation of not giving an inch get lacerated by the media.

Functioning of Government.

The US has had trouble even agreeing a budget. When you cannot pay your own civil servants, not for lack of funds, but because you cannot agree to write the check, it's bad. That's a pretty awful state of play for a nation that identifies itself as a Capitalist state. That and the invasion of the seat of US government by a mob makes it clear the US is barely hanging on to a healthy political culture, if it is still hanging on at all.

A significant issue with a functioning government is that you ideally want one that works even when the politicians don't. That what a Civil Service is for. They keep the wheels in motion. A significant issue in the US is that there's a lot of political levers inside what should be the Civil Service. Where most countries have permanently employed officials, you have people who are elected or emplaced by political decisions. This makes the apparatus of government vulnerable to political exploitation in more direct way than the better democracies do.

You cannot have a functioning government when you politically interfere with it all the time. You have to let the train run on the tracks. You can't keep applying brake and accelerator together all the time. You cannot exclusively appoint people based on their political alignment and expect that to work because it means that every time the boss changes so does everyone else. It would be like a sports team getting a new coach and deciding to fire all the players and the coaching staff as well. You need some steady hands at the wheel.

The weakest link is, IMO, the Supreme Court. This was always politicized and where it should be providing a stabilizing limit to prevent everything that has been done from being undone, the political nature of the appointment process means that when you need stability at the wheel, you've got people who are happy instead to spin the wheel madly around in the opposite direction.

That's called reckless driving where I come from. It's hard to imagine the European Court of Human Rights doing a U-turn like that.

The US cannot rely on the courts, it's civil service or it's politicians to reach reasonable solutions to problems by compromising.

That's a barely functioning government.

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    Court appointments are not so politically motivated in other countries. Indeed the laywers themselves view law as necessarily independent of politics. It's clear that to get on SCOTUS you must be politically aligned with the prevailing powers of the day. You can't agree a budget because no one will sit down quietly and make political compromises. In the US everything has become a political issue, even paying for things you have to pay for and still want done, like all those things the civil service is needed for. It's not about checks and balances, it's refusal to compromise. Jul 13, 2022 at 20:26
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    @JonathanReez The filibuster was there a long time and did not prevent normal politics been done. It's become a habit for US politicians to increasingly act to be extremist about policies without making any serious attempt at finding a compromise or middle ground, or in some cases by refusing to even consider such a thing. The problem is the support for extremist positions - the "if I can't have it my way, no one can have anything" attitude. People need to see it for what it is - juvenile. Removing filibusters won't prevent this kind of obstruction IMO. Jul 13, 2022 at 22:51
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    @JonathanReez I'm not pro filibusters and they're replaced by other legal tactics. European countries have problems in far less extreme ways. I don''t the EU's governmental issues as anything like as bad as the US. There's a compromise mentality and a well defined processes and strong belief in doing normal poliitics to hammer out deals. This is not working in the US at Federal or State level. In the US I think they've simply lost sight of the need to compromise. EU states do compromise and it works. It used to for US states, the US needs that back. Jul 13, 2022 at 23:11
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    "Politicians are, I think, afraid to express the view that, yes, compromise is a necessary and a good thing." - What are you talking about? Biden explicitly ran on "more bipartisanship" as a central plank of his campaign. The fact that bipartisanship subsequently failed to materialize is indeed a problem, but it does not indicate a lack of desire for bipartisanship among the electorate.
    – Kevin
    Jul 14, 2022 at 3:14
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    @JamieB The problem here is that both chaos, progress, order/stability have implicit connotations of desirability or lack thereof. Neither term is neutral and therefore neither term is suitable if your stance is that things can only be judged in retrospect. The only neutral terms and I can think of is are is "change" and "no change", which no one uses because it doesn't promote whatever point they are trying to get across.
    – DKNguyen
    Jul 15, 2022 at 22:04

As noted here, some of the index is very arbitrary.

The USA scores well for literacy and membership of political parties, but is still at 19% for women in the House, and doesn't score full points on indices such as percentage interest in news media and turn-out at elections.

The number system for the ranks is also very arbitrary. The range for "flawed democracy" is 6.00 to 7.99. The United States ranks as a 7.85. As recently as 2015, the US was in the "full democracy" category. There's also not much discussion of how the rankings were measured specifically for the US. For contrast, Canada (a solid "full democracy" at 8.87), saw it's Prime Minister invoke the Emergencies Act against political protesters

But while Mr Trudeau's government may soon be granted an almost carte blanche to respond to the protests, there is no indication the prime minister will also seek military intervention.

While Mr Trudeau has said that "everything is on the table", he has maintained that military involvement would be a last resort.

"We are a long way from having to call in the military," he said on Friday.

That military options were even on the table against political protesters doesn't seem very much like a "full democracy". Even having your bank account suspended by the government is pretty extreme.

Ultimately, all democracies are flawed, in that they are run by flawed humans, for flawed humans. The problem with the category of "flawed democracy" here is that it's a purely arbitrary category for poorly defined numbers. The United States seems no more or less flawed than the countries in the "full democracy" category, and the numbers from the report itself back that up.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – CDJB
    Jul 15, 2022 at 7:50
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    The protesters were politically motivated, but they weren't just marching with signs. They had trucks blocking major streets and bridges, including a border crossing 24/7. (And the police were not being effective at dealing with those traffic violations.) So it's certainly not great, but for readers not familiar with the situation, your answer reads like Trudeau making an arbitrary crackdown on anti-vax opponents (and whatever else the truckers represented). There was a real urgent problem that needed solving somehow, with businesses being unable to open, not normal for Canadian protests. Jul 16, 2022 at 16:11

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