US democracy is at risk if Americans stay socially polarized, research firm says

Key Points
  • The U.S. remained a "flawed democracy" for the second straight year in 2017, according to an annual ranking from the Economist Intelligence Unit.
  • U.S. freedoms may deteriorate if President Donald Trump can't improve social polarization, the research firm warned in a report.

The world's largest economy has retained its position as a "flawed democracy" for the second consecutive year, but freedoms are in danger of sliding further, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.

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The research firm's annual study of global democracy, released on Wednesday, showed the U.S. ranking 21st in 2017 — the same as the previous year and tying with Italy.

Years of declining trust in public institutions well before President Donald Trump took power led the EIU to demote the U.S. from a full democracy to a flawed democracy — a nation it defines as having free elections but weighed down by weak governance — for the first time in 2016.

While that remains in place today, risks are now intensified under Trump's administration, the group said.

"If Mr. Trump is unable to reverse the trend towards increasing social polarization, U.S. democracy will be at greater risk of further deterioration," the EIU said in its report, referring to the extreme divides between Republicans and Democrats on issues such as immigration and environmental regulation.

Such policy divergences have made it difficult for the Trump administration to govern effectively despite boasting a congressional majority. As a result, Washington fared poorly on the EIU's "functioning of government" category, one of the five sectors used to assess countries. Other criteria included political participation, civil liberties and the electoral process.

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The U.S. leader may have been elected for his ability to tap into voter discontent on political and economic affairs but it remains to be seen whether he will succeed in easing the "deep groundswell of popular disaffection," the report said. "So far his attempts to address the concerns of his voters have resulted in a further polarization of U.S. politics, resulting in a decline in the score for social cohesion in the 2017 Democracy Index."

Encompassing 167 countries, Wednesday's report found that 44.8 percent of the global population resides in flawed democracies. Scandinavian countries dominated the EIU's top five rankings, with Norway coming in first, followed by Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand and Denmark.