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The US was a model of democracy in the world. What happened?

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Lin Wei-hsuan was just a boy when he watched his first election in Taiwan nearly two decades ago. His parents took him to watch the vote count, in which volunteers held up each ballot, called out the choice, and marked it on a blackboard for all the world to see: the huge crowd of citizens inside and many more who They watched live on television.

The open process, established after decades of martial law, was one of several creative steps Taiwan’s leaders took to build public confidence in democracy and win over the United States, whose support could deter China’s goal of unification.

At that time, the United States was what Taiwan aspired to be. But now, many of the democracies that once looked to the United States as a model are worried that it has lost its way. They wonder why a superpower celebrated for its innovation is unable to address its deep polarization, which produced a president who spread false claims of voter fraud that significant parts of the GOP and the electorate have embraced.

“Democracy needs to review itself,” said Lin, 26, a local council candidate who campaigns for effective garbage disposal and lowering Taiwan’s voting age to 18. since he was 20. “We have to analyze what he has been doing, and do it better.”

For most of the world, midterm elections in the United States they are little more than a benchmark, but they are yet another sign of what some see as a troublesome trend. Especially in countries that have found ways to strengthen their democratic processes, interviews with academics, officials and voters revealed alarm that the United States seemed to be doing the opposite and moving away from its fundamental ideals.

Several critics of the US course cited the January 6 riots as a violent rejection of democracy’s insistence on the peaceful transfer of power. Others expressed concern that states were erecting limits on voting after the record turnout brought about by widespread early and absentee voting during the pandemic. A few said they worried that the Supreme Court would fall prey to partisan politics, such as judiciaries in countries that have difficulty establishing independent courts.

“The United States did not get to the position it is in now overnight,” said Helmut K. Anheier, a sociology professor at the Hertie School in Berlin and a senior fellow at the Berggruen Governance Index, a study of 134 countries in which the United States ranks below Poland in quality of life, defined by access to public services such as health care and education. “It took a while to get in there, and it’s going to take a while to get out.”

On a recent afternoon in Halifax, in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, which has long-standing economic and family ties to Boston, visitors and residents expressed their pain, disappointment and surprise at their neighbor’s political situation.

“I am very worried,” said Mary Lou MacInnes, a nurse who was visiting Halifax Public Gardens with her family. “I never thought it would happen in the United States, but I think it’s going to be maybe autocratic in the future.”

In 1991, studies showed that Canadians were almost evenly divided on which of the two countries had the better system of government. In a follow-up survey conducted last yearonly five percent preferred the US system.

For some, in Canada and other countries that consider themselves close friends of the United States, the first signs of trouble came with the 2000 presidential race, when George W. Bush narrowly won Al Gore with a decision by the Court Supreme.

For others, it was Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 election, though he lost the popular vote, followed by his refusal to accept defeat in 2020 and the lack of consequences for those who repeated his lies: including hundreds of Republican candidates in the election. of this year.

“A lot of people imagined that Trump was this kind of unique idiosyncrasy and that once he was gone, that he was no longer president, everything would fall back into normal gear,” said Malcolm Turnbull, a center-right politician who was the prime minister of Australia when Trump took office. “And clearly that is not the case.”

“It’s like watching a family member, for whom you have enormous affection, engage in self-harm,” Turnbull added. “It’s distressing.”

Other countries do things differently.

Canada has undertaken constant changes to improve its electoral system. In 1920, the country put federal elections under the control of an independent official that it is not subject to any government or politicians and that it has the power to punish violators of the rules. In 1964, the responsibility of set electoral boundaries it was transferred to 10 equally independent commissions, one for each province.

Taiwan and more than a dozen other countries have also established independent bodies to draw electoral districts and ensure that votes are cast and counted in a uniform manner.

The approach is not foolproof. Nigeria, Pakistan and Jordan have independent electoral commissions. Many of your choices are still not free and trustworthy.

But where studies show that turnout and satisfaction with the process are highest, elections are run by national bodies designed to be apolitical and inclusive. More than 100 countries have some form of mandatory or automatic voter registration; In general, democracies have made voting easier in recent years, not more difficult.

The world’s healthiest democracies also have stricter limits on campaign donations: In Canada, political donations from businesses and unions are prohibited, as are political action campaigns to promote parties or candidates. And many democracies have welcomed the change.

New Zealand revised its electoral system in the 1990s with a referendum, after an election in which the party with the most votes failed to win a parliamentary majority. South Africa is trying to modify its party-based electoral system to make it easier for independent candidates to run and win.

Systemic change of this kind would only be possible in the United States with an overwhelming consensus in Congress. Even then, it may be out of place in a country where campaign finance is protected as free speech and states cherish their authority over elections in a federal system designed to be a bulwark against autocratic abuses.

Jennifer McCoy, a political scientist at Georgia State University, co-author of a recent report On how polarized countries have depolarized in the past, he said partisan divisions have kept America stagnant, but so has myopia: Americans rarely look abroad for ideas.

“We have such a myth around our Constitution and American exceptionalism,” he said. “First, it makes people very complacent, and second, it takes a long time for leaders to recognize the risk we’re facing. It means that it is very difficult to adapt.”

On a recent morning in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, near a street called Lenin during the Soviet Union’s occupation, a group of protesters waved Ukrainian flags and banners calling for an end to Russian aggression.

Lithuania is a staunch US ally and a staunch supporter of Ukraine’s struggle for self-determination, but even among the most committed, doubts about the strength and future of US-led democracy are common.

Arkadijus Vinokuras, 70, is an actor and activist who helps organize the rallies. Asked what came to mind when he heard the phrase “American democracy,” he responded with a catchphrase: “The United States is the defender of world democracy and the guarantor of the vitality of Western democracies!”

This is how it seemed 20 years ago: then came Vladimir Putin, Trump and a divided America.

“Now,” he said, “even America’s biggest fan has to ask: how could this happen to the guarantor of democracy?”

It is a common question in countries that previously admired the United States.

On Thursday, in the political science department of Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal, half a dozen graduate students gathered in a professor’s office to debate whether elections can be stolen in the United States.

“If you take America’s democracy after Trump, there’s no question it’s weaker,” said Souleymane Cissé, a 23-year-old graduate student.

Some world leaders have seized on that perception of weakness. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, elected leaders with autocratic tendencies, have praised Trump and his wing of the Republican Party.

In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has pursued a Hindu nationalist agenda, prompting accusations of democratic backslidingnow insists that the West is not in a position to pressure any country over democratic benchmarks.

From Burma to Mali, leaders of military coups have also discovered that they can subvert democracy without significant international pressure.

“If you are an autocrat or a would-be autocrat, the price you pay is much less than what you used to pay 30 years ago,” said Kevin Casas-Zamora, a former vice president of Costa Rica who runs the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, a pro-democracy group with 34 member states. “And that is partly due to the United States.”

Even reformers are beginning to wonder what they can reasonably expect from their loftiest institutions. In South Africa, when a new chief justice was appointed a few months ago, it was questioned whether the court was or could even be apolitical.

All of these countries, and more, face a huge challenge that the United States has made more visible: anti-democratic actors, within democracies.

Vinokuras said that Lithuania and its neighbors have been more resistant to those forces because they can see where they lead by looking at the neighbor.

“The fact that rampant populism in the Baltic states is not gaining ground is, I repeat, because of fascist Russia,” he said.

What democracies need, he added, are investments in improvements — the best ideas, wherever they come from — and a strong commitment to ostracize those who violate rules and norms.

“In general, democracy has degenerated, it has become useless,” he said. “It has become more akin to anarchy. Unlimited tolerance for everything destroys the foundations of democracy.”

In Taiwan, many people spoke the same way: the threat from China makes democracy more valuable, and helps people remember that its benefits can only be achieved through shared connections across divisions.

“If a country is going to keep moving forward,” Lin said, “the leaders of both parties must play the bridging role.”

Ian Austen in Halifax, Nova Scotia; Thomas Dapkus in Vilnius, Lithuania, Amy Chang Chien in Taipei; Elian Peltier in Dakar, Senegal; Lynsey Chutel in Johannesburg; Natasha Frost in Auckland, New Zealand, and Sameer Yasser in New Delhi they collaborated with reporting.

Damien Cave is the bureau chief for Sydney, Australia. He previously reported from Mexico City, Havana, Beirut and Baghdad. Since he joined The Times in 2004, he has also been deputy national editor, Miami bureau chief and Metro reporter. @damiencave

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