The State of Democracy, in America and Beyond

Much has changed since the Declaration of Independence – and much has not.

Rotunda that displays the Declaration of Independence in Washington.

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Exactly 247 years ago this week, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, which was unanimously ratified in Philadelphia at what is now Independence Hall by 13 “united states.”

The document, which today is displayed inside the rotunda at the National Archives Museum in Washington (see photo, above), appears alongside the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. Taken together, these are collectively known as the Charters of Freedom, representing the founding philosophy of America.

I personally enjoy re-reading the Declaration of Independence almost every Fourth of July, mostly because the document is never as I remembered it and, more often than not, new turns of phrase catch my eye each time. (This year I had forgotten the reference to opposing the King of Britain and his “invasions on the rights of the people” with “manly firmness.” Had to chuckle at the latter.)

All jokes aside, the Declaration of Independence is absolutely worth the annual read, as it marks a definitive break from what, at the time, was considered to be the most unbearable oppression. The document refers to tyrants and tyranny repeatedly, noting, “A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”

Much of the writing focuses on what the leaders of the American Revolution considered to be prohibitively tyrannous behavior, with a long list of grievances against a king who has “plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns and destroyed the lives of our people.”

Who was this terrible king and what did he have to say about all this? It was King George III, who ruled longer than any other English monarch before Queen Victoria, and lost the American Revolution before dying in 1820 in what was described as a “fog of insanity and blindness.” 

In an address in October 1776, just a few months after the Declaration of Independence was approved, the king denounced its signatories – which included John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, among others – “for daring and desperate is the spirit of those leaders, whose object has always been dominion and power, that they have now openly renounced all allegiance to the crown and all political connection with this country.”

Of course, the U.S. hardly ended all political connection to England, which remains one of its greatest allies. But the document itself is a poignant reminder of how, “whenever any form of government becomes destructive…it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it and to institute new government, laying its foundations on such principles and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

Fair enough. So how is the U.S. doing? And how is the rest of the world doing on this great project known as democracy?

According to Freedom House, a Washington-based watchdog that monitors freedom and democracy around the world, the U.S. could be doing a lot better – and globally, democracy scores declined in 11 of the 29 countries it tracked in its 2023 report, impacted especially by Russia’s war on Ukraine. 

In the U.S., serious issues linger over equal treatment, particularly among race and gender, according to Freedom House. “In addition to structural inequalities and discrimination in wages and employment, racial and ethnic minority groups face long-running and interrelated disparities in education and housing,” it stated.

Meanwhile, Moscow’s invasion “represents the gravest challenge to peace, freedom and democracy in Europe since the end of the Cold War,” the organization said. Rather than bringing the region closer together, the war has “deepened the gulf between autocracies and democracies and triggered divisive shifts in the foreign policies of individual governments,” as Europeans struggle with economic disruption, security threats and refugee crises arising from the conflict. 

“For the nineteenth consecutive year, democratic governance suffered an overall decline in the region stretching from central Europe to central Asia,” Freedom House noted, adding that amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, “autocrats persisted in their domestic assault on the remaining vestiges of institutional independence in the media, local governance and especially civil society.” 

Freedom House also rates people’s access to political rights and civil liberties across 210 countries and territories. Within this ranking, the U.S. received a score of 83, which places it alongside South Korea, Romania and Panama. But that’s below countries such as the U.K., which came in at 93; Uruguay, Switzerland, Portugal, Belgium, Iceland and Japan, which all ranked at 96; and Sweden, Norway and Finland, which each notched a 100.

On the low end of the ranking system, Russia came in at 16. But even lower was Saudi Arabia, at 8, and Syria at 1. 

One lesson that has not changed since the Declaration of Independence: Autocracies, monarchs and despots are still no friend to democracy.