The idea of human rights has come a long way. Even hard-nosed international-relations realists should recognize that the idea has become so widely accepted that nowadays it arguably has an impact. Many countries have made human rights goals part of their foreign policy. International civil society is populated by well-funded and outspoken human rights organizations. We have recently witnessed the creation of an entirely new institution, the International Criminal Court, as well as the acceptance, at the UN level, of guiding principles to formulate human rights obligations of businesses. Around the world, more and more local concerns are formulated in the language of human rights, a phenomenon known as the vernacularization, or localization, of human rights. Ordinary people increasingly express concerns in terms of human rights rather than a language that earlier might have come more natural to them. They are not just helping themselves to a legal and political machinery. They also make clear that they are articulating concerns others have in similar ways where they live.
In its 2016 “Democracy Index” report, the Economist Intelligence Unit downgraded the United States from a “full” to a “flawed democracy”. The report cited “an erosion of trust in political institutions” as the primary reason for the downgrade. In January 2018 Freedom House offered an equally dire assessment: “democratic institutions in the US have suffered erosion, as reflected in partisan manipulation of the electoral process . . . and growing disparities in wealth, economic opportunity and political influence.”
Declining levels of political participation and public confidence in government in the US are not new, but the populist forces that propelled the election of Donald Trump in 2016 signaled a new level of public disillusionment with democratic politics as usual. There has been a sharp increase in public discontent with the system of governance in the US over the last fifteen years. An October 2017 Washington Post/University of Maryland poll found that 71% of Americans believe that political polarization and democratic dysfunction have reached “a dangerous low point”. Three years earlier, in 2014, a Gallup Poll showed that 65% of Americans were “dissatisfied with their system of government and how it works,” a dramatic reversal from 68% satisfaction twelve years earlier in 2002.
The US is a flawed liberal democracy. In theory, liberal democracy is the antithesis of authoritarianism. Its ingredients include free and fair elections, freedom of speech and media freedom, an independent judiciary, minority rights and civil liberties, a diverse civil society, the rule of law and a system of checks and balances against concentrations of power. The institutions and elements of liberal democracy are designed to be a bulwark against tyranny by both the executive and the majority.