Is The US Still A Liberal Democracy?

In the years since 9/11, the US has built a mosaic of national security powers that undermine its claim to be the “land of the free.” According to this useful summary by Jonathan Turley, these include: Assassination of its own citizens; warrantless searches; use of secret evidence and secret courts; the rise of an unaccountable surveillance state (more on that by Glenn Greenwald). This is in addition to hosting the world’s largest prison population (both in relative and absolute numbers), which includes what for all intents and purposes can be considered a transnational Gulag as part of its efforts in the endless-by-definition “war on terror.” At least for many Muslims and minorities, the US has already not been a liberal democracy for a long time.

But at what point can a country be considered to have definitively retreated from liberal democracy? After all, though much of the above are common to authoritarian states, they are sometimes present in liberal democracies too; and besides, the US does have some mitigating features (e.g. strong freedom of speech provisions that are relatively free from PC and libel laws, unlike in the UK and much of Europe).

The argument can be made that the US ceased being a liberal democracy on December 31, 2011 – the day the NDAA 2012 was signed into law by Obama. This legalizes the indefinite detention of US citizens by the military on the mere suspicion that the suspect is “associated with” terrorism or committed “belligerent acts” against the US or its allies. Bearing in mind the incredibly broad and flexible definition of what “terrorism” actually means, this could potentially encompass any number of anti-elite groups: Anonymous, Wikileaks, Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, etc.

AK Edit: Regrettably, all the old polls have gone.

Even if we are to (very generously) assume that this law will only be conscientiously wielded against genuine terrorists, there is room for doubt that indefinite detention is compatible with liberal democracy. After all, no other countries commonly considered to be liberal democracies – so far as I’m aware – have indefinite detention powers as sweeping as those contained in the NDAA. Even many countries considered to be illiberal democracies (or outright dictatorships), such as Russia, don’t have anything like it. And, of course, this assumption of good intentions is pollyannaish, given that the government has given no cause for trust whatsoever in this matter (what with the FBI setting up terrorist plots, the numerous cases of wrongful detention at Guantanamo, etc).

Of course, this is not to say that in a few years the US will come to resemble a tinpot dictatorship. Some historical perspective is necessary. Indefinite detention and imprisonment without trial aren’t unprecedented: See the 1950 McCarran Act, introduced at the height of the red scare, didn’t exactly lead to authoritarianism (though the US at the time was a great deal more illiberal that many care to admit). Furthermore, it’s also important to note that the NDAA legislation merely codifies powers that the executive has both claimed (through the AUMF) and exercised for the past decade, and besides it is only building on past efforts such as the flopped Enemy Belligerent Act of 2010; so one can argue that the change is not so abrupt as to constitute a crossing-the-Rubicon type of event.

Perhaps. Then again, there are caveats to that viewpoint too. The 1950’s-60’s were a period of fast growth and prosperity, so there was no real base for authoritarian regression. The prospects for the next decade don’t look anywhere near as good; in fact, they are downright dismal, and may well see some combination of high inflation and default. And democracy tends to wane in days of depression. Faced with challenges from the far left and the far right, the elites may find it necessary to consolidate a profoundly different social order, a post-constitutional Third Republic of sorts: One that is fiscally and socially conservative, and more authoritarian than the current one. To do this they will need to enlist the support of the billionaires; as far as this is concerned, the Wall Street bailouts, Citizens United and corporate citizenship, SOPA/PIPA, etc. may well be only harbingers of what is yet to come.

But this is all speculation. In the here and now, the fact of the matter is that the US now has national security laws on its books far more draconian than those of any other country considered to be a liberal democracy; indeed, I doubt you would find anything similar even in countries whose democracies are often criticized, such as Russia, Venezuela, or now Hungary. These laws apply to “terrorists”, a grouping every bit as ephemeral and ill-defined as “counter-revolutionaries” under Article 58 of the Stalinist lawcode. I have no choice but to lower the US from a “semi-liberal democracy” to an “illiberal democracy” in this year’s edition of the Karlin Freedom Index.

  • Alexander Mercouris

    Dear Anatoly,

    It looks like I should have waited for this article before writing my comment on your previous post about how in 10 to 20 years time Russia might be a more democratic and law abiding country than the US and Britain.

    Whilst on the subject I would add that the steady trend towards improving civil rights, improving and democratising the judicial and legal system and enhancing democracy has happened at the same time as Russia has had to face a violent Islamic insurgency on its own territory. Notwithstanding this and in contrast to the US the entire trend in Russian policy has been towards greater tolerance and democracy. By contrast the US has become steadily less democratic and less tolerant even as its wars (which are ultimately wars of choice) are fought far away.

  • yalensis

    Norman Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” that American citizens are supposedly entitled to (1) Freedom of Speech, (2) Freedom of Worship, (3) Freedom From Want, (4) Freedom From Fear:

  • Jen

    Dear Anatoly,

    Your article begs the question of when the United States became a liberal democracy and how we define a liberal democracy. If we define a liberal democracy very broadly as one in which everyone of voting age is eligible for citizenship and the rights and freedoms that go with it, then the US didn’t come close to being such a thing until after the American Civil War when the Thirteenth Amendment (which outlaws slavery) and the Fourteenth Amendment (which defines US citizenship broadly and overruled a US Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scott case of 1857 that denied citizenship to people of African descent) were passed. Even then, for a long time afterwards, at least until the 1960s when the civil rights movement took place, most people of Afro-American or First Nations ancestry didn’t enjoy (and many of them still don’t) the rights and freedoms they should have as citizens.

    As for the rise of an unaccountable surveillance state, I’d be hard-pressed to figure out when that really started as there has always been some form of internal surveillance in the US since the McCarthy era at least or since J Edgar Hoover founded the FBI in 1935.

  • Hunter

    AK, do you think it is a case where the powers that be have just become too accustomed to these powers under the war on terror? After all Osama bin Laden is dead and a recent Newseek (or it might have been Time magazine) article I read highlighted that at least in the Pakistan/Afghanistan borderlands Al-Qaeda is a very hollow and brittle shell of its former self (in part because funds have also dried up and are being redirected (apparently) towards the revolutionary movements in the Arab world). This is probably about as close to total victory than one can get against a terrorist group without simply wiping out all persons who might be inclined to join it (or without totally removing the conditions that facilitate the growth of terrorist organizations). As such over 6 months after bin Laden’s death and with a lot of Al Qaeda’s leadership dead or imprisoned, the NDAA 2012 seems to go against the grain so to speak. There doesn’t seem to be much logic behind extending government powers at this point.

    • Jen


      Your comment leads me to suspect that al Qa’ida since late December 2001 has existed more as a propaganda device for the US, UK and other governments to use to flay the public and silence opposition to their wars.

      There have been many rumours and stories on the Internet that Osama bin Laden actually died on 13 December 2001 in Afghanistan. A man who needs kidney dialysis regularly simply could not survive for very long in that country at the time as it was being bombed by US forces.

      Before she died in 2007, Benazir Bhutto said in a BBC interview that Osama bin Laden had been murdered.

      The raid on the compound where bin Laden was supposedly living in Abbottabad in May 2011 to me smacks of having been staged. Neighbours in the area interviewed by Pakistani reporters said they never heard anyone there speaking Arabic, only Pashto had been spoken at the house. To my knowledge, medical people or people who knew bin Laden were not invited to view bin Laden’s body. Bin Laden was also buried at sea very quickly. There have been rumours that one of the helicopters that participated in the raid was shot down, it had not simply crashed.

  • AK

    Courtesy of “Cain” at this forum, I’ve found what is perhaps the finest cartoon summary of the decline of US liberal democracy under Obama.

  • “this is not to say that in a few years the US will come to resemble a tinpot dictatorship.”

    By 2014 the US will likely have become a quasi-fascist corporate ruling class state.
    Censorship is the sincerest form of flattery.

  • I would not say the United States is retreating from liberal democracy so much as it is crumbling as a superpower, even as it pursues the latter goal with an ever-increasing attitude of entitlement.

    Consider. An issue of United States Naval Institute Proceedings from sometime in the early 80’s (I can’t recall when exactly, but it’s not important to the discussion) held that the three defining principles of a superpower – and that Russia’s deficiencies in each proved it was not one – were (1) a superpower can feed its people, (2) a superpower can maintain open borders, and (3) a superpower can tolerate dissent.

    The USA is still doing a pretty good job of feeding its people; in fact, obesity in America has risen to a third of the population since the article I mentioned was written

    while, although accurate figures are difficult to obtain for Russia, the percentage appears to be less than half that. But attrition through starvation is hardly a menacing problem for either country.

    Let’s look at the last two factors, though: who’s moving toward those goalposts, and who’s moving away? I hope we can agree that open borders to the USA became a thing of the past after 2001, certainly in terms of the freedom that had previously been enjoyed. While nobody would dispute the USA was attacked on its own soil, it cannot be an issue of American deaths – more people die of the flu, or of complications associated with it, every year.

    I’m not trying to downplay the seriousness of the attack, but Americans have been kept in a steady state of low-grade terror ever since and it is wildly disproportionate to the actual threat. More and more individual freedom has been sacrificed to this cause, until present-day Americans have little idea how much personal information their government holds on most of them or on how many measures the government can call to monitor their movements both within and outside their nation.

    Tolerance of dissent? That formally gave a weak chuckle and expired with the establishment of “free speech zones” during the Bush presidency, which moved disturbing signs of protest far from the venue at which the president would appear and made it much more likely he would see only adoring fans.

    However, according to the western press, all of Russia is one big free-speech zone, and any attempts to regulate the freedom of assembly (such a preventing marches to the Kremlin using major traffic routes) are greeted with howls of “shame!!!” from western pundits.

    Before removing the mote from thy neighbour’s eye, attend thou first the beam in thine own.

    • Jen

      Dear Mark,

      I am not too sure about equating obesity with a country’s ability to feed its people.

      I had a look at that map in the first link you provided and I noticed the levels of obesity in the United States, as expressed as percentages of the population in each state, are highest in the southeastern part of the country (Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas in particular) which has some of the poorest, if not the poorest, communities in the country. Mississippi state has long had an unenviable reputation as the most Third World state in the Union.

      Obesity might actually be linked to poverty in that people are spending whatever income they have on cheap food that fills them up and staves off hunger but provides no nutrients. Food insecurity (not knowing where your next meal is coming from) is becoming a greater problem in the US. See this link:

      Trends in conditions like diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure in adults, and rickets in children, to name a few, might also indicate that the US is losing its ability to feed all its people adequately.

      It’s my understanding also that in the Soviet Union before 1991, something like 90% of the food grown was grown in private plots owned by families (10% of agricultural land was privately owned then) and official government statistics did not include figures for crops grown privately.

      • Alexander Mercouris

        Dear Jen,

        “It’s my understanding also that in the Soviet Union before 1991, something like 90% of the food was grown in private plots owned by families”.

        I don’t have the statistics and I am prepared to be corrected but I am sure this is an exaggeration. My recollection is that the state and collective farms produced most of the grains as well as the great bulk of the meat and dairy products (including eggs) but that private farms accounted for a very large proportion of the fruit and vegetables. In other words there was a rough and informal division whereby the state and collective farms produced those food products that required large acreage whilst private farmers produced those foods that needed less acreage. In addition I always got the impression that the problem in the USSR was not of an overall shortage of food but rather of its very inefficient distribution caused by a failure to use the price mechanism properly.

        • Alexander Mercouris

          Dear Jen,

          I forgot to add that I agree with you that obesity is not always an indicator of a high standard of living. Indeed I believe it is a commonplace that whilst in poor countries the poor are thin and the rich are fat in rich countries it is the rich who are thin and the poor who are fat.

          Here in Britain where obesity is becoming an increasing problem much as it is in the US (though not yet on the same scale) it is universally acknowledged that it is found far more often amongst people in the lower economic groups than the higher. As to the cause of obesity amongst such groups there appear to be many reasons but the poor balance of the diet and the dependence on cheap fat saturated foods appears by general agreement to be the main one.

        • kirill

          There was grotesque negligence or criminality in delivery. Trainloads of fruit would be allowed to rot as they sat in marshalling yards. Seriously, they would “lose” track of a whole train.

          Now such abuse is not tolerated because some party would lose millions of dollars. Before it was “who cares!”. This mentality is what did in the USSR and not Ronnie Raygun with his military spending.

        • Jen


          I just found some information on Wikipedia which says that about 25% of food produced in the Soviet Union in the 1980s was grown on private plots which made up 3% of the arable land. So the 90% figure I quoted earlier is a gross exaggeration – my apologies.

          Also came across this critique of Western myths about the inefficiency of Soviet agriculture by an academic at the University of Southern Maine which may interest you and others here:

          • charly

            25% by weight or calories. It is much easier to produce a kilo of cucumbers than it is to produce a kilo of grain

      • kirill

        Poverty and obesity go hand in hand. There is this pervasive myth that obesity is the result of over-eating. For some it is, but for many it is the opposite. A high carb diet, which is what is the cheapest, is not tolerated by about 25% of the population who have genetic insulin resistance. Instead of turning glucose from starches into heat their metabolism turns it into fat. Insulin is the main fat hormone and high levels of it are not healthy. These high levels are due to the fact that 1) there are too few insulin receptors in cell walls to start with and 2) that cells can reduce the number of receptors under high insulin loading. So we have a spiral whereby the insulin levels keep getting higher and higher with age. People with insulin resistance are the most likely to develop type II diabetes since the amount of insulin production is so high after decades of this condition that the pancreatic beta cells start to fail from toxic byproduct levels.

        It is particularly annoying to hear smug media airheads keep repeating the obesity is caused by over-eating myth. In my personal experience some of the thinnest people I have known were the biggest eaters. Hyperactive metabolisms not subject to insulin resistance can lead to people consuming large amounts of food. But most people don’t even think twice about how much and what they eat since the average metabolism is good at regulating itself. It would take a very concerted effort by the average human to get obese by over-eating. They would have to stuff themselves for prolonged periods (I suppose they would be increasing the average insulin level and thereby reducing the number of receptors; if this is driven to the extreme they can actually reach a state from which they cannot return).

        • Jen


          I agree, much obesity is actually caused by foods and drinks high in high-fructose corn syrup or artificial sweeteners. Diet foods and drinks in particular are a major culprit. Also food packaged in plastic may pick up particles of bisphenol A which could be a culprit. Bisphenol A acts like oestrogen which is a growth hormone and there may be positive correlations between Bisphenol A and cancers affecting the prostate gland in men, and breasts and ovaries in women.

        • I seem to have dragged the conversation down a blind alley with that comment about obesity – it was kind of gratuitous to the point, and now I wish I hadn’t brought it up. It was meant as a sarcastic rejoinder to the land-of-plenty argument, the implication that a burger joint on every corner spells we got more than we need. I completely agree with Jen that obese people are often those of least means, who live on cheap, sugary fillers, as well as youth that have not learned self-discipline and see no harm in having four or five meals per week at McDonalds. But the issue of a superpower being able to feed its people is not the axis of the argument; I’ll stipulate that the USA is in no danger of losing its superpower status because of delinquency on this point. Even China, with its monster population, is a net exporter of food.

          But I stand by my argument that the USA is sunsetting itself as a superpower because of its reliance on keeping the electorate frightened in order to pass draconian legislation that allows the government to comb through its citizens’ private information and to arrest them as it sees fit – furthermore, that much-maligned Russia would not permit it. It’s like that old joke – I don’t believe man descended from the ape: I believe that’s the direction we’re going, and some of us have a powerful lead. Having forsworn the cruelty and self-deification of the surveillance state, Russia can only look on in bemusement as the west picks it up like a shiny toy.

          • Jen


            Bringing up the food / obesity issue was relevant to this forum. Tyrannical governments can and do control people by manipulating their food supplies and what they’re allowed or not allowed to eat. They can even drive people to the brink of starvation to prevent dissent.

            I believe Romania during the 1980s was a major food producer and food exports were its main money-earner yet the Ceausescu government then subjected the people to severe food rationing, partly to pay off foreign loans and to raise money for Nicolae Ceausescu’s pet grandiose architectural schemes but also because I suspect if you’re the ruler and can keep people hungry enough and spending all their time in queues at food shops, they don’t think about getting rid of you!

            • Yes, I agree the food issue is relevant insofar as being able to feed your citizens is a central tenet of a superpower. Food yes, obesity no. But my argument is that America is slipping as a superpower due to its fascination with monitoring and controlling its citizens while steadily chipping away at their personal freedoms.

              The USA is still a democracy insofar as its leaders are brought to power via a popular vote by the electorate. However, the same conditions ordain that Russia is a democracy, and while widespread fraud has not yet been proven in American elections, the steering of the vote is accomplished not through fraud but through various schemes to influence and suppress the vote where desired. Phone jamming, robocalls, push polls and disinformation have all played influential parts in modern American elections.

              • charly

                Phone jamming, robocalls, push polls and disinformation are not evil. But voter suppression is

  • Alexander Mercouris

    Dear Jen,

    Thank you very much for your link to the article about Soviet agriculture. It brought back many memories. When I was studying at the London School of Slavonic and East European Studies in 1980 my professor Martin McCauley used to make exactly the same points as in the article you quoted. He was not someone who could in any way be described as pro Soviet. On the contrary around the time of Gordievsky defection it became known that he was actually involved with the British intelligence services. However he had actually worked in the USSR on a collective farm for one of his studies and his knowledge of the Soviet agricultural system was therefore far better than that of other western commentators. I can remember his frustration at the way in which the subject was constantly misreported including by other members of the academic staff at the same institute.

    I would just make a few points:

    1. As I remember during perestroika Yegor Ligachev who was the Politburo member and Central Committee Secretary in charge of agriculture made the same point as in the article to which you have provided the link, which is that the fundamental reason for the diffference in productivity of Soviet farm workers and US farm workers was the very much higher investment in US agriculture that translated into much more farm equipment, fertiliser, roads etc. In fact he made the specific point that allowing for differences in geography and climate Soviet agricultural productivity in the late 1980s was about the same as US agricultural productivity in the early 1950s when investment levels were about the same as they were in the USSR in the 1980s. Ligachev’s comments provoked a completely hysterical reaction from the liberal camp, which heaped on him vitriolic abuse without in any way engaging with the point he was making. Of course the liberals did not want to address this point because it would have undermined their argument that the key to increase in agriculture was to privatise it.

    2. Kirill is absolutely right that huge amounts of food were simply left to rot in the transport system and in wharehouses. The problem was not lack of food but very poor distribution due to the failure to use the price mechanism properly. McCauley told me that because of the illogical nature of the price system bread in the shops used to cost less than the raw wheat it was made from causing all sorts of inefficient and illogical practices. Farmers for example would actually buy loaves of bread in state shops to use as animal feed since it was actually cheaper to do this. In McCauley’s view if the USSR had carried out a proper price reform it would rapidly have achieved food self sufficiency since more food was lost through waste in the way that Kirill describes than was being imported.

    3. It is now known that the need for a proper price reform and for a move towards commercial prices for agricultural goods was fully understood by the Soviet economic leadership. Nikolai Baibakov the Gosplan head and Valentin Pavlov the head of the state commission for prices (who subsequently briefly became Prime Minister) had actually obtained Brezhnev’s approval for an economic reform that would have involved a major price reform and the first tentative steps to introduce it were taken under Andropov. Contrary to what many think Brezhnev’s death did not accelerate the introduction of reform in the economic sphere but may have delayed it. When Andropov died the momentum was lost and unfortunately instead of pursuing this reform Gorbachev opted for a much more radical and far more poorly thought out programme of reform he was persuaded to adopt by the clique of fractious liberal economists like Abalkin and Shatalin he had gathered around him.

    4. I would finish by saying that during the 1990s when investment in agriculture collapsed production fell exactly as Ligachev and the author of this article would have predicted but that of course is another story.

    • Jen


      No problem, glad you liked the article.