Human Rights Index #42: Threats to Democracy

TIR staff

The Human Rights Index is prepared three times a year by the University of Iowa Center for Human RightsThe Iowa Review is proud to feature the Index on our website, to suggest the global political and socioeconomic context within which we read and write.

Human Rights Index #42

Prepared by The University of Iowa Center for Human Rights (UICHR)*

Over time, “democratization” and “good governance” have come to constitute staples of American foreign policy—for example, as rationales to legitimize the many US military and economic interventions in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East since World War II. Increasingly, however, the character and universalizability of democracy as espoused by the US is contested.  Internationally, it arouses fears of a cultural imperialism that falls hypocritically short of the US founders’ vision (“of, by, and for the people”), especially among those who have been on the receiving end of the American mission. Nationally, it bumps up against a restless society deeply frustrated by the multiple practices that stray from that foundational theory. Unfettered campaign spending, corruption, politically polarized gerrymandering, and voter suppression generate voter apathy, which in turn makes way for a plutocracy that advances the interests of the rich and powerful at the expense of the unrich and powerless, a disparity that is today at an all-time high.  A small, concentrated pool of donors accounts for over two-thirds of campaign contributions.  Lobbyists and representatives from the agricultural, armaments, energy, financial, pharmaceutical, and other sectors draft much of the legislation that is meant to regulate them. And as the political process becomes ever more financially driven, the capacity of the vast majority of Americans to impact that process decreases.  Money, not civics, drives much if not most of American political life today. 

0.23 — Percent of US population contributing more than $200 to political campaigns in 2014, accounting for 66.6% of political spending that year (OpenSecrets 2014)

2.4 — Percent decrease in voter turnout estimated to result from a changed voter ID law in Pennsylvania, the consequence of a political maneuver designed to ensure an estimated net swing to Republicans of 1.2 percent, enough to win close elections (New York Times 2012)                 

31 — Number of days in the 2005 United Kingdom campaign season, limiting the amount of money that can be spent on the election and consequently the influence that money can buy (The Library of Congress 2015)            

35 — Number of Congressional House seats out of 435 that were competitive in the 2014 US mid-term elections—a consequence, it may be argued, of extensive gerrymandering and unrestrained partisan financing, and leaving many citizens entirely disenfranchised from national representation and giving favored constituents a dominant voice at the polls (Gallup 2014; Independent Voter Network 2013)     

36.6 — Percent of eligible US population that voted in the 2014 US midterm elections, in stark contrast to, for example, voter turnout in Denmark (87%) which hosts a shorter campaign season and  prohibits political TV advertising (US News & World Report 2014;  Minn Post 2012)    

54 — Percent of wealth held by the richest 3% of US families in 2013 in contrast to the 25% held by the bottom 90% of the US population, a class domination conducive to the exercise of self-serving power ( 2014; Who Rules America?  2012)              

95.4 — Combined House and Senate incumbent reelection rate despite a mere 15% congressional approval rating, arguable evidence that money more than ideas is driving the US civic order (Politifact, 2014)

331 — Number of dollars US CEOs make per dollar earned by an “average” US worker in 2013, up from a 43 to 1 ratio in 1983, demonstrating that American policies hugely benefit the rich at the expense of the poor, and notwithstanding that, at the same time, 45.3 million Americans live in poverty  (Business Insider 2014;  US Census 2013)

828 — Billions of US dollars raised by super PACs (political action committees) in 2012, 68% of which was raised from 1% of total donors (CNN)

1,200,000 — The average dollar cost of a winning US House campaign in 2014 (OpenSecrets, 2014)

5,850,000 — Number of US citizens ineligible to vote because of criminal convictions, 4.4 million of whom have been released from prison and now are living and working as members of our communities (American Civil Liberties Union 2015)

8,600,000 — The average dollar cost of a winning US Senate campaign in 2014 (OpenSecrets, 2014)

30,000,000 — The dollar cost of “Redmap,” a successful two-step strategy of the Republican State Leadership Committee aimed at gaining Republican control over state legislatures before the decennial Census, later to redraw voting districts to Republican advantage (New York Times 2013) 

3,700,000,000 — The dollar cost of 2014 US elections compared to an estimated $45 million spent on the 2010 United Kingdom general elections (Washington Post 2014; CNN 2012)

*Copyright © 2014 by The University of Iowa Center for Human Rights (UICHR). Prepared by Bessie Dutton Murray Distinguished Professor of Law Emeritus and UICHR Senior Scholar Burns H. Weston with the generous assistance of Damian Bakula, Ma Jin, Zachary Nichols, Isaac Smith, and Alparslan Zora, each students at the UI College of Law. For additional facts concerning threats to democracy and further information on human rights generally, please visit the UICHR web site: