Freedom in the World
Democratic Party candidate Barack Obama won the November 2008 presidential election, which was held under the cloud of the country’s most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Obama, the first black candidate to win the presidency, ran on a platform of comprehensive change from the policies of the outgoing Republican president, George W. Bush. The Democrats also performed well in congressional elections, ensuring that the new president would have the benefit of substantial majorities in both houses of Congress.
The United States declared independence in 1776, during a revolution against British colonial rule. The current system of government began functioning in 1789, following the ratification of the country’s constitution. Because the founders of the United States distrusted concentrated government authority, they set up a system in which the federal government has three coequal branches—executive, legislative, and judicial—and left many powers with state governments and the citizenry.
For most of the country’s history, power has alternated between the Democratic and Republican parties. President George W. Bush of the Republicans was reelected for a second four-year term in 2004, but he subsequently suffered from major policy setbacks and declining public approval ratings. In the 2006 midterm elections, the Democrats won control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1994, adding pressure to the Republicans’ effort to find a viable presidential candidate for the 2008 contest.
As with other recent elections, campaigns for the party presidential nominations got under way well in advance of the election itself, in early 2007. By mid-2008, after an intense struggle, Senator Barack Obama had defeated several rivals for the Democratic nomination, including the early favorite, Senator Hillary Clinton, the wife of former president Bill Clinton (1993–2001). Obama’s Republican opponent was Senator John McCain, a highly respected veteran of the Vietnam War who had won his party’s nomination after a similarly grueling selection process.
Obama triumphed in the November general election amid fears of economic collapse, triggered by a major decline in the stock market, a housing crisis that saw hundreds of thousands of home-mortgage foreclosures, and a major increase in the unemployment rate. Obama ultimately secured 53 percent of the popular vote, with McCain receiving 46 percent. In the Electoral College balloting, which determines the presidential election outcome, Obama and his vice presidential nominee, Senator Joseph Biden, received 365 votes, compared with 173 for McCain and his running mate, Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska. Although McCain did well among white men, Obama scored substantial majorities among several groups, including black, Hispanic, and younger voters. The voter turnout rate, at over 61 percent of eligible voters, was one of the highest recorded in recent years. In concurrent legislative elections, the Democrats increased their majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
During the campaign, both Obama and McCain had distanced themselves from a number of the more controversial counterterrorism policies initiated by President Bush since the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. The two candidates pledged to end interrogation policies that amounted to torture, and Obama promised to shut down the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where hundreds of terrorism suspects were held. However, Obama was unclear on how the remaining detainees—classified by the Bush administration as enemy combatants—would be dealt with. In June, the Supreme Court had dealt a major blow to Bush’s policies on the issue, finding that Guantanamo detainees had the right to challenge their detention in federal court. Separately, in July, Congress voted to substantially expand the federal government’s surveillance authority, effectively endorsing another of Bush’s counterterrorism initiatives; the measure included a provision that granted legal immunity to telephone companies for their cooperation with the government’s wiretapping efforts in the years after the 2001 attacks.
As the Bush administration neared its end, some human rights advocates and members of the political opposition called for investigations into its activities. Some argued that Bush officials should face criminal prosecution for their role in formulating counterterrorism policy, while others favored congressional probes or independent “truth commissions” to uncover the full extent of the government’s activities without necessarily launching criminal cases.
The United States is an electoral democracy with a bicameral federal legislature. The upper chamber, the Senate, consists of 100 members—two from each of the 50 states—serving six-year terms, with one-third coming up for election every two years. The lower chamber, the House of Representatives, consists of 435 members serving two-year terms. As a result of the 2008 elections, Democrats control the House, 256–178, with three vacancies. In the Senate, the Democrats now hold a solid lead, with 56 seats as opposed to 41 for the Republicans; there are also two independents who vote with the Democratic caucus and one unresolved contest. All national legislators are elected directly by voters in the districts or states they represent. The president and vice president are elected to four-year terms. Under a 1951 constitutional amendment, the president is limited to two terms in office.
In the U.S. political system, a great deal of government responsibility rests with the 50 states. Most law enforcement matters are dealt with at the state level, as are education, family matters, and many land-use decisions. States also have the power to raise revenues through various forms of taxation. In some states, citizens have a wide-ranging ability to influence legislation through institutions of direct democracy, such as referendums, which have been conducted on issues including tax rates, affirmative action, and immigrant rights. Although hailed by some as a reflection of the openness of the U.S. system, direct democracy has come under criticism by others, who contend that making government policy by referendum or recalling democratically elected officeholders in the middle of their terms weakens the party system and the institutions of representative democracy.
For presidential elections, the United States has a unique system combining a popular vote with ballots cast by an electoral college. The Electoral College apportions votes to each state based on the size of its congressional representation. In most cases, all of the electors in a particular state then cast their ballots for the candidate who won the popular vote in that state, regardless of the margin. Two states, Maine and Nebraska, have chosen to apportion their electoral votes between the candidates according to the percentage of the popular vote each receives there, and other states are now considering similar systems. The Electoral College vote determines the winner of the election; therefore, it is possible for a candidate to win the presidency while losing the national popular vote.
The United States has an intensely competitive political environment dominated by two major parties, the right-leaning Republicans and the left-leaning Democrats. The country’s “first past the post” or majoritarian electoral system tends to discourage the emergence of additional parties, as do a number of specific legal and other hurdles. However, on occasion, independent or third-party candidates have significantly influenced politics at the presidential and state levels, and a number of newer parties, such as the Green Party, have modestly affected politics in certain municipalities in recent years.
Presidential election campaigns in the United States are long and expensive. Candidates often begin campaigning two years prior to the election. Because of the high costs involved, serious candidates frequently find themselves in what has been called a “permanent campaign,” with a never-ending process of fundraising. In 2001, Congress passed the McCain-Feingold bill, intended to limit the effect of moneyed interests on national politics. Nevertheless, the two parties and the constituency and interest groups that support them have used various methods to circumvent the legislation’s restrictions. Furthermore, the Supreme Court on several occasions has struck down controls on campaign spending on the grounds that they violated free speech rights. The 2006 congressional race was the costliest ever, with a total expenditure of $2.6 billion, much of which was spent by advocacy groups that effectively supported or opposed the major candidates, rather than by the parties or candidates themselves. Election spending for the 2008 contests easily surpassed that of previous years, reaching over $5 billion; the presidential race alone cost $2.4 billion.
Corruption is a complex phenomenon in the United States. American society has a tradition of intolerance toward corrupt acts by government officials, corporate executives, or labor leaders. In recent years, executives from a number of large corporations have received lengthy prison sentences for various financial crimes, and officials at the local, state, and federal levels are regularly prosecuted for corruption. There are a variety of measures in place to reduce private-sector corruption. The most recent major corporate-governance legislation, the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act, was passed in the wake of a series of scandals involving inflated earnings reports by major corporations. The U.S. media are aggressive in reporting on cases of corporate and official corruption; newspapers often publish investigative articles that delve into questions of private or public malfeasance. At the same time, the expanding influence of interest groups and lobbyists on the legislative and policymaking process, combined with their crucial role in campaign fundraising, has given rise to public perceptions of enhanced corruption in Washington. The United States was ranked 18 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The federal government has a high degree of transparency. A substantial number of auditing and investigative agencies function independently of political influence. Such bodies are often spurred to action by the investigative work of journalists. Federal agencies regularly place information relevant to their mandates on websites to broaden public access.
The United States has a free, diverse, and constitutionally protected press. A debate that long simmered over the impact of ownership consolidation, either by sprawling media companies with outlets in many states and formats or by corporate conglomerates with little or no previous interest in journalism, has evolved into doubts about the financial viability of print newspapers. The Tribune Company, which controls some of America’s most prestigious newspapers, declared bankruptcy in December 2008, while other newspapers across the country announced sharp financial setbacks. Some analysts argued that the end of the newspaper era was at hand, and that Americans would get their news from online sources in the future. Already, internet journalists and bloggers play an important and growing role in the coverage of political news, and internet access is widespread in the country.
Controversy continued in 2008 over attempts by federal prosecutors and private attorneys to compel journalists to divulge the names of confidential sources or turn over notes and background material in legal cases. A bill to provide journalists with limited protection from demands for information about confidential sources in federal cases, introduced in 2007, failed to win passage in the Senate. Such press shield laws already exist in 37 states.
The United States has a long tradition of religious freedom. Adherents of practically every major religious denomination, as well as many smaller groupings, can be found throughout the country; rates of both religious belief and religious service attendance are high. The debate over the role of religion in public life is ongoing, however, and often centers on the question of whether government subsidies to schools sponsored by religious denominations conform with constitutional rules requiring the separation of church and state. There are no direct government subsidies to houses of worship. Issues such as gay marriage and abortion, as well as the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, are heavily loaded with religious implications and tend to mobilize political action by Evangelical Christians. Predominantly African American churches are also intensely involved in political affairs at both the local and national levels, and they provided a core base of support for the presidential campaign of Barack Obama.
Although a contentious debate has emerged over the university’s role in society, the academic sphere enjoys a healthy level of intellectual freedom. There are regular discussions on university campuses over such issues as the global economy, Israel and the Palestinians, and the alleged politicization of curriculums on Middle Eastern affairs.
In general, officials respect the right to public protest. Protest demonstrations directed at government policies are frequently held in Washington, New York, and other major cities. The United States gives wide freedom to trade associations, nongovernmental organizations, and issue-oriented pressure groups to organize and argue their cases through the political process. In recent years, something of an exception to the usual American tolerance toward demonstrations has emerged through the use of strict crowd-control tactics at the presidential nomination conventions of the two major parties. In September 2008, dozens of people were arrested during protests at the Republican convention.
Federal law guarantees trade unions the right to organize workers and engage in collective bargaining with employers. The right to strike is also guaranteed. Over the years, however, the strength of organized labor has declined, so that less than 8 percent of the private-sector workforce is currently represented by unions, one of the lowest figures among economically advanced democracies. An important factor in organized labor’s decline is the country’s labor code, which is regarded as an impediment to organizing efforts. Decisions by the National Labor Relations Board, which adjudicates labor-management disputes, have circumscribed unions’ ability to effectively organize and represent workers. In 2006, the board dealt unions a serious blow by greatly expanding the pool of workers deemed to have management responsibility, making them ineligible for union representation. Union organizing efforts are also impeded by strong resistance from employers and the federal government’s failure to strictly punish labor-code violators. Several attempts to modify core labor laws have been defeated in Congress over the years, although chances for the enactment of reform measures were seen as improved after the 2008 elections. Despite its institutional decline, organized labor continues to play a vigorous role in electoral politics. Unions contributed millions of dollars to the Obama campaign and to the campaigns of Democratic congressional candidates.
Judicial independence is respected. Although there has been occasional criticism of the judiciary for allegedly extending its powers into areas of governance that are best left to the political branches, most observers regard the judiciary as a linchpin of the American democratic system. The courts have played an especially important role in disputes over President George W. Bush’s counterterrorism policies.
While the United States has a strong rule-of-law tradition, the criminal justice system’s treatment of minority groups has long been a controversial issue. African Americans and Hispanics constitute a disproportionately large percentage of defendants in criminal cases involving murder, rape, assault, and robbery.
Civil liberties organizations and other groups have advanced a broad critique of the criminal justice system, arguing that there are too many Americans (especially members of minority groups) in prison, that prison sentences are often excessive, and that too many people are prosecuted for minor drug offenses. Over two million Americans are behind bars in federal and state prisons and local jails at any given time, producing the highest national incarceration rate in the world. The number of incarcerated Americans has continued to increase even as the national rate of violent crime has declined in recent years. There is also a disturbing number of juveniles serving lengthy prison terms in adult penitentiaries. Some observers have criticized “three strikes and you’re out” laws in some states,under which criminal defendants receive life sentences after conviction on a third felony, even for relatively minor offenses. Concerns have been raised about prison conditions, especially the unsettling levels of violence and rape.
The United States has the highest rate of legal executions in the democratic world. Reflecting growing doubts about the death penalty, several states have announced a moratorium on capital punishment pending studies on the practice’s fairness. Of particular importance in the campaign against the death penalty has been the exoneration of some death-row inmates based on new DNA testing. The Supreme Court has in recent years struck down the death penalty in cases where the perpetrator is a juvenile or mentally handicapped, and in 2008, the court rejected a state policy that provided for death sentences in cases of child rape. However, it ruled against a challenge to the dominant method of execution in the country, lethal injection; critics had claimed that the injection protocol placed convicts at risk of severe pain and suffering before death.
The United States is one of the world’s most racially and ethnically diverse societies. In recent years, the country’s demographics have shifted in important ways as residents and citizens of Latin American ancestry have replaced blacks as the largest minority group, and the percentage of whites in the population has declined somewhat. An array of policies and programs are designed to protect the rights of minorities, including laws to prevent workplace discrimination, affirmative-action plans for university admissions, quotas to guarantee representation in the internal affairs of some political parties, and policies to ensure that minorities are not treated unfairly in the distribution of government assistance. Blacks, however, continue to lag in economic standing, educational attainment, and other social indicators. They are more likely to live in poverty, less likely to own businesses, less likely to hold a university degree, and much more likely to have served time in prison than members of other groups, including many recent immigrant groups. Affirmative action in employment and university admissions remains a contentious issue. The Supreme Court has given approval to the use of race or ethnicity as a factor in university admissions under certain narrow conditions. However, affirmative action has been banned, in whole or in part, through referendums in five states, including Nebraska, where voters approved an anti–affirmative action proposal in 2008.
Since its immigration laws underwent major changes during the 1960s, the United States has generally maintained liberal immigration policies. In recent years, there has been a prominent debate over the degree to which new immigrants are assimilating into American society. Most observers, however, believe that the country has struck a balance that both encourages assimilation and permits new legal immigrants to maintain their religious and cultural customs. Americans remain troubled by the large number of illegal immigrants who have crossed into the country from its southern border. Over the last several years, the federal government has responded by strengthening security at the border with Mexico, conducting raids on businesses where undocumented workers are employed, and detaining and deporting large numbers of illegal immigrants.
Citizens of the United States enjoy a high level of personal autonomy. The right to own property is protected by law and is jealously guarded as part of the American way of life. Business entrepreneurship is encouraged as a matter of government policy.
The United States prides itself as a society that offers wide access to economic and social advancement and favors government policies that enhance equality of opportunity. Historically, the opportunities for economic advancement have played a key role in the successful assimilation of new immigrants. Recently, however, studies have shown a widening inequality in wealth and a narrowing of access to upward mobility. Among the world’s prosperous, stable democracies, the United States is unique in having a large underclass of poor people who have at best a marginal role in economic life.
Women have made important strides toward equality over the past several decades. They are heavily represented in the legal profession, medicine, and journalism, and they predominate in university programs that train students for these careers. Although the average compensation for female workers is roughly 80 percent of that for male workers, women with recent university degrees have effectively attained parity with men. Nonetheless, there remain many female-headed families that live in conditions of chronic poverty.
The issue of gay rights is highly contentious. Federal law does not include homosexuals as a protected class under antidiscrimination legislation, though many states have enacted such civil rights protections. An intense controversy erupted over gay marriage after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in 2003 that homosexual couples had the same right to marry as heterosexual couples under the state constitution. Since the ruling, many states have passed laws or constitutional amendments explicitly banning same-sex marriage, though an increasing number of states permit civil unions or other legal arrangements for gays that guarantee economic and family rights similar to those enjoyed by married couples. In 2008, Connecticut and California joined Massachusetts in allowing full marriage rights, but the relevant California court ruling was reversed by a referendum in November.
The numerical ratings and status listed above do not reflect conditions in Puerto Rico, which is examined in a separate report.