Press release

NEW REPORT: US Democracy Has Declined Significantly in the Past Decade, Reforms Urgently Needed

Measures to address racial injustice, special-interest influence, and partisan polarization should be among the top priorities.

Today, Freedom House released a special report, From Crisis to Reform: A Call to Strengthen America’s Battered Democracy, which identifies three enduring problems that have undermined the health of the US political system: unequal treatment for people of color, the outsized influence of special interests in politics, and partisan polarization. This report comes in response to a decade-long decline in US democracy and is based in Freedom House’s global comparative research.

The report concludes that these three major problems compound one another, creating a vicious circle of distrust and dysfunction, and that addressing them with urgency and conviction is crucial to restoring Americans’ faith not just in their government, but also in democracy itself.

“Our democracy is in trouble,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, “and the strength of American democracy is important for people everywhere, not just here at home. Congress and the Biden administration must make it a priority to strengthen our institutions, restore civic norms, and uphold the promise of universal liberty on which our nation was founded.”

“The state of US democracy has implications for freedom and democracy around the world,” said Sarah Repucci, vice president of research and analysis at Freedom House. “Democracy movements in other countries look to the United States for inspiration and support, and authoritarian leaders falsely point to America’s problems as proof of democracy’s inherent inferiority and as a sort of license for their own abuses of power.”

Key drivers of long-term decline

Unequal treatment for people of color

  • As a nation and a society, the United States has struggled to move past the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. While great strides have been made in terms of formal desegregation and the codification of civil rights, the unequal treatment of people of color in practice remains a great and pressing challenge.
  • Discrimination in the criminal justice system, from police violence against Black Americans to the disproportionate incarceration of people of color, is especially damaging to US society and Americans’ faith in government.

Special-interest influence in politics

  • A major cause of public distrust in government is the outsized influence of powerful special interests in politics and policymaking. The 2010 Citizens United ruling, in which the Supreme Court found that the constitution prohibited government restrictions on political advertising by corporations and other legal entities, exacerbated the problem.
  • The United States in an outlier among its peers with respect to the scale and duration of campaign expenditures and the fundraising efforts required to fuel them. In few similar democracies does private money have such a large impact on the political sphere.

Partisan polarization

  • Deepening partisan divisions have distorted political and civic discourse, encouraged extremism, and led to governmental dysfunction, often preventing the country from addressing shared problems and advancing the public interest.
  • Weaknesses in the US electoral system, such as partisan gerrymandering, feed polarization by incentivizing radically partisan positions in primary elections, tying partisan affiliation to demographic traits, and undermining a sense of common national identity.

Policy recommendations

  • As part of a comprehensive effort to address racial injustice, eliminate unnecessary barriers to voting that discourage maximum participation and in some cases disproportionately affect people of color.
  • Curb the outsized influence of money in politics and policymaking by tightening and enforcing campaign finance laws.
  • Establish independent redistricting commissions in all 50 states to reverse the polarizing effects of partisan gerrymandering.

The most recent edition of Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World report, released on March 3, found that the United States’ democracy score dropped by three points due to events in 2020, for a total decline of 11 points on a 100-point scale over the past decade. Key concerns highlighted in that report included mass arrests and violence against journalists at protests, the dismissal of inspectors general and other violations of norms meant to prevent abuse of office, lack of transparency and misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and former president Trump’s attempts to overturn the decision of American voters in one of the most secure elections in US history.

In a global context, the US score declines are both remarkable and worrisome. Although the United States remains a Free country, it has left the higher echelons of that category and now ranks alongside states with less robust democratic histories, such as Romania, Croatia, and Panama.

“There is still plenty of reason for hope,” said Abramowitz. “Despite the former president’s serious attempts to overturn the will of the people in the last election, there was ultimately a peaceful transfer of power on January 20. Our democratic institutions withstood repeated attacks. The threat is not over, but we have faced dark days in our democracy before and found redemption by turning back toward our core values. It is time to do so again.”

The United States is rated Free in Freedom in the World 2021 and Free in Freedom on the Net 2020.

Demonstrators gather on the National Mall to protest racial injustice. An image of George Floyd is held up in front of the Washington Monument.

From Crisis to Reform: A Call to Strengthen America’s Battered Democracy

After experiencing a gradual decline in respect for political rights and civil liberties over the past decade, the United States is now facing an acute crisis for democracy.