The United States is a federal republic whose people benefit from a vibrant political system, a strong rule-of-law tradition, robust freedoms of expression and religious belief, and a wide array of other civil liberties. However, in recent years its democratic institutions have suffered erosion, as reflected in partisan manipulation of the electoral process, bias and dysfunction in the criminal justice system, flawed new policies on immigration and asylum seekers, and growing disparities in wealth, economic opportunity, and political influence.
- The administration of President Donald Trump continued to introduce restrictive new policies to limit immigration and reduce the number of refugees and asylum seekers reaching US soil, prompting court challenges and some pushback from Congress. In March and October, the president vetoed congressional resolutions that sought to overturn his February declaration of a national emergency, which he used to reassign appropriated funds to advance construction of a wall along the border with Mexico.
- In August, a gunman apparently motivated by racist and xenophobic ideology carried out the year’s deadliest mass shooting, killing 22 people at a store in Texas that was frequented by Mexican and Mexican American customers.
- In December, the opposition-controlled House of Representatives approved articles of impeachment against President Trump, accusing him of abusing his office by attempting to extort a personal political favor from the Ukrainian government, and of obstructing Congress by ordering the executive branch not to cooperate with the House’s impeachment inquiry. A trial in the Senate was pending at year’s end.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||3 4|
The president, who serves as both head of state and head of government, is elected for up to two four-year terms. Presidential elections are decided by an Electoral College, with electors apportioned to each state based on the size of its congressional representation. In most cases, all of the electors in a particular state cast their ballots for the candidate who won the statewide popular vote, regardless of the margin. Two states, Maine and Nebraska, have chosen to divide their electoral votes between the candidates based on their popular-vote performance in each congressional district. The Electoral College makes it possible for a candidate to win the presidency while losing the national popular vote, an outcome that took place in the presidential elections of 2000 and 2016. Trump, the Republican Party candidate, won the 2016 Electoral College vote, 304 to 227, while finishing nearly three million votes behind Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton in the popular ballot.
Although the United States has a long tradition of free elections, the 2016 contest featured a significant amount of interference from a foreign power. The US intelligence community concluded that the Russian leadership carried out a broad campaign to undermine public faith in the democratic process, denigrate Clinton, and aid Trump. It included the hacking of multiple targets, such as both major political parties and some electoral boards; the strategic release of stolen emails meant to embarrass the Democratic Party; and the exploitation of social media platforms to covertly spread disinformation among US voters. In July and October 2019, the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee released two reports that confirmed and expanded on the earlier findings, and it issued detailed recommendations on how to protect US elections against ongoing influence operations by hostile states.
The Trump administration took some steps to prevent a repetition of the 2016 interference in 2020, but the White House resisted making the issue a major priority, and Trump himself repeatedly cast doubt on the conclusion that Moscow meddled on his behalf. The president also remained consistently hostile to an investigation into the matter led by Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller. In March 2019, Mueller issued a report finding that evidence of links between Russian authorities and the Trump campaign was “not sufficient to charge that any member of the Trump Campaign conspired with representatives of the Russian government to interfere in the 2016 election.” However, Mueller charged a number of campaign associates with lying to investigators, and he refused to “exonerate” Trump of obstructing the probe, stating instead that Justice Department rules did not allow him to make a determination that a sitting president had committed crimes. Attorney General William Barr subsequently launched a separate investigation into the propriety of the initial inquiries that evolved into the Mueller probe. A third investigation, by the Justice Department inspector general, found in December 2019 that federal agents had sufficient justification to launch the original inquiry, and that they were not motivated by political bias, but that they made serious procedural errors enabled by lax rules on obtaining court approval for wiretaps.
In September 2019, Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives launched an inquiry into allegations that Trump had misused his authority to benefit his 2020 reelection prospects by pressuring the president of Ukraine to announce investigations into supposed misdeeds by Democratic presidential candidate and former vice president Joseph Biden; Biden’s son, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company that had been scrutinized for possible malfeasance; and an unfounded theory that Ukrainians had framed Russia for the theft of Democratic Party emails in 2016. The House adopted two articles of impeachment against the president in a largely party-line vote in December, determining that Trump had abused his office by withholding a White House visit and duly appropriated military aid from Ukraine with the aim of compelling the Ukrainian leadership to make the requested announcements, and that he had obstructed Congress by ordering the executive branch to withhold documents and testimony from the House investigators even when subpoenaed. A Senate trial on whether to remove Trump from office was pending at year’s end.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||4 4|
Elections for the bicameral Congress are generally free and competitive. The House consists of 435 members serving two-year terms. 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. All national legislators are elected directly by voters in the districts or states that they represent.
The capital district, Puerto Rico, and four overseas US territories are each represented by an elected delegate in the House who can perform most legislative functions but cannot participate in floor votes.
In the 2018 midterm elections, the Republican Party retained control of the Senate with 53 seats, a gain of one. Democrats were left with 45 Senate seats, and there are two independent senators who generally vote with the Democrats. In the House, the Democrats gained 41 seats, winning a solid majority of 235 and reducing the Republicans to 199. Turnout exceeded 49 percent of the voter-eligible population, the highest percentage for midterm elections since 1914.
The quality of the voting and counting processes varied, as elections are administered by a patchwork of state and local authorities, but evidence of deliberate fraud was rare. The election in a North Carolina House district was nullified on grounds of fraud committed by the Republican side. In a September 2019 special election, a different Republican candidate won the seat by a narrow margin.
In response to the problems with security and foreign interference in the 2016 elections, a number of measures were taken to safeguard the integrity of the process in 2018. With some assistance from the Homeland Security Department, states attempted to upgrade voting equipment and monitor their systems for potential hacking. Social media companies, which had been criticized for failing to prevent foreign actors from using their platforms to fraudulently influence the political process, made an effort to delete fake accounts and otherwise thwart disinformation campaigns. Additional federal funding for voting-system upgrades was allocated in 2019, and some social media firms announced new limits on political advertising, but many analysts argued that election security provisions remained inadequate ahead of the 2020 elections.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||3 4|
The electoral framework is generally fair, though it is subject to some manipulation. The borders of House districts, which must remain roughly equal in population, are redrawn regularly—typically after each decennial census. In the practice known as gerrymandering, House districts, and those for state legislatures, are crafted to maximize the advantage of the party in power in a given state. The redistricting system varies by state, but in most cases it is overseen by elected officials, and observers have expressed alarm at the growing strategic and technical sophistication of partisan efforts to control redistricting processes and redraw maps. Historically, gerrymandering has also been used as a tool of racial disenfranchisement, specifically targeting black voters, as well as Hispanic and Native American populations. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits racially discriminatory voting rules, and racial gerrymandering is subject to reversal by federal courts, but it remains a problem in practice, in large part because partisan gerrymandering efforts tend to identify black and other minority voters as likely supporters of the Democratic Party.
In June 2019 the Supreme Court ruled that the federal judiciary has no authority to prevent politicians from drawing districts to preserve or expand their party’s power. However, some state courts have struck down partisan-gerrymandered maps based on their own constitutions, and state-level reforms have begun to address the issue. In the 2018 elections, voters in five states approved ballot measures that placed the redistricting process under the control of nonpartisan entities.
Some states have adopted strict voter-identification laws whose documentation requirements can disproportionately limit participation by poor, elderly, or racial minority voters; people with disabilities; and university students. Proponents of such laws argue that they prevent voter fraud, despite research showing that fraud is extremely rare. Separately, reductions in the number of polling places in several states are thought to have suppressed turnout by groups such as low-income hourly workers, who are less able to travel to distant polling locations or wait in long lines. Restrictions on voter identification and access to polling places tend to affect demographic groups that are seen as likely to support Democratic candidates, and they are typically adopted by Republican state lawmakers.
The 2018 midterm elections drew fresh attention to the fact that voting in many states is administered by elected, partisan officials who may be running for office themselves. The top election official in Georgia, Republican secretary of state Brian Kemp, made a successful run for governor.
Critics have argued that the Electoral College system for presidential elections is undemocratic, as it violates the principle that each citizen’s vote should carry equal weight. Similar critiques have been directed at the constitution’s allocation of two Senate seats to each state regardless of population. Defenders of these systems argue that they are fundamental to the United States’ federal structure, in which the states enjoy a substantial degree of autonomy, and that they ensure due political attention to all parts of the country’s territory.
The six-member Federal Election Commission is tasked with enforcing federal campaign finance laws, but vacancies on the panel at the end of 2019 meant that it lacked a quorum to operate as the 2020 election campaign got under way.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?||4 4|
The intensely competitive US political environment is 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 discourages the emergence of additional parties, as do a number of specific legal and practical hurdles. However, the two parties’ primary elections allow for a broad array of views and candidates to enter the political system. The 2018 midterm elections featured participation by ideologically diverse candidates across the country, as did the primary contests that began in 2019 ahead of the 2020 elections.
A number of independent or third-party candidates have influenced presidential races or won statewide office, and small parties—such as the Libertarian Party and the Green Party—have also modestly affected state and local politics in recent years. In 2019, the state of Maine became the first to adopt a system of ranked-choice voting for general elections, which could prove more hospitable to third parties than the majoritarian system.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||4 4|
Power changes hands regularly at the federal level, and while certain states and localities are seen as strongholds of one party or the other, even they are subject to stiff competition and power transfers over time. After the 2018 elections, the Democrats held 23 state governorships, up from 16, while Republicans were reduced to 27; Republicans retained control over a larger majority of state legislatures, though the Democrats made gains. In 2019, the Democrats captured one additional governorship, in Kentucky, and took full control of the Virginia legislature.
In an unusual development following the 2018 midterms, outgoing Republican-led legislatures in Michigan and Wisconsin attempted to strip powers from executive offices that had just been captured by Democrats. The efforts largely failed in Michigan, due in part to vetoes by the outgoing Republican governor, but the relevant measures were adopted in Wisconsin, where Democrats became governor and attorney general. The Republican-controlled legislature in North Carolina had pioneered such moves after a Democrat won the governorship in 2016.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?||3 4|
Various interest groups have come to play a potent role in the nominating process for president and members of Congress, as the influence of traditional party leadership bodies has steadily declined in recent decades. This is partly because the expense and length of political campaigns place a premium on candidates’ ability to raise large amounts of funds from major donors, especially at the early stages of a race. While there have been a number of attempts to restrict the role of money in political campaigning, most have been thwarted or watered down as a result of political opposition, lobbying by interest groups, and court decisions that protect political donations as a form of free speech.
The 2018 elections were evidently the most expensive midterms ever. As in other recent elections, much of the spending was routed through special “political action committees,” or PACs, and other vehicles designed to minimize restrictions on donor anonymity and on the size and sources of contributions. Small donations made up an increasingly important share of candidates’ fundraising, but a few extremely wealthy contributors played an outsized role in overall spending, with the top 10 individual donors accounting for more than $400 million.
Concerns about undue influence have also focused on lobbyists and other figures working for foreign governments who associate themselves with political campaigns. The Mueller investigation uncovered a number of cases of undisclosed consultant work for foreign powers and led to increased enforcement of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
In 2019, one of Trump’s personal lawyers, Rudolph Giuliani, continued to work as a paid consultant for various foreign interests even as he represented the president, without compensation, in the Mueller inquiry and played a central role in the effort to pressure the Ukrainian government to announce investigations of Biden and his son. Two of Giuliani’s associates were charged in October with illegally funneling foreign donations to US political campaigns, including a pro-Trump PAC.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||3 4|
A number of important laws are designed to ensure the political rights of racial and ethnic minorities, and the most recent national elections demonstrated increased participation by women and minority candidates. The Congress elected in 2018 included the first Native American women members, the first Muslim women, and record numbers of black, Hispanic, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and women lawmakers.
However, de facto disenfranchisement has persisted among racial and ethnic minority communities, which are disproportionately affected by laws and policies that create obstacles to voting. In 2013 the Supreme Court invalidated portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, allowing certain states that previously had to submit legal changes for preclearance by federal authorities to adopt election laws without prior review. In addition to adopting voter-identification restrictions and limiting polling locations, a number of states, including some that were never subject to the preclearance rule, have since rolled back innovations like early voting that contributed to higher rates of minority participation.
Various state election-management policies have also been criticized for having a disparate impact on minority voters. In Georgia in 2018, for example, the registrations of some 53,000 voters—most of them black—were stalled due to applicant information that did not exactly match government records, and hundreds of thousands of other voters had been purged from the rolls for failing to vote in recent elections.
State laws that deny voting rights to citizens with felony convictions continue to disproportionately disenfranchise black Americans, who are incarcerated at significantly higher rates than other populations. All but two states suspend voting rights during incarceration for felonies; the majority provide for automatic restoration, either upon release or after parole or probation, though in some cases financial penalties must also be paid, and 11 states impose additional steps and obstacles to restored suffrage. A growing number of states have eased these restrictions in recent years. In 2019, the newly elected Democratic governor of Kentucky issued an executive order that restored political rights to more than 140,000 people who had completed sentences for nonviolent crimes, and New Jersey enacted legislation that eliminated voting restrictions for those on parole and probation.
The Trump administration abandoned an effort to add a question on citizenship to the 2020 census in July 2019, after the Supreme Court rejected its stated justification for the move as “contrived.” Opponents of the question argued that it would deter participation and threaten the political rights of immigrant communities and their native-born relatives and neighbors. The census is meant to count all US residents, not just citizens, and an undercount would have a range of negative effects, including a distortion of congressional reapportionment and of the allocation of government resources.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||3 4|
The Trump administration in 2019 frequently clashed with Congress in ways that challenged the legislature’s constitutional authority. For example, in February the president declared a national emergency so as to redirect congressionally appropriated funds to pay for the construction of a wall along the border with Mexico, a project that he had prioritized during his presidential campaign but which had failed to win sufficient financing from lawmakers. In March and October, Trump vetoed two attempts by Congress to roll back the move, though court challenges were ongoing at year’s end as construction proceeded.
The administration also refused, in a departure from past practice, to comply with a host of congressional reporting requirements, information requests, and subpoenas on various oversight matters, culminating in the House impeachment inquiry into Trump’s pressure on the Ukrainian government. In addition to his irregular hold on appropriated military aid and his orders to defy subpoenas, the president used private individuals and improvised diplomatic channels to advance his aims in Ukraine, which effectively circumvented Congress’s constitutional role in approving ambassadors and overseeing foreign policy more generally.
Since taking office in 2017, the Trump administration has consistently left large numbers of vacant positions across the higher levels of government departments and agencies, undercutting Congress’s authority to confirm such appointees and making it difficult for the agencies to operate as intended by law. Roughly 150 of about 700 key posts requiring Senate confirmation remained without a nominee at the end of 2019. The problem is exacerbated by a high rate of departures by senior officials under Trump. Those who announced their resignations or were dismissed by the president in 2019 alone included his labor secretary, his energy secretary, his director of national intelligence, his second homeland security secretary, and his third national security adviser.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||3 4|
The United States benefits from strong safeguards against official corruption, including a traditionally independent law enforcement system, a free and vigorous press, and an active civil society sector. A variety of regulations and oversight institutions within government are designed to curb conflicts of interest and prevent other situations that could lead to malfeasance.
Since 2017, however, the Trump administration has presented a number of challenges to existing norms of government ethics and probity. Anticorruption watchdogs criticized President Trump for shifting management of his real-estate development empire to his children rather than divesting ownership or establishing a stronger structural barrier between himself and his businesses. They argued that without such separation, the president could use his office for personal enrichment or allow his official decisions to be influenced by his private business interests; lawsuits that were ongoing in 2019 focused on a constitutional rule that forbids officeholders from receiving compensation, or “emoluments,” from foreign governments, which Trump was accused of doing through his businesses. The president, his staff, and special interest groups of foreign and domestic origin all frequently visited and held events at Trump-branded properties in the United States during his first three years in office, generating publicity and income; the Washington Post reported in December 2019 that Trump had visited such properties on three out of every 10 days of his presidency. Trump’s decision to appoint his daughter and son-in-law as presidential advisers created potential conflicts involving their own business interests and personal relationships.
The Trump administration also notably undercut conflict-of-interest restrictions for White House and executive branch appointees. Although the president issued an executive order in 2017 that limited appointees’ ability to shift to lobbying work after leaving government, the same order eased restrictions on lobbyists moving into government, and the administration initially resisted efforts to disclose waivers allowing appointees to skirt the rules that remained. In practice, many Trump nominees received such waivers. Journalistic and congressional investigations have routinely found conflicts of interest and other ethical violations among nominees and appointees.
An anonymous whistle-blower from the US intelligence community who filed the complaint that touched off the impeachment inquiry in 2019 faced extreme pressure from the president and his allies during the year, including accusations of political bias and regular demands—or actual attempts—to publicize the individual’s identity. The situation cast doubt on the integrity of whistle-blower protection laws and threatened to deter individuals from reporting possible corruption in the future.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||3 4|
The United States was the first country to adopt a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) over 50 years ago, and the law is actively used by journalists, civil society groups, researchers, and members of the public. While a 2016 reform law was designed to improve government agencies’ responsiveness to FOIA requests, performance has declined during the Trump administration. Nevertheless, reporters and activists in 2019 were able to use FOIA filings to obtain important Ukraine-related documents that congressional investigators could not access through normal oversight requests or subpoenas.
The executive branch includes a substantial number of auditing and investigative agencies that are independent of political influence; such bodies are often spurred to action by the investigative work of journalists. Several inspector general posts across government remained vacant during 2019, though the offices continued to function under acting leaders.
Since assuming office, President Trump and members of his administration have frequently made statements that were either misleading or untrue, and typically failed to correct the record when such statements were challenged by the press and others. The administration also operates with greater opacity than its immediate predecessors, for example by making policy and other decisions without meaningful input from relevant agencies and their career civil servants, removing information on certain issues—such as climate change—from government websites, and denying public access to logs of White House visitors. In a break with presidential tradition, Trump has refused to voluntarily release his personal tax records, and he has resisted formal requests for them under existing law. The Supreme Court agreed in December 2019 to hear arguments in 2020 on three lawsuits by congressional and New York state investigators seeking the president’s tax and business records; in the New York case, Trump made a novel claim of presidential immunity from any criminal investigation.
|Are there free and independent media?||4 4|
The United States has a free and diverse press, operating under some of the strongest constitutional protections in the world. The media environment retains a high degree of pluralism, with newspapers, newsmagazines, traditional broadcasters, cable television networks, and news websites competing for readers and audiences. Internet access is widespread and unrestricted. While many larger outlets have prospered, however, independent local sources of news have struggled to keep up with technology-driven changes in news consumption and advertising, contributing to significant ownership consolidation in some sectors, and a number of communities with just one or no local news outlet. News coverage has also grown more polarized, with certain outlets and their star commentators providing a consistently right- or left-leaning perspective. The cable network Fox News in particular has grown unusually close to the Trump administration, with several prominent on-air personalities and executives migrating to government jobs since 2017, and key hosts openly endorsing Republican candidates or participating in campaign rallies.
Trump has been harshly critical of the mainstream media, routinely using inflammatory language to accuse them of bias and mendacity. He has maintained a drumbeat of attacks on individual journalists and established outlets, describing them as—among other things—“fake news” and the “enemy of the American people.” Trump allies have allegedly sought to collect and release embarrassing personal information about critical journalists, and certain reporters or outlets have been excluded from specific government or Trump campaign events. As of 2019 the president had not followed through on threats to strengthen libel laws or review certain outlets’ broadcast licenses, though he has been accused of interfering with the other business interests of critical outlets’ owners. Amazon, whose chief executive Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post, filed a lawsuit in December that claimed Trump had improperly pressured the Defense Department to deny the company a major contract.
Despite increased hostility from political figures and their supporters on social media, the mainstream media—including national television networks and major newspapers—have devoted considerable resources to independent coverage of national politics. Outlets like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and CNN have conducted investigations into the business affairs of Trump and his associates, closely examined the facts at the heart of the Mueller and impeachment investigations, and regularly assessed the accuracy of the administration’s claims.
A growing number of Americans look to social media and other online sources for political news, increasing their exposure to disinformation and propagandistic content of both foreign and domestic origin. The larger platforms have struggled to control false or hateful material without harming freedom of expression or their own business interests, though they have announced multiple mass removals of accounts linked to Russia, Iran, and China that were being used to spread disinformation. False content from certain far-right sources has also been removed from major platforms.
While violence against journalists in the United States is rare, some journalists entering or returning to the United States have reported harassment by federal authorities, including unusual questioning and warrantless searches of their electronic devices.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||4 4|
The United States has a long tradition of religious freedom. The constitution protects the free exercise of religion while barring any official endorsement of a religious faith, and there are no direct government subsidies to houses of worship. The debate over the role of religion in public life is ongoing, however, and religious groups often mobilize to influence political discussions on the diverse issues in which they take an interest. The Supreme Court regularly adjudicates difficult cases involving the relationship between religion and the state.
Hate crimes based on religion are generally prosecuted vigorously by law enforcement authorities. Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics for 2018, released in November 2019, showed an 8 percent decrease in such crimes from 2017, with the bulk of incidents directed against Jews and Muslims; observers noted that some localities declined to report hate-crime data. In the most high-profile attack of 2019, two assailants—who were later killed themselves—fatally shot three people at a Jewish kosher market in New Jersey in December. Christian churches with predominantly black congregations have also experienced attacks. In March and April 2019, a man was arrested and charged with hate crimes on suspicion of committing arson attacks against three black churches in Louisiana.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||4 4|
The academic sphere has long featured a high level of intellectual freedom. While it remains quite robust by global standards, this liberty has come under pressure in recent years. University faculty have reported instances of harassment—including on social media—related to curriculum content, textbooks, or statements that some students strongly disagreed with. As a consequence, some professors have allegedly engaged in self-censorship. Students on a number of campuses have obstructed guest speakers whose views they find objectionable. In the most highly publicized cases, students and nonstudent activists have physically prevented presentations by controversial speakers, especially those known for their views on race, gender, immigration, Middle East politics, and other sensitive issues. Separately, the American Association of University Professors has complained that the politicization of climate change and other scientific topics is contributing to a more hostile environment for those working in related fields, including instances of harassment by private individuals.
The Trump administration in 2019 ordered federal agencies to condition certain funding for universities on their protection of free inquiry and debate, but it took similar steps meant to combat antisemitism on campuses and in curriculums, raising concerns that the two priorities could come into conflict.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||4 4|
Americans are generally free to engage in private discussion and air their personal views in public settings, including on the internet, though a number of threats to this freedom exist.
Civil libertarians, many lawmakers, and other observers have pointed to the real and potential effects of the collection of communications data and other forms of intelligence-related monitoring on the rights of US residents, despite the adoption of significant reforms since such activities surged following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Separately, surveillance programs run by federal and local law enforcement agencies have long raised concerns among civil liberties groups, due in part to allegations of a disproportionate focus on religious, racial, and ethnic minority communities. A growing number of law enforcement and other government agencies are monitoring public social media content, with targets including applicants for US visas and participants in peaceful protests.
A public debate about law enforcement access to encrypted communication services continues, with some officials warning that their technical inability to break encryption even with a judicial warrant posed a threat to the rule of law, and opponents arguing that any weakening of encrypted services’ security would expose all users to criminal hacking and other ill effects.
Aside from concerns about government surveillance, internet users in the United States have faced problems such as aggressive disinformation efforts and intimidation on social media that may deter them from engaging in online discussion and expressing their views freely.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||4 4|
In general, officials respect the constitutional right to public assembly. Demonstrations on political and other topics are common and typically proceed without incident. In response to acts of violence committed in the course of some past demonstrations, local authorities often place restrictions on the location or duration of large protests.
Major protests during 2019 included marches on climate change, women’s rights, immigration policies, and gun laws, as well as a series of mass demonstrations in July that forced the resignation of Puerto Rico’s governor following the revelation of his offensive text messages.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||4 4|
US laws and practices give wide freedom to nongovernmental organizations and activists to pursue their civic or policy agendas, including those that directly oppose government policies. Organizations committed to the protection of civil liberties, immigrants’ rights, equality for women and minority groups, and freedom of speech have become more active since Trump’s election, mounting campaigns and filing lawsuits to block actions by the administration that they considered harmful. A number of privately supported projects have also been established in recent years to address deficiencies in the electoral and criminal justice systems.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||3 4|
Federal law generally guarantees trade unions the right to organize and engage in collective bargaining. The right to strike is also protected, though many public employees are prohibited from striking. Over the years, the strength of organized labor has declined, and just 6.2 percent of the private-sector workforce belonged to unions in 2019. While public-sector unions have higher rates of membership, with 33.6 percent, they have come under pressure from officials concerned about the cost of compensation and pensions to states and municipalities. The overall unionization rate in the United States is 10.3 percent. The country’s labor code and decisions by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) during Republican presidencies have been regarded as impediments to organizing efforts, but even Democratic administrations have largely failed to reverse the deterioration. Union organizing is also hampered by resistance from private employers. Among other tactics, many employers categorize workers as contractors or use rules pertaining to franchisees to prevent organizing.
A 2018 Supreme Court decision that government employees cannot be required to contribute to unions that represent them in collective bargaining has already led to further losses in union membership. Organized labor did score a modest victory the same year when referendum voters in Missouri overturned a 2017 law that would have similarly allowed private-sector workers who benefit from union bargaining to opt out of paying union dues or fees. That left 27 states with such “right-to-work” legislation in place.
Strike activity proceeded without incident in 2019. A multiyear series of teachers’ strikes continued around the country, with unionized educators winning pay raises and other concessions in Los Angeles, Denver, and Chicago. Members of the autoworkers’ union conducted a successful nationwide strike against General Motors, reaching agreement on a new contract in October after nearly six weeks on picket lines.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||3 4|
The American judiciary is largely independent. The courts have regularly demonstrated their autonomy during the Trump presidency by blocking or limiting executive actions.
However, judicial appointments in recent years have added to existing concerns about partisan distortion of the appointment and confirmation process. Republican leaders in the Senate had stalled many federal judicial nominations in the final years of Barack Obama’s presidency, resulting in an unusually large number of vacancies at the beginning of 2017. The most prominent was a seat on the Supreme Court that the Senate had held open during 2016 by refusing to hold hearings on Obama’s nominee. In 2017, the Senate confirmed Trump’s nominee for the position, Neil Gorsuch, but only after the Republican leadership changed Senate rules that had required a supermajority to end debate on Supreme Court nominations, allowing the confirmation to proceed with a simple-majority vote. Democrats had enacted a similar rule change for lower court nominations in 2013.
The president filled a new vacancy on the Supreme Court in 2018. Trump’s nominee, federal appellate court judge Brett Kavanaugh, narrowly won confirmation after contentious Senate hearings in which a woman came forward to accuse him of having sexually abused her while both were in high school. Kavanaugh denied that and subsequent allegations, and angrily denounced the campaign against him as a “political hit” orchestrated by “left-wing opposition groups.”
By the end of 2019, Trump had appointed 187 federal judges in all, a record for the third year of a presidency. The total included 50 judges at the appellate level, meaning one in four federal appeals court judges were Trump appointees—up from one in six a year earlier.
Trump has repeatedly responded to adverse court rulings by verbally attacking the judges and courts responsible and accusing them of political bias, earning a rare rebuke from Chief Justice John Roberts in 2018. Trump has also used his pardon power in an arbitrary or politicized fashion, bypassing Justice Department processes, overturning the convictions of several individuals whose cases were championed by his political allies, and publicly discussing possible pardons for himself or other individuals caught up in the Mueller investigation. In 2019, the president pardoned or otherwise intervened to protect four military service members who had been charged with or convicted of committing murders while deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan; Trump subsequently appeared with two of the men at a campaign event and reportedly discussed plans for additional appearances.
In many states, judges are chosen through either partisan or nonpartisan elections, and a rise in campaign fundraising for such elections over the last two decades has increased the threat of bias and favoritism in state courts. In addition, executive and legislative officials in a few states have attempted to increase their control over state supreme courts, including through impeachments and constitutional changes.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||3 4|
The United States has a strong rule-of-law tradition, and legal and constitutional protections for due process are widely observed. However, the criminal justice system suffers from a number of chronic weaknesses, many of which are tied to racial discrimination and contribute to disparities in outcomes that disadvantage black and Hispanic people. Media reports and analyses in recent years have drawn new attention to the extensive use of plea bargaining in criminal cases, with prosecutors employing the threat of harsh sentences to avoid trial and effectively reducing the role of the judiciary; deficiencies in the parole system; long-standing funding shortages for public defenders, who represent low-income defendants in criminal cases; racial bias in risk-assessment tools for decisions on pretrial detention; and the practice of imposing court fees or fines for minor offenses as a means of raising local budget revenues, which can lead to jail terms for those who are unable to pay.
These problems and evolving enforcement and sentencing policies have contributed to major increases in incarceration over time. The population of sentenced state and federal prisoners soared from about 200,000 in 1970 to some 1.5 million as of 2017. The incarceration rate based on such counts rose from around 100 per 100,000 people in 1970 to a peak of more than 500 in the 2000s, then slipped to 440 as of 2017. There are also hundreds of thousands of pretrial detainees and short-term jail inmates behind bars. Despite gradual declines in the number of black prisoners, black and Hispanic inmates continue to account for a majority of the prison population, whereas black and Hispanic people account for roughly a third of the US population. Lawmakers, elected state attorneys, researchers, activists, and criminal justice professionals have reached a broad consensus that the current level of incarceration is not needed to preserve public safety. Civil liberties organizations and other groups have also argued that prison sentences are often excessive and that too many people are incarcerated for minor drug offenses.
In 2018, under pressure from a bipartisan coalition advocating for reforms to curb mass incarceration, Congress passed and the president signed a law that eased federal mandatory-minimum sentencing rules, among other modest changes. A majority of states have also passed laws in recent years to reduce sentences for certain crimes, decriminalize minor drug offenses, and combat recidivism. Some states have restricted the use of cash bail, which can unfairly penalize defendants with fewer resources and enlarge pretrial jail populations.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||3 4|
Mass shootings remained a concern during 2019, though the overall US homicide rate, 5.0 per 100,000 inhabitants as of 2018, is relatively low by regional and historical standards, and crime rates have declined since the 1990s. The year’s deadliest shooting was an August attack at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, that killed 22 people. The perpetrator, who was arrested, was apparently influenced by racist and xenophobic conspiracy theories and deliberately targeted a store frequented by Mexican and Mexican American customers. As a result of the El Paso attack and other recent shootings, federal authorities have reportedly placed a new emphasis on countering domestic terrorism, including violence inspired by white nationalist ideologies.
The increased policy focus on reforming the criminal justice system in recent years has coincided with a series of widely publicized incidents in which police actions led to civilian deaths. Many of these prominent cases involved black civilians, though Native Americans are reportedly killed by police at a higher rate per capita than any other group. Only a small fraction of fatal police shootings lead to criminal charges; when officers have been brought to trial, the cases have typically ended in acquittals or sentences on reduced charges. The Trump administration has pulled back from previous Justice Department policies aimed at imposing reforms on troubled local police departments through court-approved agreements.
Use of the death penalty has declined significantly in recent years. There were 22 executions across seven states in 2019—down from 25 in 2018 and a peak of 98 in 1999. The death penalty has been formally abolished by 21 states, with New Hampshire joining the list in 2019; in another 18 states where it remains on the books, executions have not been carried out for the past five years or more. The most recent federal execution was in 2003, though Attorney General Barr has called on prison officials to resume the practice. Factors encouraging the decline of the death penalty include clear racial disparities in its application, with death sentences far more likely in cases involving white murder victims than black murder victims; a pattern of exonerations of death-row inmates, often based on new DNA testing; states’ inability to obtain chemicals used in lethal injections due to objections from producers, as well as legal challenges to the constitutionality of the prevailing methods of lethal injection; and the high costs to state and federal authorities associated with death penalty cases. The US Supreme Court has effectively ruled out the death penalty for crimes other than murder and in cases where the perpetrator is a juvenile or mentally disabled, among other restrictions.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||2 4|
An array of policies and programs are designed to protect the rights of individuals against discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender, and other categories, including in the workplace. However, women and some minority groups continue to suffer from disparities on various indicators, and a number of recent government policies have infringed on the fundamental rights of refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants.
Although women constitute almost half of the US workforce and have increased their representation in many professions, the average compensation for female workers is roughly 80 percent of that for male workers, a gap that has remained relatively constant over the past several decades. Meanwhile, the wage gap between white and black workers has grown in recent decades, meaning black women, who are affected by both the gender and racial components of wage inequality, made about 61 cents for every dollar earned by white male workers as of 2017. Women are also most often affected by sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. A popular social media campaign that began in late 2017, the #MeToo movement, encouraged victims to speak out about their experiences. The phenomenon has led to the sudden downfall of many powerful men in the worlds of politics, business, news, and entertainment, while underscoring the scale of the problem in American society.
In addition to structural inequalities and discrimination in wages and employment, racial and ethnic minorities face long-running and interrelated disparities in education and housing. De facto school segregation is a persistent problem, and the housing patterns that contribute to it are influenced by factors such as mortgage discrimination, which particularly affects black and Hispanic homeowners. Black homeownership has fallen steadily from a peak in 2004, despite gains for other groups in recent years. This in turn influences overall gaps in wealth and social mobility. For example, the median wealth of white families is 12 times the median wealth of black families.
Federal antidiscrimination legislation does not explicitly include LGBT+ people as a protected class, though many states have enacted such protections. The Trump administration has sought to roll back its predecessors’ moves to expand the rights of LGBT+ people through executive actions and rulemaking for federal agencies and contractors. Among numerous other changes and proposals, the administration has argued that existing legal protections against sex discrimination do not cover sexual orientation or gender identity, as some courts and government agencies have claimed. The Supreme Court was considering linked cases on that topic in late 2019, with a decision expected in 2020. Trump announced a ban on transgender people serving in the military in 2017, and it took effect in 2019 even as court challenges continued; existing service members who had already transitioned or begun the process would be allowed to remain, but others, including new recruits, must adhere to their “biological sex.”
The Trump administration in 2019 intensified its efforts to reduce the number of refugees, asylum seekers, and undocumented immigrants entering and residing in the country, usually citing exaggerated security concerns as justification. The moves have in many cases been hasty, uncoordinated, and underfunded, leading to implementation problems as well as conflicts with existing laws, constitutional protections, and international human rights standards.
Beginning soon after his inauguration in 2017, the president issued a series of three executive orders barring travel from a group of Muslim-majority countries on security grounds, twice revising the original order in response to lawsuits claiming that the bans were blatantly discriminatory. In 2018 the Supreme Court upheld the third version, which banned most entries by citizens of Iran, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and one non-Muslim country, North Korea. These orders, combined with other administration changes, helped to reduce the number of refugees admitted to the United States for resettlement to its lowest point since the program began in 1980. The refugee resettlement cap for the 2020 fiscal year was slashed to 18,000 people, down from 30,000 in fiscal 2019 and a then-historic low of 45,000 for fiscal 2018. These reductions since 2017 have been accompanied by precipitous drops in the share of admitted refugees who are Muslim. In a September 2019 executive order, the president required states and localities to provide written consent for refugee resettlement to proceed, effectively allowing them to veto resettlement, though most states and dozens of localities had provided consent by year’s end.
A succession of other Trump administration policies have focused on curbing the arrival of asylum seekers at the southern border, most of whom have come from Central America in recent years. The policies consistently drew legal challenges on the grounds that they denied asylum seekers basic due process, violated statutory rules on asylum applications, and breached international prohibitions on returning asylum seekers to unsafe countries, among other objections. In January 2019, the administration unveiled a new program allowing border authorities to force non-Mexican asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their claims are adjudicated in the United States; tens of thousands of people had been returned to Mexico under the program by year’s end, often living in difficult and dangerous conditions there. Earlier Trump administration restrictions had already contributed to large backlogs of would-be applicants on the Mexican side of the border. In July, the administration announced that individuals generally could not seek asylum in the United States if they passed through a third country without seeking and being denied asylum in that country, effectively blocking claims from Central Americans who travel through Mexico; the Supreme Court in September allowed the rule to take effect as legal challenges proceeded. Also in July, Barr ruled that asylum could not be granted solely on the grounds that a family member had faced persecution. A new regulation introduced in August, if it survived court challenges, would allow families that cross the border irregularly to be detained indefinitely while their cases are heard, replacing past rules that required either the release of the family or the separation of children from detained adults. Separately that month, the Justice Department used expedited procedures to appoint judges with a high rate of asylum denials to an expanded immigration court appeals board. In December, the administration proposed a new rule expanding the list of crimes that could lead to denial of asylum to include misdemeanor offenses. Over the course of 2019, the United States signed agreements with Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras—all poor countries with high crime rates that have generated large numbers of migrants—allowing US authorities to deport asylum seekers there if they passed through without applying for asylum; deportations to Guatemala began in late 2019.
The administration has attempted to ramp up arrests and deportations of both undocumented immigrants, regardless of whether they had committed crimes, and legal immigrants or refugees who committed crimes in the United States, even if they had long since completed their sentences. The previous practice had been to focus deportation efforts on the most dangerous criminal aliens with the weakest ties to American communities. In September 2019, a judge suspended a policy unveiled in July that allowed expedited deportation—without a court hearing—of undocumented immigrants detained anywhere in the country if they could not show more than two years of residence in the United States. The administration’s enforcement drive has added to an existing backlog of cases in immigration courts; as of December 2019 there were more than a million pending cases, nearly double the number pending when Trump took office. The number of people in immigration detention was at record levels in 2019, with more than 52,000 people in custody as of May; there have been multiple reports of inadequate living conditions in immigration detention facilities, as well as reports of solitary confinement of detainees with mental illnesses. In November, the Supreme Court heard a case on the administration’s effort to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which prevents the deportation of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. A decision was expected in 2020.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||4 4|
There are no significant restrictions on freedom of movement within the United States, and residents are generally free to travel abroad without undue obstacles.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||4 4|
Property rights are widely respected in the United States. The legal and political environments are supportive of entrepreneurial activity and business ownership.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||4 4|
Men and women generally enjoy equal rights in divorce and custody proceedings, and there are no undue restrictions on choice of marriage partner, particularly after a 2015 Supreme Court ruling that all states must allow same-sex marriage. The practice had already become legal in most states through court decisions, legislative action, or referendums. In recent years, a growing number of states have passed laws to eliminate exemptions that allow marriages of people under age 18 in certain circumstances. Rape and domestic or intimate-partner violence remain serious problems. The applicable laws vary somewhat by state, though spousal rape is a crime nationwide. Numerous government and nongovernmental programs are designed to combat such violence and assist victims. In the past several years, a series of new state laws have reduced women’s access to abortion without overtly breaching prior Supreme Court decisions on the issue, and some have survived judicial scrutiny, adding to state-by-state variation in access.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||3 4|
The “American dream”—the notion of a fair society in which hard work will bring economic and social advancement, regardless of the circumstances of one’s birth—is a core part of the country’s identity, and voters tend to favor government policies that they believe will enhance equality of opportunity. In recent decades, however, studies have shown a widening inequality in wealth and a narrowing of access to upward mobility. Inequality remained a major problem in 2019 even as the national unemployment rate remained below 4 percent for a second consecutive year, its lowest level in decades.
One key aspect of inequality is the growing income and wealth gap between Americans with university degrees and those with a high school degree or less; the number of well-compensated jobs for the less-educated has fallen over time as manufacturing and other positions are lost to automation and foreign competition. These jobs have generally been replaced by less remunerative or less stable employment in the service and retail sectors, where there is a weaker tradition of unionization. Meanwhile, the inflation-adjusted national minimum wage has fallen substantially since the 1960s, with no nominal increase for a decade, even if many states and localities have enacted increases in recent years. Other obstacles to gainful employment include inadequate public transportation and the high cost of living in economically dynamic cities and regions. The latter has also contributed to an overall rise in homelessness in recent years.
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Global Freedom Score86 100 free
Internet Freedom Score77 100 free