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 pressure on the electoral process, bias and dysfunction in the criminal justice system, harmful policies on immigration and asylum seekers, and growing disparities in wealth, economic opportunity, and political influence.
- The COVID-19 pandemic swept through the country in successive waves during the year, leaving some 340,000 people dead and more than 19 million confirmed cases by year’s end. The government response was seriously compromised by politicized misinformation from President Donald Trump and related attempts within the administration to manipulate or control health information. These problems were compounded by similar missteps among some state governments.
- In February, the Senate, led by a Republican Party majority, acquitted President Trump on charges that he abused his office by attempting to extort a personal political favor from the Ukrainian government and obstructed Congress by ordering the executive branch not to cooperate with the impeachment inquiry in the House of Representatives, where the Democratic Party held a majority.
- The May killing of George Floyd, a Black civilian, by police in Minnesota sparked one of the largest protest movements in modern US history, as millions of people took to the streets in hundreds of cities to decry systemic racism and police violence against Black Americans. While the vast majority of demonstrations were peaceful, some were accompanied by significant property damage, and others featured police brutality or violence involving armed vigilantes. Large numbers of journalists faced assaults or arrests while covering such protests.
- Democratic Party presidential candidate and former vice president Joe Biden—along with the Democrats’ vice presidential nominee, Senator Kamala Harris—defeated Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in the November general elections. Democrats also retained a majority in the House of Representatives, but Senate control was contingent on the outcome of two runoff elections in the state of Georgia, scheduled for January 2021. President Trump refused to concede his loss, instead attacking the legality of state electoral rules, floating false conspiracy theories about large-scale fraud, and pressuring Republican officials in key states to overturn the results. His claims were consistently rejected by electoral authorities, overwhelmingly dismissed by the state and federal courts, and unsuccessful in halting the formal vote of the Electoral College in December, but they were echoed by numerous Republican politicians. Final certification of the vote and Biden’s inauguration were expected in January 2021.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||3.003 4.004|
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.
In the 2020 election, Biden won 306 Electoral College votes, leaving Trump with 232, and Biden defeated Trump by more than seven million votes, or approximately 4.4 percentage points, in the national popular balloting. Turnout was the highest recorded in more than a century, with roughly two-thirds of the eligible population casting a ballot.
The COVID-19 pandemic impeded in-person public events as a focal point of campaigning, but Trump eventually returned to his preferred format of large rallies, even as he and dozens of staff and associates contracted the coronavirus, leading in the president’s case to a brief hospitalization. The pandemic also compelled many states to adjust their voting systems to accommodate more early and mail-in balloting, which would help prevent dangerous crowding at polling sites. This led to a series of legal battles, with the Trump campaign and other Republican litigants generally arguing against the changes and claiming that they would open the door to fraud. The balloting itself unfolded with few significant disruptions, though existing obstacles to voting—such as strict voter-identification requirements and inadequate numbers of polling sites—remained a factor, with long lines exacerbated by both the high turnout and pandemic-related shortages of poll workers.
The Homeland Security Department assisted states in their efforts to safeguard the election against foreign and other illegal interference, in part by upgrading voting equipment to include paper records and monitoring 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 in the past, made greater efforts to delete fake accounts, imposed varying restrictions on political advertising, and attempted to thwart disinformation campaigns. These measures were deemed successful in many respects: despite some reported attempts by Russian, Chinese, and Iranian state actors to hack voting infrastructure and spread disinformation on social media, there was little evidence that such efforts had a meaningful impact. Disinformation and other interference from President Trump and his domestic allies were far more damaging.
Despite a vote-tabulation process that was lauded by observers as transparent and professional, Trump refused to concede defeat, and demanded a halt to the count in states where the late tally favored Biden. In the weeks after the election, Trump launched continual volleys of fraud allegations focused on pivotal states, and openly pressured election officials in those states, particularly Republicans, to make decisions that would support his claims regardless of the facts and the law. During the counting and certification process and in the period surrounding the formal Electoral College voting on December 14, state election workers reported intimidation and death threats. A raft of lawsuits by the Trump campaign and its allies—alleging wide-ranging misconduct, challenging the legality of various electoral rules, and seeking to block states from certifying Biden’s victory—were almost universally dismissed by state and federal courts. Evidence of large-scale fraud was nonexistent, as the Justice Department eventually acknowledged despite pressure from the president, but the Trump camp’s disinformation, complemented by the reluctance of leading Republicans to explicitly acknowledge Biden as the president-elect, helped to convince many Trump supporters that voter fraud was widespread and Biden was not the rightful winner.
Among Republicans, a divide emerged between state officials involved in administering the elections, who generally defended the fairness of the process and the accuracy of the results, and many members of Congress, who gave credence to Trump’s claims and cast doubt on Biden’s victory. Following the Electoral College vote, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell recognized Biden as the president-elect, but other Republican leaders, including several senators and House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, continued to support efforts to contest the results. At the end of the year, there was no plausible legal or constitutional means for Trump to change the outcome. Many Republicans nevertheless refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of Biden’s planned accession to the presidency in January 2021.
Earlier in 2020, the Senate acquitted Trump in an impeachment process that began in September 2019. Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives had launched the inquiry following allegations that the president had misused his authority to benefit his reelection prospects by pressuring the president of Ukraine to announce investigations into supposed misdeeds by 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 Moscow for the theft of Democratic Party emails in 2016. The House adopted two articles of impeachment in a nearly party-line vote in December 2019, determining that Trump had abused his office in the Ukrainian affair and obstructed Congress by ordering the executive branch to withhold documents and testimony from the House investigators even when subpoenaed. The Senate trial, in which conviction would have resulted in Trump’s removal from office, began in January 2020. The Senate voted to exclude new testimony from the trial, and in February only one Republican joined all 47 Democrats in voting for conviction on the abuse of office count, while the obstruction count failed on a party-line vote.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
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.
Following the 2020 elections, the Republican Party retained control of 50 Senate seats, a confirmed loss of one. Democrats held 46 Senate seats, and there were two independent senators who generally vote with the Democrats. The remaining two seats were to be determined in a January 2021 runoff election in Georgia; Republicans needed to win one of the seats to maintain a majority in the chamber, while Democrats needed to win both to achieve control via the tie-breaking vote of the incoming vice president, Kamala Harris, whose own vacated Senate seat would be temporarily filled through an appointment by California’s Democratic governor in January 2021. In the House, the Democratic majority was reduced to 222, while the number of Republicans rose to 211; results in one district remained pending at year’s end, and one elected Republican died of COVID-19 in late December.
Unlike in 2018, when the election in a North Carolina House district was nullified on grounds of fraud committed by the Republican side, there were no serious accusations of result-altering fraud in any race in 2020. Republican lawmakers who supported Trump’s objections to the presidential results notably did not question the validity of their own elections.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||3.003 4.004|
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 partisan 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 generally 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 voters and other members of racial and ethnic minority groups as likely supporters of the Democratic Party.
In 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, with a handful of states establishing independent bodies to manage redistricting in recent years. In 2020, Missouri referendum voters backtracked on one such reform, but voters in Virginia approved a plan to create a bipartisan redistricting commission.
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 in recent years 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.
Some of these obstacles may have had less effect in 2020, in part because the requirements for voting by mail were eased in most states and localities. In some jurisdictions, the number of votes cast prior to Election Day exceeded the total votes cast in 2016. At the same time, COVID-19 contributed to shortages of poll workers and changes to polling locations, and long lines remained a problem. Democrats strongly endorsed voting by mail, while President Trump called the practice a “scam” and discouraged Republican participation, as did some Republican state officials. Cuts to US Postal Service operations and consequent mail delivery delays aroused fears of late or undelivered ballots, but such problems did not appear to affect the outcome.
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 claim that they ensure due political attention to parts of the country’s territory that might otherwise be neglected.
The six-member Federal Election Commission is tasked with enforcing federal campaign finance laws, but vacancies on the panel meant that it lacked a quorum during nearly the entirety of the 2020 campaign.
|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?||4.004 4.004|
The intensely competitive US political environment is dominated by two major parties: the Republicans on the right and the left-leaning Democrats. The country’s prevailing “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, even if those in several states fully exclude unaffiliated voters. The 2020 general elections featured participation by ideologically diverse candidates across the country, as did the primary contests that produced the nominees for the November balloting. For the many seats at all levels that are regarded as “safely” Democratic or Republican, due in part to partisan gerrymandering, primaries often represent the main battleground for opposing views. Republicans, especially in the House, have faced sharp competition from more right-wing challengers in recent voting cycles, and left-wing Democrats—many of them aligned with or endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America—challenged a number of moderate, party-backed candidates in 2020.
Independent or third-party candidates have sometimes influenced presidential races or won statewide office, and small parties and ideological factions—such as the Libertarian Party, the Green Party, and the Democratic Socialists of America—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 both primary and general elections, which could prove more hospitable to third parties than the majoritarian system, though it generated no notable change in the 2020 elections. Also in 2020, voters in Alaska approved the adoption of another ranked-choice voting system, while Massachusetts voters rejected one.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||4.004 4.004|
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 intraparty competition and interparty power transfers over time. After the 2020 elections, the Democrats held 23 state governorships, while Republicans held 27; Republicans maintained control over a majority of state legislatures.
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 moves 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.
President Trump’s efforts to overturn his loss to Biden in 2020 put extreme pressure on the political and electoral systems, eroding the long-standing tradition of respect for official results and highlighting potential structural weaknesses that could be exploited by future candidates. Nevertheless, these efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, with Republican officials in the targeted states generally adhering to their legal duties, and transfers of power below the presidential level proceeded without similar contestation.
|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?||3.003 4.004|
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 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 2020 election campaigns were by far the most expensive ever. As with other recent campaigns, much of the spending was routed through various types of “super PACs” (political action committees) and other legal vehicles designed to minimize restrictions on donor anonymity and on the size and sources of contributions. Small donations made up an important share of candidates’ fundraising, but extremely wealthy contributors played an outsized role in overall spending. Expenditures did not always correlate with electoral success: former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg gained little traction during his short-lived Democratic presidential primary campaign despite spending roughly $1 billion, while Democratic Senate candidates challenging Republican incumbents in states such as Kentucky, Iowa, Maine, and South Carolina were defeated despite far outspending their opponents.
Concerns about undue influence have also focused on lobbyists and other figures working for foreign governments who associate themselves with political campaigns. A Justice Department probe into foreign interference with the 2016 presidential election 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 October 2020, a top Trump fundraiser, Elliott Broidy, pleaded guilty to illegal lobbying on behalf of Chinese and Malaysian clients.
Threats against elected officials from far-right extremists rose substantially in 2020. Restrictions imposed by states to combat the COVID-19 pandemic served as an early focal point of radical antigovernment sentiment, with armed demonstrations in several states, notably Michigan, where armed protesters entered the state capitol and attempted to intimidate lawmakers in April. In October, 13 far-right militia members were arrested in connection with a plot to kidnap the state’s Democratic governor. Violent far-right groups participated in postelection protests against Trump’s defeat, some of which led to clashes with counterprotesters.
The Trump campaign in 2020 drew criticism for a pattern in which administrative resources were misused to support the president’s candidacy. Administration officials routinely promoted Trump’s reelection or attacked his Democratic opponents, which apparently violated federal laws barring government employees from engaging in electioneering and other political activities. The president also repeatedly used the White House, his official plane, and other government facilities for campaign events. Separately, Trump on multiple occasions threatened or sought to withhold federal resources from states and cities whose Democratic leaders opposed him politically. Examples included his objections to economic relief for Democratic-led states during the COVID-19 pandemic, and his reluctance to release federal emergency aid to California as it faced catastrophic wildfires in August.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||3.003 4.004|
A number of important laws are designed to ensure the political rights of members of racial and ethnic minority groups, and the 2020 elections featured increased participation as candidates by women and representatives of such groups. The Congress elected in 2020 included the first openly gay Black House members and record or near-record numbers of Black, Hispanic, Native American, Asian American and Pacific Islander, LGBT+, and women lawmakers. Kamala Harris, whose mother and father were Indian and Jamaican immigrants, respectively, became the first Black American, the first Asian American, and the first woman to win election as vice president. Nevertheless, White Americans and men have remained highly overrepresented in Congress and senior policymaking positions.
De facto disenfranchisement has persisted among racial and ethnic minority communities, which are disproportionately affected by laws and policies that create obstacles to voting and winning elected office. 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 the years since, in addition to adopting voter-identification requirements and limiting polling locations, a number of states—including some that were never subject to the preclearance rule—have rolled back innovations like early voting that contributed to higher rates of participation among minority groups.
Various other state election-management policies have been criticized for having a disparate impact on these communities. 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. The efforts by President Trump and his allies to overturn the 2020 election results centered on cities with large Black populations—such as Detroit, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Atlanta—where the margins heavily favored Biden, triggering legal complaints in response that accused the Trump camp of a racially discriminatory attempt to disenfranchise Black voters.
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, but the issue remains controversial. In September 2020, an appeals court upheld a Florida requirement that former felons pay all outstanding case-related fines and debts to regain their voting rights, leaving hundreds of thousands of people unable to vote in the November elections. Overall, researchers estimated that more than five million people remained disenfranchised in 2020 due to felony convictions.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||3.003 4.004|
After Democrats gained a majority in the House of Representatives in the 2018 elections, the Trump administration frequently clashed with Congress in ways that challenged the legislature’s constitutional authority. For example, in 2019 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. Later that year, Trump’s irregular obstruction of appropriated military aid to Ukraine and his orders to defy subpoenas culminated in the House impeachment inquiry. During 2020 the administration continued its refusal to comply with a host of congressional reporting requirements, information requests, and subpoenas on various oversight matters.
The Trump administration 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 or impossible for the agencies to operate as intended by law. The problem was exacerbated by a high rate of departures by senior officials under Trump. In August 2020, the Government Accountability Office found that Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of homeland security, was serving in violation of laws governing such temporary appointments; the finding cast doubt on the legal validity of several controversial department decisions. Executive branch functions and continuity were further threatened following the November elections, when the outgoing administration broke precedent by hampering cooperation with incoming Biden administration officials, even after the General Services Administration formally set the transition in motion by “ascertaining” Biden’s evident victory.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||3.003 4.004|
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.
Beginning in 2017, however, the Trump administration 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 during 2020 focused on a constitutional rule that forbids officeholders from receiving compensation, or “emoluments,” from other governments, which Trump was accused of doing through his businesses; one such case ended in October, when the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a lower court judgment that the plaintiffs lacked standing to file suit. 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 throughout his term in office, generating publicity and income; the Washington Post reported in October that Trump had visited such properties 280 times during his presidency, spending $2.5 million in taxpayer dollars. 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 other 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 routinely found conflicts of interest and other ethical violations among nominees and appointees.
An anonymous whistleblower from the Central Intelligence Agency who filed the complaint that touched off the impeachment inquiry in 2019 faced extreme pressure from the president and his allies, including attempts to publicize their identity. Although the whistleblower’s identity was never publicly confirmed, the individual was forced into protective surveillance amid threats of violence. Following his February 2020 acquittal in the Senate, President Trump fired or forced the resignation of several officials who offered testimony that harmed his case during the House impeachment process. Observers warned that the situation could deter officials from reporting possible corruption in the future. In October, the president signed an executive order calling for many senior civil servants to be reclassified in a manner that could allow them to be fired for political or other arbitrary reasons, further weakening their ability to report malfeasance; implementation of the order remained unclear at year’s end.
Also in 2020, several senators came under scrutiny for profitable stock trades during a period of market volatility that accompanied the COVID-19 outbreak. Most of the legislators were cleared of allegations that they illegally made trades based on their exclusive briefings about the pandemic, though an investigation into one senator was still open at year’s end.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||2.002 4.004|
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. A 2016 reform law was designed to improve government agencies’ responsiveness to FOIA requests, and reporters and activists were able to use FOIA filings to obtain important documents on the Trump administration that congressional investigators could not access through normal oversight requests or subpoenas. Nevertheless, government performance on FOIA requests declined during Trump’s presidency, and in 2020 the coronavirus-induced transition to remote work by government employees produced a sharp drop in responsiveness to information requests at the federal, state, and local levels.
The pandemic intensified the Trump administration’s existing lack of transparency in a number of other ways. Since assuming office, the president and members of his administration had 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 operated 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, and removing information on certain issues—such as climate change—from government websites. Throughout 2020, Trump and a number of his aides consistently promoted false and misleading information about COVID-19 for political reasons, playing down the severity of the outbreak and claiming that state and local social-distancing restrictions were unnecessary constraints on the economy. Political appointees in the administration also interfered with the analysis and recommendations of federal public health professionals, seeking to control data collection and official guidance. Such practices were echoed by some likeminded governments at the state and local levels.
In a break with presidential tradition, Trump refused to voluntarily release his personal tax records as a candidate, and he resisted formal requests for them from congressional and state investigators after taking office. The Supreme Court in June 2020 rejected Trump’s novel claim of presidential immunity from criminal investigation in a New York case, and attempts to obtain his tax and business records were ongoing in the lower courts at year’s end.
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. Trump left vacancies in several inspector general offices across the federal government during his presidency, and in April and May 2020 he arbitrarily fired or replaced a series of inspectors general who had documented or investigated malfeasance by administration officials, prompting bipartisan criticism from members of Congress.
Also in 2020, the administration persisted in its unusual attempts to tally noncitizens in connection with the decennial census in order to exclude some from the population count used for reallocating congressional seats. The effort, which appeared to break from a constitutional requirement that the “whole number of persons” in each state be counted for reapportionment, led to disruptions that threatened the accuracy of the overall count. The Census Bureau in April asked for an extension of its year-end deadline due to the effects of the pandemic, but the president in July ordered it to meet the deadline, and required both the traditional census results and a parallel version that excluded undocumented immigrants; it remained unclear how such immigrants would be enumerated. A series of court challenges added uncertainty to the bureau’s task. The Supreme Court in December declined to block its attempts to fulfill Trump’s instructions, but the count was still incomplete at year’s end.
Score Change: The score declined from 3 to 2 due to a pattern of politically motivated disinformation and attempts to control or manipulate official findings related to the COVID-19 pandemic by the federal and some state governments, the president’s abrupt dismissal of several inspectors general who had documented or investigated malfeasance by administration officials, and further administration interference with the collection and reporting of decennial census data, among other problems.
|Are there free and independent media?||3.003 4.004|
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 grew unusually close to the Trump administration; several prominent on-air personalities and executives migrated to government jobs beginning in 2017, and key hosts openly endorsed Republican candidates or participated in campaign rallies. Following the 2020 elections, however, Fox joined other networks in calling the presidential race for Biden, and Trump subsequently denigrated the outlet, directing his followers to smaller, more extreme channels that fully endorsed his attempts to overturn the election results.
Trump was harshly critical of the mainstream media throughout his presidency, routinely using inflammatory language to accuse them of bias and mendacity. He maintained a drumbeat of verbal 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 2020 the president had not followed through on threats to strengthen libel laws or review certain outlets’ broadcast licenses, as he largely lacked the authority to do so, though he has been accused of interfering with the other business interests of critical outlets’ owners. Trump’s reelection campaign filed defamation suits against a number of news outlets in early 2020, the administration filed an unsuccessful lawsuit to block the publication of a critical book by a former national security adviser, and the president’s brother similarly filed an unsuccessful lawsuit to block a critical book by his niece. In July, a judge found that federal probation officers had revoked the prison furlough of Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, in retaliation for his plans to publish his own book about the president.
In June 2020, Trump appointee Michael Pack was confirmed as the head of the US Agency for Global Media, which oversees government-funded news outlets serving audiences abroad. Pack quickly undertook major personnel and policy changes, undermining the news operations’ editorial independence and declining to renew the visas of foreign journalists at the agency, including those vulnerable to repression in their home countries. The steps drew fierce criticism from agency employees, media watchdogs, and members of Congress; in November, a federal judge granted an injunction preventing Pack from directing news coverage.
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 impeachment inquiry and other scandals, 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. In 2020, both social media platforms and mainstream outlets, particularly some Fox News programs, served as conduits for questionable or false information about the nature and spread of the coronavirus.
While violence against journalists in the United States has been rare in recent decades, media watchdog groups registered widespread press freedom violations, including police violence and arbitrary arrests targeting journalists, in the context of the nationwide protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd. The US Press Freedom Tracker, a joint project of multiple nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), documented a total of 123 arrests of journalists and 334 assaults on journalists for 2020, compared with just 9 arrests and 34 assaults in 2019.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 due to a dramatic increase in arrests of and physical assaults on journalists across the country during the year, with most cases linked to coverage of protests.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||4.004 4.004|
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.
In 2020, multiple state and local governments imposed restrictions on the size of religious gatherings to slow the spread of the coronavirus, prompting legal challenges. The Supreme Court issued somewhat conflicting rulings on the subject, though the restrictions in question differed in their details: in May and July the justices upheld attendance limits in California and Nevada, respectively, but in November the court—with a newly appointed justice reinforcing the conservative majority—struck down a New York order that strictly capped the number of congregants allowed to attend religious services in high-risk areas.
Hate crimes based on religion are generally prosecuted vigorously by law enforcement authorities. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) statistics for 2019, released in November 2020, showed an increase of more than 6 percent in such crimes from 2018; incidents involving Jewish targets rose 14 percent and constituted over 60 percent of the year’s religion-based hate crimes. Anti-Muslim crimes were the next most common, and Christian churches with predominantly Black congregations have also experienced attacks in recent years.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||4.004 4.004|
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 September 2020 ordered recipients of federal funds, including universities, to avoid diversity training that includes “divisive concepts” related to racism and sexism, prompting expressions of concern regarding impingements on academic freedom from numerous university administrators. A federal judge blocked implementation of the order in December.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||4.004 4.004|
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. The frequent use of drone aircraft and camera networks, sometimes in conjunction with facial-recognition technology, to monitor protest activity in 2020 prompted complaints about privacy violations and led some protesters to adapt their tactics to make identification more difficult.
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, intimidation, and frequently sexualized harassment on social media that may deter them from engaging in online discussion and expressing their views freely.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||3.003 4.004|
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. Since 2017, legislative initiatives aiming to criminalize or stiffen penalties for certain forms of protest, or to shield perpetrators of violence against protesters from legal liability, have been proposed in most states. Numerous such bills were introduced in 2020, and at least seven were passed into law.
In recent years, large protests and aggressive law enforcement responses have been sparked by highly publicized police killings of Black civilians, many of which were recorded on video. In May 2020, outrage over the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis inspired one of the largest waves of protests in US history. Under the banner of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, marches occurred in hundreds of cities and smaller communities. Estimated participation in May and June ranged from 15 to 26 million people, and daily protests occurred well into the summer in some cities. An overwhelming majority of the protests were peaceful, but in some settings they were accompanied by violence against police and significant damage to public and private property; local officials in certain cities complained of intimidating demonstrations outside their private homes. Human rights groups and academic experts found that aggressive police tactics were often the cause or prime escalating factor in violent episodes, and hundreds of instances of unprovoked or disproportionate police brutality were documented on video. At least 10,000 people had been arrested in connection with the protests by early June, though minor charges were frequently dropped.
Observers noted that police violence against protesters rarely resulted in accountability, and that police often exercised greater restraint toward anti-BLM counterprotesters and participants in separate demonstrations against COVID-19-related restrictions, many of whom were armed and displayed far-right or White supremacist symbols. Several people were killed in confrontations involving armed protesters, counterprotesters, or vigilantes during the year, including one prominent shooting by a left-wing gunman in Oregon who was later killed by police.
The Trump administration and its political allies frequently denounced the BLM movement and offered unqualified support to police, downplaying the extent of police violence. The president threatened to deploy active-duty military units in cities experiencing unrest, and in June a combination of federal law enforcement agents and National Guard members used chemical irritants and physical force to clear peaceful protesters from a plaza adjacent to the White House. In Portland, Oregon, where nightly protests repeatedly ended in clashes with law enforcement agents, city and state officials accused the administration of purposefully inflaming tensions by deploying federal agents to protect a federal courthouse; the agents’ uniforms at times lacked any identifying insignia, and some detainees were taken away in unmarked vehicles.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 due to excessive police and federal agency responses to racial justice protests during the year, including thousands of arrests and numerous documented instances of police brutality, as well as multiple cases of intimidation and lethal violence involving armed protesters, counterprotesters, or vigilantes.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||4.004 4.004|
US laws and practices give wide freedom to NGOs 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 2016, mounting campaigns and filing lawsuits to block actions by the Trump 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?||3.003 4.004|
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 6.3 percent of the private-sector workforce belonged to unions in 2020. While public-sector unions have a higher rate of membership, with 34.8 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 rose slightly to 10.8 percent in 2020, but this reflected the year’s pandemic-related job losses rather than an actual increase in the number of unionized workers. 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 led to further losses in union membership. Organized labor scored 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 largely without incident in 2020. Many well-publicized strikes and labor protests involved accusations that employers were providing insufficient protective equipment and hazard pay to employees who were unable to work remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||3.003 4.004|
The American judiciary is largely independent. The courts 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 allow hearings on Obama’s nominee. In 2017, the Senate confirmed Trump’s nominee for the position, appellate court judge Neil Gorsuch, but only after the Republican leadership changed Senate rules that had required a supermajority to end debate on Supreme Court nominations, meaning the confirmation could 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, when federal appellate court judge Brett Kavanaugh narrowly won confirmation after contentious Senate hearings involving accusations of sexual assault; Kavanaugh denied the allegations and angrily denounced the campaign against him as a “political hit” orchestrated by “left-wing opposition groups.” In 2020, Trump filled a third Supreme Court vacancy by nominating appellate court judge Amy Coney Barrett, who was confirmed in October, with one Republican senator joining all Democrats in opposition. Democrats stridently objected to the confirmation process, noting that Republicans had justified blocking Obama’s 2016 nominee by claiming that when vacancies arise in election years, appointments should not be made prior to the balloting. Coney Barrett’s appointment cemented a conservative Supreme Court majority; many Democrats suggested that the Republicans’ actions justified the introduction of legislation to expand the size of the court and add new justices under a Democratic president.
By the end of 2020, Trump had successfully appointed a record 234 federal judges in all, including 54 appellate court judges. In a break with precedent, a number of his nominees were confirmed by the Senate even after he lost the November election.
Trump 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. The president 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 in a position to provide evidence against him in various investigations. In the weeks following his defeat in the November 2020 election, he pardoned longtime associate Roger Stone, who had been convicted in 2019 of lying to Congress and witness tampering; his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in 2017; former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who was convicted of tax fraud and other offenses and was considered a key link to Russian interference in the 2016 election; and 2016 campaign aide George Papadopoulos, who in 2017 pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. These were among a larger raft of pardons issued to individuals with personal or political connections to Trump, including three former Republican congressmen convicted of fraud or misusing funds and four former military contractors convicted for their roles in a notorious 2007 massacre of civilians in Iraq.
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?||3.003 4.004|
The United States has a deeply rooted 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 people of color, particularly Black Americans. 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 1.4 million as of 2019. The incarceration rate based on such counts rose from around 100 per 100,000 US residents in 1970 to a peak of more than 500 in the late 2000s, then slipped to 419 as of 2019. 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 general 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; such gradual steps continued in 2020. Some states have restricted the use of cash bail, which can unfairly penalize defendants with fewer resources and enlarge pretrial jail populations. In November 2020, voters in Oregon approved a ballot measure to decriminalize possession of all drugs, the first state to take such a step; several others have decriminalized the recreational use of marijuana.
While accusations of prosecutorial misconduct and partiality are frequent at the state and local levels, the federal Justice Department has generally been regarded as more professional and independent. In 2020, however, Attorney General William Barr stirred controversy through statements and decisions on a variety of topics—including personnel changes, ongoing investigations, prosecutions of Trump associates, and civil suits against Trump—that appeared to serve the president’s personal or political interests. The perceived improprieties prompted multiple federal prosecutors to withdraw from specific cases or resign in protest during the year. They also drew public rebukes from former Justice Department officials and in some instances from federal judges.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||3.003 4.004|
The US homicide rate, at 5.0 per 100,000 inhabitants as of 2019, remains low by regional and historical standards, and overall crime rates have declined since the 1990s. However, murder rates reportedly rose by more than 20 percent in the first nine months of 2020, with even higher spikes in a number of large cities.
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. Most of these prominent cases involved Black civilians, while Native Americans are reportedly killed by police at a higher rate per capita than any other group. Only a small fraction of police killings lead to criminal charges; when officers have been brought to trial, the cases have typically ended in acquittals or sentences on reduced charges. In many instances, long-standing and rigid labor protections prevent municipal governments and police departments from imposing significant administrative sanctions on allegedly abusive officers. Under the Trump administration, the Justice Department pulled back from previous federal policies aimed at imposing reforms on troubled local police departments through court-approved agreements.
Several high-profile police killings in 2020 stirred particular outrage. The March death of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, which occurred during a raid targeting a suspect who was not present in Taylor’s apartment, sparked months of protests in the city. An investigation yielded “wanton endangerment” charges against one officer but no charges related to Taylor’s death, prompting allegations that the Kentucky attorney general failed to adequately present the case to the grand jury. In May, a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, who had allegedly used a fake bill at a corner store, by kneeling on his neck for nearly eight minutes as three other officers stood by. The officers were fired and charged with offenses including murder, with a trial expected to occur in 2021.
Opinion polling suggested that the year’s protests against police violence and racial injustice were successful in shifting White Americans’ attitudes and raising their awareness of the problems; attempts by some protest leaders to mobilize support for structural reforms that would strip police departments of funding fared less well. The protests also succeeded in drawing media and advocacy attention to many police departments’ deep resistance to any reform or accountability mechanisms, and putting a spotlight on the presence within law enforcement of some officers with direct links to racist and White supremacist groups.
Conditions in prisons, jails, and pretrial detention centers are often poor at the state and local levels, and in 2020 COVID-19 outbreaks occurred at facilities across the country, producing infections and deaths at much higher rates than in the general population. Many jurisdictions and the federal government took steps to ease crowding by releasing suspects and convicted inmates who were deemed less dangerous.
Use of the death penalty has declined significantly in recent years. There were seven executions across five states in 2020—down from 22 in 2019 and a peak of 98 in 1999. The death penalty has been formally abolished by 22 states, with Colorado joining the list in 2020; in another 17 states where it remains on the books, executions have not been carried out for the past five years or more. However, in July 2020 the federal government resumed executions for the first time since 2003, and 10 federal executions were carried out by the end of the year, provoking widespread criticism from religious leaders and criminal justice advocates. 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?||2.002 4.004|
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 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 minority groups 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. Black people also face discrimination in health care and experience worse outcomes than their White counterparts, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, people of color experienced strikingly higher mortality from the virus. Asian Americans were the victims of a surge in discrimination and harassment in 2020, attributed in part to President Trump’s attempts to focus blame for the pandemic on China, where the initial outbreak occurred.
The Supreme Court issued landmark decisions involving gender and the rights of minority groups in 2020. In June, the court reaffirmed the validity of an 1866 treaty and recognized that much of eastern Oklahoma remained under the sovereignty of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, a Native American tribe. Also that month, the Supreme Court ruled that federal civil rights legislation includes LGBT+ people as a class protected from workplace discrimination. The decision was a rebuke to the Trump administration, whose effort to roll back previous administrations’ moves to uphold the rights of LGBT+ people through executive actions and rulemaking for federal agencies and contractors continued in 2020. A ban on transgender people serving in the military, announced in 2017, took effect in 2019, even as court challenges continued; existing service members who had already received a diagnosis of gender dysphoria and had begun gender-affirming medical processes would be allowed to openly identify as their gender, but others, including new recruits, had to adhere to their “biological sex.”
The Trump administration in 2020 intensified its efforts to reduce the number of legal immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers, and undocumented immigrants entering and residing in the country. Such moves since 2017 had 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. While the administration typically cited exaggerated security concerns as justification for its policies, the COVID-19 pandemic provided a new rationale and helped the administration achieve larger declines in the number of newly arriving immigrants and asylum claimants than had previously been possible.
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. Less severe bans were imposed on six additional countries in early 2020. 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 2021 fiscal year was slashed to 15,000 people, down from 18,000 in fiscal 2020, and actual admissions remained far below the cap in 2020; prior to the Trump administration, the annual caps had generally surpassed 70,000.
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 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 were returned to Mexico under the program, joining a large preexisting set of would-be applicants often living in difficult and dangerous conditions there. The administration also announced in 2019 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. 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. The administration has also gradually adjusted rules to extend permissible detention periods and broaden the list of deportable offenses. In 2020, the administration cited the COVID-19 pandemic to justify a broad slate of restrictions. A March order closed the border to asylum claimants, and federal agents began immediately returning all irregular border-crossers to Mexico or their countries of origin, including unaccompanied children. Separately in February, the Supreme Court allowed implementation of a new rule permitting the denial of permanent residency to applicants deemed likely to make use of state social benefits; immigrants’ rights advocates claimed the rule deterred immigrants from accessing necessary public health services, among other objections.
The Trump administration 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 immigrants with the weakest ties to American communities. The COVID-19 pandemic forced Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to scale back its arrests and return to the focus on dangerous criminals, but the administration continued efforts to punish cities that refused to assist ICE agents in identifying and detaining undocumented immigrants. The administration’s enforcement drive has added to an existing backlog of cases in immigration courts; as of December 2020 there were more than a million pending cases, roughly double the number pending when Trump took office. The pandemic exacerbated poor conditions in immigration detention facilities; as of mid-November, over 7,300 detainees had tested positive for the virus. Under pressure from immigrants’ rights advocates, the administration took steps to reduce the population of ICE detainees, which declined by more than 50 percent between February and November. A surge of criticism followed revelations in September that a doctor at an immigration detention center in Georgia had performed invasive and unnecessary medical procedures, including hysterectomies, on detained women. Separately in June, the Supreme Court ruled, on procedural grounds, against 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; legal wrangling over reimplementation of the program continued at year’s end.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||4.004 4.004|
There are no significant undue restrictions on freedom of movement within the United States, and residents are generally free to travel abroad without improper obstacles. A patchwork of temporary movement restrictions were imposed across the country in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with states acting independently based on local conditions and strategies, though the rules were loosely enforced and relied mainly on voluntary compliance.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||4.004 4.004|
Property rights are widely respected in the United States. The legal and political environments are supportive of entrepreneurial activity and business ownership. President Trump’s shifting and exemption-filled tariff policies prompted concern throughout his administration that political favoritism was distorting markets involving tariff-sensitive businesses. Similarly, perceived support for the administration allegedly influenced the awarding of government aid and contracts, including during the COVID-19 pandemic. Coronavirus-related business restrictions at the state and local levels caused significant disruption and confusion, prompting civil disobedience and public protests by some private business owners.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||4.004 4.004|
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. In recent years, a growing number of states have passed laws to eliminate exemptions that allowed 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. In June 2020, however, the Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana law that would have significantly reduced abortion access in that state.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||3.003 4.004|
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 concerns mounted in 2020 as the recession linked to the COVID-19 pandemic caused a massive spike in unemployment—especially for Black and Hispanic workers—leading to record demand for food banks and other community services. Economic stimulus legislation passed by Congress in April and December mitigated the damage, in part by expanding unemployment benefits, but widespread hardship persisted at year’s end.
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. The coronavirus-related economic shock amplified this dynamic, disrupting employment and income for lower-earning, less-educated workers far more than for college-educated professionals. Although the country has legal safeguards against unsafe working conditions, workers in essential industries such as meat processing faced a high risk of contracting COVID-19 in practice, with inadequate protective equipment and hazard pay. Poorer children who lacked the resources to adapt to remote learning were also most harmed by pandemic-linked school closures, which threatened to exacerbate educational inequality.
The inflation-adjusted national minimum wage has fallen substantially since the 1960s, with the last nominal increase in 2009, though many states and localities have enacted increases since then. Other obstacles to gainful employment include inadequate public transportation and the high cost of living in economically dynamic cities and regions. The latter problem, which is exacerbated by exclusionary housing policies in many jurisdictions, has also contributed to an overall rise in homelessness in recent years.
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