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 rising political polarization and extremism, 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 transfer of power from the administration of President Donald Trump to that of President Joseph Biden in January was seriously threatened by a series of antidemocratic actions intended to thwart it. Although Trump’s claims of fraud in the November 2020 presidential election had been consistently rejected by electoral officials from both parties and by the courts, he and some of his political allies in the administration, in Congress, and at the state and local levels sought to misuse various authorities and procedural tools to overturn the election results. They also attempted to apply pressure by mobilizing Trump’s supporters, and on January 6, the final step in the confirmation of the results by Congress was violently disrupted when a mob marched from a rally outside the White House and broke into the US Capitol building. Congress reconvened hours later and completed its count of the Electoral College ballots, and Biden’s inauguration proceeded without incident on January 20. However, Trump’s false assertions about large-scale fraud continued to pervade Republican Party discourse throughout the year, leading to intraparty tensions and the threat of political marginalization for Republicans who vocally rejected the claims.
- A number of state laws on this and other topics sparked controversy during the year. At least 19 states, nearly all controlled by Republicans, passed problematic electoral laws that made voting more difficult, in some cases raising the risk of greater partisan interference in election management, vote counting, and certification. Separately, at least a dozen Republican-led states imposed binding restrictions on content related to race or gender in public school or university settings, and a Texas law banning most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy took effect in September. Unlike with similar restrictions in other states, the Supreme Court allowed the Texas law to enter into force while challenges to its unusual citizen-enforcement mechanism proceeded through the lower courts.
- Criminal cases stemming from widely publicized police killings of Black civilians continued to make their way through the courts in 2021. In April, former officer Derek Chauvin was convicted on several counts including second-degree murder for the May 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, which had galvanized nationwide protests against racial injustice that year. Chauvin was sentenced in June to 22 years and six months in prison.
- The COVID-19 pandemic continued to sweep the country, causing a two-year total of more than 825,000 deaths and 55 million confirmed cases. A significant level of public resistance to vaccination—encouraged by misinformation from some influential political and cultural figures—contributed to persistently high numbers of infections and deaths overall. The Biden administration promoted accurate information and voluntary vaccination throughout the year, but in September it also announced a rule requiring vaccinations for employees at large businesses across the country; a legal challenge of the mandate was pending at year’s end.
|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 compelled many states to increase access to early and mail-in voting, partly to 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 federal government assisted states in their efforts to safeguard ballots and computer networks against foreign and other illegal interference, while 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 thwart disinformation campaigns. These measures were deemed successful in many respects: despite some reported attempts by foreign actors to hack voting infrastructure and spread disinformation on social media, there was little evidence that they had a meaningful impact.
Rejecting 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 continued to allege fraud and openly pressured election officials, particularly Republicans, in pivotal states to make decisions that would support his claims regardless of the facts and the law. During the counting and certification process, 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, 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.
New revelations later emerged regarding last-ditch efforts to overturn the results, including machinations by the outgoing president and allied officials or lawyers to involve the Justice Department and other government agencies in supporting Trump’s fraud claims, a memorandum by a Trump lawyer arguing that then vice president Mike Pence had the authority to stop Congress from completing the Electoral College vote count, and related attempts by the Trump campaign and Republican Party activists to put forward illegitimate pro-Trump slates of electors in states that Biden won.
Trump administration officials and allies also encouraged resistance to Biden’s victory from voters and citizen groups, coordinating with a range of supporters to disseminate disinformation and promote “Stop the Steal” rallies. This activity peaked on January 6, 2021, when several thousand Trump supporters assembled near the White House for a “Save America” rally. Following incitement by Trump and other speakers, the crowd converged on the US Capitol as the counting of the Electoral College ballots proceeded. Upon encountering an inadequate deployment of police, the group turned violent, using both concealed and improvised weapons to break through barricades, assault police officers, and forcibly enter the Capitol, where scores of intruders searched for lawmakers, vandalized offices, and occupied the Senate chamber as members were evacuated. The group was dispersed after several hours, following the delayed arrival of the National Guard. In all, seven people died in connection with the attack, including a policeman who suffered strokes after clashing with the mob and a rioter who was shot by police near the House chamber. Nearly 140 police officers were injured, as were scores of civilians. By year’s end, approximately 700 people had been arrested on a range of charges, though no trials had been completed, and it remained unclear whether charges would eventually extend to Trump or his more prominent allies.
Among Republicans, a divide emerged in the weeks after the election between state officials involved in administering the balloting, 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. When Congress reconvened to complete the Electoral College count on the night of January 6–7, just eight senators lodged objections to state results, but 139 of the 211 Republicans in the House of Representatives at the time supported baseless objections to the count in at least one state.
The events of January 6 prompted several institutional responses. The following week, the House voted to impeach Trump on the charge of incitement of insurrection, with 10 Republicans joining all Democrats to approve the measure. The Senate trial concluded in February with Trump’s acquittal, as only 57 of the required 67 senators, including seven Republicans, voted to convict. In July, a House select committee was formed to investigate the January 6 attack; Democrats had initially sought to form an independent commission of outside experts, but most Senate Republicans voted to block that effort. The select committee, which only two Republican House members agreed to join, defined its mandate broadly, aiming to clarify both the events of January 6 and the wider efforts to overturn the election results. By year’s end, the committee had interviewed scores of witnesses and issued an array of subpoenas for documents and testimony by Trump administration officials and allies. Republican critics derided the investigation as a partisan smear campaign, and Trump instructed his allies to refuse cooperation on the basis of executive privilege, leading to court challenges that remained underway at year’s end.
|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 of Representatives 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 loss of one. After winning two Senate seats in runoff elections in Georgia in January 2021, Democrats held 48 Senate seats, and there were two independent senators who generally vote with the Democrats, giving Democrats control of the chamber via the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris. In the House, the Democratic majority was reduced to 223, while the number of Republicans rose to 212.
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 did not question the validity of the concurrent congressional 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 partisan 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 (VRA) 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. Following the finalization of the 2020 census results and corresponding reapportionment, states began redistricting efforts in 2021, setting the stage for legal disputes over gerrymandered maps ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. Although both major parties continued to engage in partisan gerrymandering, Republicans had greater opportunity to redraw state-level maps because they controlled more state legislatures. Democrats in Congress proposed legislation aimed at ending the practice for House districts.
Some states have adopted strict voter-identification laws. These 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. At the same time, COVID-19 contributed to shortages of poll workers and changes to polling locations, and long lines remained a problem.
Trump’s refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of his defeat and his promotion of false fraud claims spurred a new wave of state electoral legislation during 2021, with sponsors arguing that the changes were needed to prevent any repetition of the supposed malfeasance in 2020. By December, 19 states—nearly all with Republican-controlled legislatures—had passed 34 new laws that restricted access to voting, with provisions including stricter voter-identification requirements; reduced eligibility for mail-in ballots; and limits on interactions at polling places, such as a ban on offering water to voters waiting in line. Some Republican state legislatures also introduced bills that, according to their opponents, could be used to facilitate the partisan subversion of legitimate electoral outcomes in the future, for instance by concentrating election management authority in the hands of state lawmakers or their appointees rather than local officials, or by empowering partisan poll watchers in ways that could disrupt the ballot-counting process. At the same time, prominent Trump allies encouraged vote-fraud conspiracists to run for local-level posts involved with election administration. Separately, many federal lawmakers, including Democrats and some leading Republicans, emphasized the need to reform the Electoral Count Act, an 1887 law governing congressional validation of the Electoral College votes from the states. The act’s ambiguous language was widely criticized for allowing spurious objections to the 2020 results and creating opportunities for a much worse constitutional crisis than ultimately occurred.
Critics have argued that some components of the US constitution are undemocratic because they violate the principle that each citizen’s vote should carry equal weight. For example, the allocation of two Senate seats to each state regardless of size has meant that senators representing a minority of the population are often able to control the chamber. Because the Electoral College allocates votes to the states based on the size of their congressional delegations, it too is affected by the makeup of the Senate. Defenders of these systems argue that they are fundamental to the United States’ constitutional tradition and federal structure, in which the states enjoy a substantial degree of autonomy.
The six-member Federal Election Commission (FEC) 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. While a quorum was restored in December 2020, partisan deadlock impeded the commission’s work throughout 2021. Also during the year, Democratic lawmakers advanced but were unable to pass an electoral reform package that included a restructuring of the FEC and measures to strengthen enforcement of campaign finance rules.
|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. The two parties’ primary elections allow for a broad array of views and candidates to enter the political system, although those in many states exclude unaffiliated voters from this important stage of the electoral process. The 2020 primaries and general elections featured participation by ideologically diverse candidates across the country; a similar pattern characterized balloting in the set of states and localities that held elections during 2021.
For the many seats at all levels that are regarded as “safely” Democratic or Republican, due to a combination of partisan gerrymandering and geographical sorting, primaries often represent the main battleground for opposing views. Republican incumbents, especially in the House, have faced sharp competition from more right-wing, sometimes Trump-backed 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. In 2021, early primary challenges were announced against the handful of House Republicans who voted for Trump’s impeachment in January; these and other Republican officeholders who vocally criticized Trump’s election-fraud claims or his role in the events of January 6 also faced threats and intimidation and were marginalized within the party, as illustrated by the May ouster of Representative Liz Cheney from her position in the House Republican leadership.
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. Several jurisdictions, including Maine and New York City, have adopted ranked-choice voting systems for some posts, which could prove more hospitable to third parties than the majoritarian system, though in practice the results matched those of the traditional plurality system in key races in 2020 and 2021.
|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. Gubernatorial elections held in November 2021 in Virginia and New Jersey featured a strong shift toward Republicans relative to the 2020 presidential tally in each state, leading to a victory for the Republican candidate in previously Democrat-led Virginia. The elections left Democrats with 22 state governorships, while Republicans held 28; Republicans maintained control over a majority of state legislatures. In several states, including North Carolina in 2016 and Wisconsin in 2018, outgoing Republican-led legislatures have stripped powers from executive offices that had just been captured by Democrats.
President Trump’s efforts to overturn his loss to Biden in 2020 and early 2021 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. 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. However, some of the legal changes in Republican-controlled states in 2021—and the lack of reform at the federal level during the year—raised concern that transfers of power after the 2022 or 2024 elections could be disrupted.
|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?||2.002 4.004|
Various interest groups have come to play a potent role in the nominating process for president and members of Congress, 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 equate political donations with 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), nonprofit organizations, and other legal entities that tend to protect donor anonymity and carry few restrictions on the size and source of donations. 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: 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). Proposals to strengthen the law were introduced in Congress in 2021 and remained pending at year’s end.
The January 6 attack on Congress underscored a broader rise in violence and intimidation as a tool of political influence in the United States. Numerous known affiliates of right-wing extremist groups participated in the attack, and many Republicans and far-right media figures later sought to recast it as a patriotic protest or a defense of election integrity. The documented participation of military veterans in the violence prompted the Defense Department to order a broad review of measures necessary to minimize extremist behavior among active-duty troops. Meanwhile, reports of threats against elected officials proliferated during the year, continuing a pattern from 2020 and contributing to a related increase in local election administrators who stated that they were considering resigning.
Score Change: The score declined from 3 to 2 due to the January 6 assault on the Capitol, in which Trump supporters violently attempted to prevent Congress’s formal confirmation of the presidential election results, as well as a broader increase in threats and intimidation aimed at politicians and election officials across the country.
|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, in state legislatures, and in senior policymaking positions.
Racial and ethnic minority communities 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 VRA 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 partially rolled back innovations like early voting that contributed to higher rates of participation among minority groups. In June 2021, the Supreme Court upheld restrictive Arizona rules against a VRA challenge, signaling a further weakening of the VRA as a safeguard against discriminatory state laws. Throughout 2021, Democrats in Congress advanced proposals intended to address both the Supreme Court decisions and the raft of voting restrictions passed in recent years at the state level, but Senate Republicans used procedural tactics to block the legislation. Separately, the Justice Department filed lawsuits challenging the laws passed in some states.
Various other state election-management policies have been criticized for having a disparate impact on racial and ethnic minority communities, including voter-roll purges and arbitrary bureaucratic hurdles to registration. Partisan state-level redistricting processes in 2021 also prompted complaints in North Carolina, Georgia, Ohio, and other states that the power of Black voters and elected officials was being diluted.
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; a growing number of states have eased restrictions on voting rights after incarceration or during probation and parole, but the issue remains controversial. Overall, researchers estimated that more than five million people remained disenfranchised for the 2020 elections 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|
The president and Congress are generally empowered to determine government policies and craft legislation. However, partisan polarization and obstruction in Congress has repeatedly delayed appropriations bills in recent years, resulting in a series of partial shutdowns of federal government operations, most recently in 2018–19. While no such shutdowns occurred in 2021, the country narrowly avoided a spending and debt crisis in December when some Senate Republicans agreed to a short-term spending bill and allowed a party-line vote to lift the cap on federal debt.
Congress’s ability to serve as a check on potential abuses by the executive was challenged during the Trump administration. After Democrats gained a majority in the House of Representatives in the 2018 elections, the administration frequently clashed with Congress in ways that undermined the legislature’s constitutional authority. For example, in 2019 Trump’s irregular obstruction of appropriated military aid to Ukraine and his orders to defy congressional subpoenas led to an impeachment process that ultimately failed to remove the president in early 2020. For the remainder of that year, the administration continued its refusal to comply with a host of congressional reporting requirements, information requests, and subpoenas on various oversight matters. Proposed reforms meant to address these problems by strengthening Congress’s oversight powers had yet to win passage in 2021.
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. Following the November 2020 elections, executive branch functions and continuity were hindered when the outgoing administration—as part of its groundless contestation of the election results—broke precedent by hampering cooperation with incoming Biden administration officials. Throughout 2021, Republicans in the Senate effectively slowed the confirmation of Biden’s executive branch nominees, leaving the pace of appointments slightly ahead of the Trump administration’s in its first year but far behind the previous two administrations.
|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. 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 millions of dollars in revenue. 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, many Trump nominees received waivers, and journalistic and congressional investigations routinely found conflicts of interest and other ethical violations among nominees and appointees.
Whistleblowers faced extreme pressure during the Trump administration. The Central Intelligence Agency official who filed a complaint that touched off the Ukraine-related impeachment inquiry in 2019 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 inculpatory testimony during the House impeachment process.
In 2021, lawmakers advanced a number of bills meant to address the gaps in ethics rules that were exploited by members of the Trump administration, but these legislative reforms had yet to pass at year’s end. The Biden administration issued an executive order in January that strengthened some ethics rules in the executive branch, and watchdog groups described efforts to limit cabinet members’ conflicts of interest as effective, though critics continued to highlight ethics questions involving Biden’s son Hunter. Separately, the House ethics committee released a report in October that denounced campaign finance practices and stock trades by four members of Congress, and investigations continued through the end of the year.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||3.003 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, though complaints about delays diminished somewhat in 2021.
Lack of transparency characterized multiple facets of the Trump administration. The president and his aides 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 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. It also intruded on technical matters like the decennial census for political reasons, threatening the accuracy of data used for a wide variety of governance purposes. Throughout 2020, Trump and a number of his aides consistently promoted false and misleading information about COVID-19, and political appointees in the administration 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.
After taking office in 2021, the Biden administration sought to combat misinformation and provide accurate public health data, emphasizing the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines in particular. It also returned to the traditional practice of holding formal daily press briefings, which the Trump administration had often dispensed with in favor of irregular, ad hoc appearances by the president.
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. In 2020, Trump arbitrarily fired or replaced a series of agency inspectors general who had documented or investigated malfeasance by administration officials. Legislative proposals to reinforce the authority and independence of inspectors general and ensure government transparency more broadly were under consideration in Congress during 2021.
Score Change: The score improved from 2 to 3 because the Biden administration did not repeat its predecessor’s promotion of false and misleading information about COVID-19 or attempt to interfere with expert analysis and recommendations on health and other matters, though a number of deficiencies in transparency safeguards that were exposed by the Trump administration had not been remedied at year’s end.
|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. Although the mainstream media have continued to provide strong and independent coverage of national politics despite increased hostility from political figures in recent years, some outlets’ editorial policies effectively shifted to the left as they were drawn into adversarial relationships with the Trump presidency. The highly influential cable network Fox News has been unique, however, in its close alignment with the Republican Party in general and former president Trump in particular; several prominent on-air personalities and executives migrated to government jobs under Trump’s administration, and key hosts openly endorsed Republican candidates or participated in campaign rallies. Following the 2020 elections, Fox News joined other networks in calling the presidential race for Biden, prompting Trump to denigrate the outlet and direct his followers to smaller, more extreme alternatives. In 2021, Fox News returned to favorable coverage of Trump, his false claims about the fairness of the 2020 election, and various conspiracy theories about the January 6 riot.
Although the government’s rhetorical hostility toward the press declined markedly under the new administration in 2021, the potential for government intrusion on the work of journalists remained a concern. In July, Attorney General Merrick Garland issued new rules barring the Justice Department—with narrow exceptions—from seizing the records of journalists or requiring their testimony in order to identify confidential sources as part of leak investigations. The move came in response to revelations that the department under Trump had secretly sought or obtained the records of journalists from multiple news outlets while investigating leaks. Separately, it was reported in December that, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, a Customs and Border Protection unit had freely used government databases in previous years to investigate journalists as well as politicians, congressional staff, and others. The unit was under review at year’s end.
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 engaged in mass removals of far-right and foreign accounts that are used to spread disinformation. Following the January 6 attack, the perceived risk of further incitement of violence by Trump prompted Twitter to ban his account, and Facebook and YouTube imposed indefinite suspensions; in July Trump filed a lawsuit against the three companies, alleging violations of his constitutional right to free speech. Facebook came under significant scrutiny in 2021 from members of both political parties, with Republicans alleging censorship of accounts featuring conservative perspectives and Democrats assailing executives over their reported reluctance to vigorously combat conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and the COVID-19 vaccines. The Republican-led states of Florida and Texas adopted laws that aimed to restrict social media platforms’ ability to moderate content, though enforcement of both measures was blocked pending judicial review.
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, a Black civilian, in Minnesota in May 2020. According to the US Press Freedom Tracker, a joint project of multiple nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the number of violations declined sharply in 2021, falling to 59 arrests or detentions of journalists and 142 assaults on journalists, from 123 arrests and 334 assaults recorded during 2020. The latest incidents occurred during political protests, rallies against vaccine mandates, and a variety of other reporting assignments. Despite the decline from 2020, the 2021 figures still represented a sharp uptick compared with the 9 arrests and roughly 40 assaults documented for 2019.
|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, faced with differing details, issued somewhat conflicting rulings on the subject, but a series of rulings in 2021 confirmed a pattern in which the justices curbed state restrictions on religious assemblies.
Hate crimes based on religion are generally prosecuted vigorously by law enforcement authorities. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) statistics for 2020, released in October 2021, showed a decrease of some 15 percent in such crimes from 2019; incidents involving Jewish targets constituted over 56 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?||3.003 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 from both ends of the political spectrum. University faculty have reported instances of professional repercussions or harassment—including on social media—related to curriculum content, textbooks, or statements that some students strongly disagreed with. As a consequence, some professors have 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.
On most university campuses and in some other educational settings, such pressures came largely from the progressive left, but social and political forces on the right have increasingly applied pressure of their own in recent years. The Trump administration in 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, but in 2021 state-level officials initiated a wave of similar legislation pertaining to both universities and public schools. These efforts were especially focused on restricting the teaching of “critical race theory” (CRT), an academic framework for examining a variety of issues including structural racism. According to PEN America, lawmakers in at least a dozen states had adopted “educational gag orders” restricting the forms and substance of classroom race discussions by year’s end, and additional bills were under consideration in numerous other jurisdictions. Moreover, educators and administrators concerned about accreditation, legal liability, and parental anger were reportedly acting preemptively to eliminate or alter courses and remove previously well-regarded texts from school libraries.
These debates took place against the backdrop of a sharp rise in threats and intimidation aimed at school officials, as parents—and in some cases, members of far-right groups—voiced their anger at pandemic-related school closures, mask mandates, and the content of classroom lessons, leading the Justice Department to announce the formation of a task force to protect school personnel in October.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 due to a multiyear rise in pressure on educators and educational institutions, including the obstruction of on-campus speech that some find objectionable, attempts to dismiss or punish scholars for their views or work, efforts to limit student access to certain books, and a series of government restrictions and citizen threats related to the classroom discussion of race and other controversial topics.
|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 there are a number of threats to this freedom.
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 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, 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?||4.004 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, though 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. Such legislation was adopted in at least nine states during 2021, including laws in Oklahoma and Iowa that would partially shield drivers from liability for hitting protesters with their vehicles.
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 decentralized Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, marches occurred in hundreds of cities and smaller communities. Estimated participation in May and June of that year ranged from 15 to 26 million people. 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. Aggressive police tactics often contributed to violent episodes, and hundreds of instances of unprovoked or disproportionate police violence were documented on video.
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 federal law enforcement agents were accused of applying excessive force in June 2020 in Washington, DC, and using abusive and inflammatory tactics during a series of protests in Portland, Oregon.
Police violence against protesters rarely results in accountability, including in cases of apparent abuse caught on camera during the 2020 protests. Observers that year also noted 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.
With the exception of the January 6 attack, conditions surrounding mass assemblies were generally more peaceful in 2021. Unlike in 2020, there were few prominent examples of people being killed in confrontations involving armed protesters, counterprotesters, or vigilantes, though repercussions from events in 2020 continued: in November, a teenager who killed two people near an August 2020 protest in Wisconsin was acquitted on all charges after arguing self-defense.
Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 because the surge in civilian violence and police abuses that accompanied a subset of the protests against racial injustice in 2020 largely subsided during 2021, though accountability for the previous year’s violations reportedly remained lacking.
|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 became more active during the Trump administration and remained so in 2021, mounting campaigns and filing lawsuits to block government actions 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 6.1 percent of the private-sector workforce belonged to unions in 2021. While public-sector unions had a higher rate of membership, with 33.9 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 2021 was 10.3 percent, the same as in 2019. 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, and 27 states have “right-to-work” legislation in place, allowing private-sector workers who benefit from union bargaining to similarly opt out of paying union dues or fees. In March 2021 the House of Representatives passed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which would strengthen organizing and bargaining capacity by overriding right-to-work laws and giving more categories of workers the right to unionize, among other changes; the bill remained stalled in the Senate at year’s end.
A labor shortage that accompanied the economic recovery from the pandemic in 2021 emboldened workers to make demands in negotiations with employers, leading to a series of highly publicized strikes and increased media coverage of labor disputes, though the total number of strikers remained relatively small.
|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, and the Biden administration also faced adverse rulings during 2021.
However, the pattern of judicial appointments in recent years has 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, 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.
President Trump filled two additional vacancies on the Supreme Court in 2018 and 2020 after deeply contentious Senate hearings and nearly party-line votes. These appointments cemented a conservative Supreme Court majority; many Democrats suggested that the Republicans’ pattern of obstructing Democratic nominees and filling the resulting vacancies with their own nominees warranted the introduction of legislation to expand the size of the court and add new justices under a Democratic president, but while President Biden created a commission to study various judicial reform options in 2021, no such changes were adopted during the year.
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. President Biden made judicial appointments a priority in 2021, and during the year he made more nominations and achieved more confirmations than either Trump or Obama in the first year of their respective terms.
During his time in office, Trump repeatedly 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. Between his defeat in the November 2020 election and Biden’s inauguration in January 2021, Trump pardoned multiple close associates who had been convicted or charged in connection with investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election. These were among a larger raft of pardons issued to individuals with personal or political connections to Trump, including five former Republican congressmen convicted of fraud or misusing funds, four former military contractors convicted for their roles in a notorious 2007 massacre of civilians in Iraq, and former adviser Steve Bannon, who was awaiting trial on fraud charges.
In many states, judges are chosen through either partisan or nonpartisan elections, and a rise in campaign fundraising and party involvement in 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 an increasing number of states have attempted to increase their control over state courts; according to New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, 14 states passed legislation that narrowed judicial independence in 2021.
|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 and juries; 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 more than 1.6 million in 2009, then gradually decreased to roughly 1.2 million as of mid-2021. 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 fell to 361 as of mid-2021. 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 nonviolent 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 2021. Some states have restricted the use of cash bail, which can unfairly penalize defendants with fewer resources and enlarge pretrial jail populations. In 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 or fully legalized the recreational use of marijuana.
|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 6.5 per 100,000 inhabitants as of 2020, according to FBI data—remains low by regional and historical standards, and overall crime rates have declined substantially since the 1990s. However, the figures are high when compared with other wealthy democracies, and the homicide rate rose by 30 percent between 2019 and 2020, with even higher spikes in a number of large cities, and continued to rise nationally at a slower pace in 2021.
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. Nevertheless, in April 2021, former officer Derek Chauvin was convicted on several counts including second-degree murder for the May 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, and in June he was sentenced to 22 years and six months in prison.
Opinion polling suggested that the 2020 protests against police violence and racial injustice were initially successful in shifting White Americans’ attitudes and raising their awareness of the problems. The protests also succeeded in drawing media and advocacy attention to many police departments’ deep resistance to any reform or accountability mechanisms, and in putting a spotlight on the presence within law enforcement of some officers with direct links to far-right militias and White supremacist groups. A push by some reform advocates to cut police departments’ funding and direct it to other public services faced criticism amid rising crime rates, however, and many such efforts were diluted or reversed in 2021.
Conditions in prisons, jails, and pretrial detention centers are often poor at the state and local levels, and the COVID-19 pandemic spread through facilities across the country, with more than a third of the incarcerated population having tested positive by April 2021. Many jurisdictions and the federal government took steps to ease crowding by releasing to home confinement those suspects and convicted inmates who were deemed less dangerous.
Use of the death penalty has declined significantly in recent years. There were 11 executions carried out by five states and the federal government in 2021—down from 17 in 2020 and a peak of 98 in 1999. The death penalty has been formally abolished by 23 states, with Virginia joining the list in 2021; in another 15 states where it remains on the books, executions have not been carried out for the past five years or more. In July 2020 the federal government resumed executions for the first time since 2003, and 13 federal executions were carried out before the Biden administration imposed a moratorium in June 2021. 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 82 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 69 cents for every dollar earned by White male workers as of 2020. Women are also most often affected by sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. A popular and ongoing social media campaign that began in late 2017, the #MeToo movement, has encouraged victims to speak out about their experiences, leading to accountability for some perpetrators and 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 hate crimes in 2020 and 2021, attributed in part to President Trump’s attempts to focus blame for the pandemic on China, where the initial outbreak occurred.
Although LGBT+ people remain subject to significant discrimination, they have made strides toward legal equality in recent years. In 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that federal civil rights legislation includes LGBT+ people as a class protected from workplace discrimination. In January 2021, the Biden administration lifted a Trump-era ban on transgender people serving in the military, and in June the government announced that a nonbinary gender option would be available on US passports. However, disputes over the rights of transgender people at the state level have resulted in a series of restrictive laws. In October, Texas became the ninth state that year to bar transgender girls from participating in women’s scholastic sports.
The Trump administration worked to reduce the number of legal immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers, and undocumented immigrants entering and residing in the country. Many of its moves were hasty, uncoordinated, and underfunded, and they often conflicted with existing laws, constitutional protections, and international human rights standards. While the administration typically cited exaggerated security concerns as justification for its policies, in 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic provided a new rationale and helped the administration achieve large declines in the number of newly arriving immigrants and asylum claimants. Although the Biden administration attempted to reverse some Trump-era policies, court challenges complicated its efforts, and it chose to leave other policies in place.
The Biden administration immediately overturned its predecessor’s executive orders that had barred most entries by citizens of a group of Muslim-majority countries on security grounds; the original order had been repeatedly revised amid criticism that the bans were blatantly discriminatory. The new administration also sought to reverse President Trump’s sharp and discriminatory reductions in the number of refugees admitted to the United States for resettlement, which had reached its lowest point since the program began in 1980; while the cap was raised to 62,500 people, fewer than 12,000 refugees were actually resettled by the end of the fiscal year in September 2021.
A number of controversial policies enacted by Trump administration that focused on blocking asylum seekers at the southern border were preserved under the Biden administration, and they continued to draw 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. Amid an increase in migration from Mexico, Central America, and Haiti, the Biden administration continued to use COVID-19-related public health restrictions to rapidly expel or deport most migrants throughout the year, including thousands of Haitians whose treatment was widely criticized as inhumane. Earlier, in January 2021, the administration ended the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” program, which allowed border authorities to force non-Mexican asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their claims were adjudicated in the United States. Tens of thousands of people had been returned to Mexico under the program, with many living in difficult and dangerous conditions there. In August, however, the Supreme Court upheld a ruling that the program had been improperly rescinded, and it restarted in December.
The Biden administration signaled its commitment to reverse the Trump-era emphasis on maximizing arrests and deportations of undocumented immigrants, regardless of whether they had committed crimes, and of legal immigrants or refugees who committed crimes in the United States. In 2021, immigration authorities moved back toward the Obama-era policy of focusing deportation efforts on those individuals who pose the greatest threat to public safety. Nevertheless, immigration detentions rose during the administration’s first year, and the backlog of cases in immigration courts continued to balloon; as of December 2021 there were some 1.6 million pending cases, with average wait times of more than two years for a case to be heard. Human rights and immigrant advocacy groups criticized the administration for taking inadequate steps to address poor conditions in immigration detention facilities. In September, the Biden administration announced steps intended to strengthen the legal standing of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which prevents the deportation of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. The program had been the subject of court challenges since it was first implemented in 2012, and the Trump administration had tried unsuccessfully to end it.
|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 in 2020, with states acting independently based on local conditions and strategies, though the rules were loosely enforced and relied mainly on voluntary compliance. The remaining restrictions were mostly lifted as vaccination rates rose in 2021.
|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. There were concerns during the Trump administration that political favoritism was distorting markets and government contracts, but these receded after the Biden administration took office. Coronavirus-related business restrictions at the state and local levels, which caused significant disruption and prompted civil disobedience and public protests by some private business owners in 2020, declined as vaccination rates rose and businesses reopened in 2021. In September the Biden administration issued a mandate requiring larger companies to ensure that their employees were either vaccinated or regularly tested, affecting an estimated 84 million workers. A business federation and many states challenged the authority of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to impose such a mandate, and the matter was under judicial review at year’s end.
|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 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. During 2021 alone, nearly two dozen states passed new abortion restrictions, and the Supreme Court’s conservative majority—strengthened by Trump-era appointments—signaled a greater willingness to uphold such legislation. In several rulings starting in September, the court allowed the enforcement, pending a full judicial review, of a new Texas law that banned most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy and empowered citizens rather than the state to file lawsuits against those who perform or “abet” illegal abortions; litigation over this and other restrictive laws continued at year’s end.
|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. 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 a recession linked to the COVID-19 pandemic caused a massive spike in unemployment, especially for Black and Hispanic workers. A series of economic stimulus and relief packages, including a spending bill passed by Congress in March 2021, mitigated the damage and successfully reduced overall poverty rates, in part by providing expanded unemployment benefits and other protections against severe income loss.
One key aspect of inequality in the United States 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 lower-cost foreign production. 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 that dynamic, disrupting employment and income for lower-earning, less-educated workers far more than for college-educated professionals. In 2021, a lockdown-induced spike in household savings, combined with fiscal and monetary stimulus policies, produced strong demand, greater bargaining power, and higher wages for such workers. However, the same factors, along with persistent supply-chain disruptions caused by the pandemic, also produced high levels of inflation that tempered the effect of wage increases. As of October 2021, the employment-to-population ratio remained below pre-pandemic levels across racial and gender categories.
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, with inadequate protective equipment and hazard pay. Meanwhile, poorer children whose families lacked the resources to adapt to remote learning were 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. An effort to include a federal minimum wage increase in the March 2021 relief legislation failed in the Senate. 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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