Freedom in the World
Freedom in the World Scores
The United States is arguably the world’s oldest existing democracy. Its people benefit from a vibrant political system, a strong rule-of-law tradition, robust freedoms of expression and religious belief, and a wide array of other civil liberties. However, in recent years its democratic institutions have suffered erosion, as reflected in partisan manipulation of the electoral process, bias and dysfunction in the criminal justice system, and growing disparities in wealth, economic opportunity, and political influence.
The United States’ political rights rating declined from 1 to 2 due to growing evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 elections, violations of basic ethical standards by the new administration, and a reduction in government transparency.
Key Developments in 2017:
- Newly elected president Donald Trump, who took office in January, defied ethical standards observed by his recent predecessors, for instance by retaining and promoting his private business empire while in office, naming his daughter and son-in-law as presidential advisers, and refusing to divulge his tax records.
- The president repeatedly made major policy decisions with little prior consultation or transparency even within the executive branch—including a January executive order restricting travel to the United States from a group of Muslim-majority countries and a July directive that sought to ban transgender people from serving in the military—prompting legal challenges, revisions, and reversals.
- Investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election gathered force under the leadership of a special counsel, former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director Robert Mueller. Mueller was appointed in May after Trump fired FBI director James Comey, who had been overseeing the probe.
Donald Trump entered the presidency pledging a wholesale transformation of Washington’s priorities and approach to government. His administration set forth new policies on immigration, law enforcement, foreign policy, and international trade. He also deviated from established norms of ethics and transparency, verbally attacked crucial democratic institutions such as the news media and the judiciary, and made inflammatory and often inaccurate statements on a wide range of issues.
The result was a series of angry controversies pitting Trump against the Democratic opposition, the mainstream press, ethics watchdogs, representatives of minority groups, and leaders of his own Republican Party. One of the most serious centered on investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Trump repeatedly denied any collusion between his campaign and Russian representatives, denouncing a Justice Department probe as a “witch hunt” or a “hoax,” and at times appeared to deny that any Russian interference had taken place. In May, Trump fired James Comey, the director of the FBI and the lead official in the Russia investigation, raising concerns that he was attempting to quash the probe. However, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein then appointed a former FBI chief, Robert Mueller, to oversee the case as a special counsel. Attorney General Jeff Sessions had recused himself from any decisions about the investigation due to his own role in the Trump presidential campaign. Mueller’s investigation was ongoing at year’s end.
Despite his 2016 victory, Trump also continued to question the legitimacy of the American electoral process, asserting that between three and five million votes had been cast illegally in the previous year’s balloting. On the basis of these assertions, he established a Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity to investigate the risk of fraud in the election system and recommend remedies. The commission was led by a Kansas official who had repeatedly promoted claims of large-scale voter fraud, which experts insist have no grounding in fact.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 33 / 40 (−3)
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 10 / 12 (−1)
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 3 / 4 (−1)
The United States is a presidential republic, with the president serving as both head of state and head of government. Cabinet secretaries and other key officials are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, the upper house of the bicameral Congress. 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 most recent presidential election. In 2016, Trump won the Electoral College vote, 304 to 227, while finishing nearly three million votes behind Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton in the popular ballot.
Unlike previous presidential elections, the 2016 contest featured a significant amount of interference from a foreign power. The U.S. intelligence community concluded in October of that year that the Russian government was responsible for stealing and leaking internal documents from the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party. In early January 2017, top U.S. intelligence agencies issued a more comprehensive assessment, finding that the Russian leadership had carried out a broad campaign to undermine public faith in the democratic process, denigrate Clinton, and aid Trump’s election chances. It included hacking of multiple targets, such as both major political parties and some electoral boards, as well as propaganda disseminated by Russian state media. Revelations later in 2017 centered on Russian agents’ alleged exploitation of leading social media platforms to spread divisive and misleading messages among U.S. voters. Facebook alone reported in October that tens of thousands of such Russian-linked posts may have reached 126 million Americans during the election cycle.
While there was no clear evidence that these tactics altered the outcome of the presidential election, they did alter the campaign environment and the content of the political debate, and harmed public confidence in the integrity of the election process.
Throughout 2017, the Justice Department investigated the possibility that the Trump campaign had colluded or coordinated with the Russian government’s efforts. The probe was overseen by FBI director James Comey until May, when Trump fired him. It was then taken up by Mueller, the special counsel appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
As Mueller’s investigation—and parallel investigations by congressional committees—continued, the White House denied that any collusion took place and sometimes cast doubt on whether the Russian government had interfered in the election at all. The new administration took no major steps during 2017 to prevent such interference in future elections.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 due to growing evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election campaign and a lack of action by the Trump administration to prevent a reoccurrence of such meddling.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
The Senate consists of 100 members—two from each of the 50 states regardless of population—serving six-year terms, with one-third coming up for election every two years. The lower chamber, the House of Representatives, consists of 435 members serving two-year terms. All national legislators are elected directly by voters in the districts or states that they represent.
The capital district, Puerto Rico, and four overseas U.S. territories are each represented by an elected delegate in the House who can perform most legislative functions but cannot participate in floor votes.
Congressional elections are generally free and competitive, though partisan gerrymandering of House districts is a growing concern. In the 2016 elections, the Republican Party retained control of the Senate with 52 seats. Democrats hold 46 seats, and there are two independent senators who generally vote with the Democrats. Republicans also retained their majority in the House, taking 241 seats, versus 194 for the Democrats. At the state level, Republicans maintained control over the majority of legislatures and governors’ posts. Turnout for the 2016 general elections was approximately 56 percent of voting-age citizens, roughly in line with past elections. While Russian interference may have had an indirect effect on congressional campaigns, its impact was most apparent in the presidential contest.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 3 / 4
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 complaints have been made regarding the Senate, which grants each state two seats regardless of population. Defenders of these systems argue that they are fundamental to the United States’ federal structure, in which the states enjoy a substantial degree of autonomy, and that they ensure due political attention to all parts of the country’s territory.
While state borders are permanent, the borders of House districts are redrawn regularly—typically after each decennial census. In a practice known as gerrymandering, House districts, and those for state legislatures, are often 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 capture state legislatures, control redistricting processes, and apply the latest data analysis to redraw maps.
In May 2017, President Trump issued an executive order creating a Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, with a mission to study and report on the registration and voting processes used in federal elections—particularly those that could lead to improper or fraudulent voting. The commission, which was not tasked with examining issues such as foreign interference or gerrymandering, was widely seen as an effort to follow up on Trump’s unsubstantiated assertion that between three and five million votes were cast illegally in the 2016 elections, costing him the popular vote. The commission, chaired by the vice president, included several prominent advocates of greater voting restrictions; its Republican vice chair and de facto leader, Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach, has repeatedly asserted that voter fraud is a major problem in the United States. That claim is disputed by academic research and bipartisan state-level reports finding that fraud is extremely rare. Democratic members of the commission criticized its leadership for operating in secrecy and denying them basic information about its activities, in apparent violation of federal law.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 14 / 16
B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 4 / 4
The intensely competitive U.S. political environment is dominated by two major parties, the right-leaning Republicans and the left-leaning Democrats. The country’s “first past the post” or majoritarian electoral system discourages the emergence of additional parties, as do a number of specific legal and other hurdles. However, the two parties’ primary elections allow for an array of views and candidates to enter the political system. In the 2016 primaries, Trump, himself an unorthodox Republican with no experience in government, defeated not only mainstream politicians but also opponents whose positions ranged from libertarian to Christian conservative. Clinton won her party’s nomination after a powerful challenge by Senator Bernard Sanders, a socialist who subsequently secured changes to the party platform.
A number of independent or third-party candidates have significantly influenced presidential races or won statewide office, and small parties—such as the Libertarian Party and the Green Party—have also modestly affected state and local politics in recent years.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4 / 4
Despite the domination of political affairs by the two major parties, the United States has one of the world’s most dynamic political systems. Power changes hands regularly at the federal level, and while certain states and localities are seen as partisan strongholds, even they are subject to stiff competition and power transfers over time. As of 2017, the Democrats held 15 state governorships, while Republicans held 34, and the balance in state legislatures was similar. The Republicans’ slim majority in the U.S. Senate was set to shrink to a single seat in early 2018, after Democrat Doug Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore in a December 2017 special election to fill the seat vacated by Jeff Sessions of Alabama when he became attorney general. The seat was last held by a Democrat in 1997.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 3 / 4
The influence of traditional party leadership bodies has steadily declined in recent decades, while various interest groups have come to play a potent role in the nominating process for president and members of Congress. This is partly because the expense and length of political campaigns places 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.
During the full two-year cycle ahead of the 2016 election, Clinton’s presidential campaign raised more than $600 million, compared with Trump’s $400 million, according to the Campaign Finance Institute. However, their fundraising efforts were more closely matched during the general election period. While Trump was able to raise more than half of his campaign contributions in the form of donations of $200 or less, outperforming Clinton in that respect, major donors provide an enormous share of U.S. campaign contributions that has grown over time. Fewer than 25,000 individuals reportedly supplied some 40 percent of all contributions in 2016, and a far smaller number of extremely wealthy and prolific donors are especially sought after by candidates, raising concerns about undue influence.
In an unusual move, President Trump filed the initial documents for a 2020 reelection bid on the day of his inauguration in January 2017, and proceeded to raise funds and hold campaign events throughout the year.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 3 / 4
A number of important laws are designed to ensure the political rights of racial and ethnic minorities. However, in 2013 the Supreme Court invalidated portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a measure adopted to deal with racial discrimination in voting procedures. As a result, certain states that previously had to submit legal changes for preclearance by federal authorities were able to adopt election laws without prior review. A number of states, including some that were never subject to the preclearance rule, have enacted laws that require voters to present specific forms of identification, rolled back innovations like early voting that contributed to higher rates of minority participation, or altered polling locations in ways that could disproportionately harm minority voters. Some of these state laws have been struck down by federal courts, but 14 states had new restrictive voting laws in place for the 2016 elections—the first presidential vote since the 2013 Supreme Court ruling.
Religious groups and racial or ethnic minorities have been able to gain a political voice through participation in the two main parties. Leaders of both parties have traditionally made an effort to appeal to all segments of the population and address issues of concern to each, or at a minimum to avoid alienating any major demographic group. The 2016 elections stood out for the unusually divisive rhetoric of candidate Trump. As president, he continued to make statements that were widely considered offensive to Latinos, Muslims, and women, among others, adding to concerns that the interests of these segments of the population were not being protected by the new administration.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 9 / 12 (−2)
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 3 / 4
Despite Republican control of both the presidency and Congress, the legislative process continued to be hampered by political dysfunction during 2017. The legislature again failed to accomplish its core task—drafting and passing the government’s annual appropriations bills; instead it adopted a series of short-term, stopgap spending measures to avoid a looming shutdown of government operations. The Trump administration was also unusually slow in filling vacant positions across the higher levels of government departments and agencies, making it difficult for them to operate as intended by law. According to the Partnership for Public Service and the Washington Post, the administration had yet to submit nominations for more than 250 out of 624 key positions requiring Senate confirmation as of mid-December 2017. Only 214 of the nominees for those posts had been confirmed, with the rest awaiting consideration by the Senate. Trump’s four most recent predecessors had all completed far more appointments by this time in their presidencies.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 3 / 4 (−1)
American society is generally intolerant toward official corruption, and the media are aggressive in reporting on such malfeasance. However, Supreme Court rulings in recent years have narrowed the legal definition of political corruption to include only a clear exchange of bribes for government action, making prosecutions more difficult.
In 2017, the Trump administration presented a number of new 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. This lack of separation raised concerns that the president was using his office for personal enrichment, or that his official decisions were influenced by his private business interests; pending lawsuits focused on a constitutional rule that forbids officeholders from receiving compensation from foreign governments, which Trump was accused of doing through his businesses. The president, his staff, and special interest groups all frequently visited and held events at Trump-branded properties in the United States during the year, generating publicity and income. Trump’s decision to appoint his daughter and son-in-law as presidential advisers prompted similar concerns about their own business interests, as well as accusations of nepotism.
The Trump administration also notably undercut conflict-of-interest restrictions for White House and executive branch appointees. Although the president issued an executive order 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 among appointees, and key officials including the national security adviser and the health and human services secretary were forced to resign over ethical violations; others, such as Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, faced ongoing scrutiny but remained in office.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 due to violations of basic ethical standards by the new administration, including the president’s failure to divest himself of his business empire, his hiring of family members as advisers, and his appointment of cabinet members and other senior officials despite apparent conflicts of interest.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 3 / 4 (−1)
The United States was the first country to adopt a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and the law is actively used by journalists, civil society groups, researchers, and members of the public. While government agencies’ performance in responding to FOIA requests has been problematic in recent years, a 2016 reform law was designed to ease disclosures.
A substantial number of auditing and investigative agencies function independently of political influence; such bodies are often spurred to action by the investigative work of journalists. However, the positions that remained vacant during the first year of the Trump administration included nearly a dozen inspector general posts, including at the Defense and Interior Departments.
In 2017, President Trump and administration officials 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 was also criticized for operating with greater opacity than its immediate predecessors, for example by making policy and other decisions without meaningful input from relevant agencies and their career civil servants, removing information on certain issues—such as climate change—from government websites, and denying public access to logs of White House visitors. After losing a lawsuit, the administration disclosed partially redacted visitor information for five agencies within the White House complex, but refused to release logs for the White House itself, which had been public since 2009. The president continued to refrain from releasing his personal tax records; aside from Trump, all but one major-party presidential nominee had released at least one year’s tax return since 1976, with one nominee releasing a full 30 years’ worth of returns.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 due to a reduction in government transparency, including an unusual pattern of false statements by the administration, the president’s failure to disclose basic information such as his personal tax data, policy and other decisions made without meaningful input from relevant agencies and officials, and the removal of information on issues of public interest from government websites for political or ideological reasons.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 53 / 60
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 16 / 16
D1. Are there free and independent media? 4 / 4
The United States has a free, diverse, and constitutionally protected press. While the print sector has been in economic decline for a number of years, the media environment retains a high degree of pluralism. Internet access is widespread and unrestricted, and news websites now constitute a major source of political news, along with cable television networks and talk-radio programs. News coverage has also grown more polarized, with particular outlets and their star commentators providing a consistently right- or left-leaning perspective.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump was frequently critical of the mainstream media, often using inflammatory language to accuse them of bias. As president, he maintained a drumbeat of attacks on individual journalists and established outlets, describing them as—among other things—the “enemy of the American people.” The administration took no concrete action to implement the president’s more specific threats, such as reducing legal protections for the press or revoking broadcast licenses, though some observers speculated that there were political motivations behind the Justice Department’s decision to block a merger involving the parent company of CNN, a news network that had drawn the president’s ire. The department said it was concerned about reduced competition and harm to consumers.
Despite increased hostility from political figures as well as their supporters on social media, the mainstream media—the principal national television networks and major newspapers—have devoted considerable resources to 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 allegations of collusion between the Trump presidential campaign and the Russian government, and regularly assessed the accuracy of the administration’s claims. In the context of this robust coverage and growing public concern about pressure on media freedom, digital subscriptions for leading newspapers have increased, and ratings for cable news networks have surged.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4 / 4
The United States has a long tradition of religious freedom. The constitution protects the free exercise of religion while barring any official endorsement of a religious faith, and there are no direct government subsidies to houses of worship. The debate over the role of religion in public life is ongoing, however, and religious groups often mobilize to influence political discussions on the diverse issues in which they take an interest. The Supreme Court regularly adjudicates difficult cases involving the relationship between church and state.
Hate crimes and assaults based on religion are generally prosecuted vigorously by law enforcement authorities. FBI statistics have shown sharp increases in hate crimes against Muslims in recent years, though crimes targeting Jews still accounted for the largest share of incidents related to religion.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4 / 4
The academic sphere has long featured a high level of intellectual freedom. While it remains quite robust by global standards, this liberty has come under some pressure in recent years. University students at a number of campuses have obstructed guest speakers whose views they find objectionable by shouting them down or holding strident protests. 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, and other sensitive issues. University faculty have also 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.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4 / 4
Americans generally enjoy open and free private discussion, including on the internet. Civil libertarians, many lawmakers, and other observers have pointed to the real and potential effects of National Security Agency (NSA) data collection and other forms of government monitoring on the rights of U.S. citizens. However, the USA Freedom Act of 2015 banned the bulk collection of citizens’ telephone and internet records, and in 2016 the FBI abandoned a controversial attempt to force the technology firm Apple to break through its own security features—designed to protect user communications—as part of a terrorism investigation. A broader debate about possible restrictions on encryption technology remains unresolved. Ongoing concerns about state surveillance have been partly displaced by new attention on foreign hacking as well as user intimidation on social media.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 10 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 3 / 4
In general, officials respect the right to public assembly. Demonstrations against government policies are frequently held in Washington, New York, and other major cities. 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 directed at meetings of international institutions, political party conventions, or targets in the financial sector. In 2017, some local police departments continued to face allegations of excessive force against demonstrators protesting fatal police shootings of black suspects, particularly in and around St. Louis, Missouri, where a federal judge issued an injunction restraining police crowd-control tactics in November. Separately, authorities in Washington, DC, were criticized for bringing harsh criminal charges against dozens of people who were arrested during January protests against Trump’s inauguration; prosecutors argued that many defendants were culpable for rioting and vandalism committed by a larger group even if there was no evidence of their individual participation in those acts.
In the year’s most dramatic incident, an August rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, resulted in violent clashes with counterprotesters. One woman was killed when a participant in the white supremacist rally drove his car into a group of counterprotesters. An investigation found that local police were ill-prepared for the event and failed to prevent confrontations between the two groups. President Trump sparked further controversy when he argued that “both sides” bore responsibility for the violence and sympathized with the white supremacist groups’ pretext for holding the rally: preventing the removal of statues depicting commanders who fought for the proslavery Confederacy during the Civil War.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 4 / 4
U.S. laws and practices give wide freedom to nongovernmental organizations and activists to pursue their civic or policy agendas. Organizations committed to the protection of civil liberties, immigrants’ rights, equality for women and minority groups, and freedom of speech have become more active since Trump’s election; they frequently mounted campaigns and filed lawsuits during 2017 to block actions by the administration that they considered harmful.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 3 / 4
Federal law guarantees trade unions the right to organize and engage in collective bargaining. The right to strike is also guaranteed. Over the years, however, the strength of organized labor has declined, and just 6.4 percent of the private-sector workforce were represented by unions in 2016. While public-sector unions have higher rates of membership, with 34.4 percent, they have come under pressure from officials concerned about the cost of compensation and pensions to states and municipalities. The overall unionization rate in the United States is 10.7 percent. The country’s labor code and decisions by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) during Republican presidencies have been regarded as impediments to organizing efforts. Although the board was sympathetic to unionization during Barack Obama’s presidency, its membership is now dominated by Republican appointees who have begun to reverse Obama-era rulings. Union organizing is also hampered by strong resistance from private employers. In 2017, Kentucky and Missouri became the 27th and 28th states to adopt “right-to-work” legislation, which weakens unions by allowing workers who benefit from union bargaining efforts to opt out of paying union dues or fees.
F. RULE OF LAW: 12 / 16
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 3 / 4
The American judiciary is largely independent, though politicization is a growing concern for a variety of reasons. The courts regularly demonstrated their autonomy during 2017, for instance by repeatedly blocking or limiting executive orders issued by the Trump administration. However, Trump in some cases responded by verbally attacking the judges responsible in strikingly personal terms. The president also issued a pardon for Joe Arpaio, a well-known former Arizona sheriff who had been convicted of contempt of court for defying a judge’s order to cease racially discriminatory enforcement tactics affecting the Latino population.
The pace and quality of judicial appointments under Trump also raised questions about politicization. Republican leaders in the Senate had stalled many federal judicial nominations in the final years of the Obama administration, resulting in an unusually large number of vacancies at the beginning of 2017. The most prominent was a seat on the Supreme Court that the Senate had held open during 2016 by refusing to hold hearings on Obama’s nominee. In April, the Senate confirmed Trump’s nominee for the position, Neil Gorsuch, but only after the Republican leadership changed Senate rules that had required a supermajority to end debate on Supreme Court nominations, allowing the confirmation to proceed with a simple-majority vote. By year’s end, Trump had filled 12 vacancies on federal appellate courts as well, a record for the modern era that far exceeded the three and six appellate judges appointed by Obama and former president George W. Bush in their first years, respectively. A series of nominees for federal district judgeships withdrew in December after senators, civil society groups, and the media pointed to their lack of qualifications or extreme views, suggesting that the administration’s vetting process was rushed or inadequate.
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.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 3 / 4
While the United States has a strong rule-of-law tradition, the criminal justice system’s treatment of minority groups has long been a problem. Black and Latino inmates account for a disproportionately large percentage of the prison population. Civil liberties organizations and other groups have also argued more broadly that there are too many Americans in prison, that prison sentences are often excessive, that too many prisoners are relegated to solitary confinement or other maximum-security arrangements, and that too many people are incarcerated for minor drug offenses. Although the U.S. incarceration rate has declined somewhat in recent years, it remains easily one of the highest in the world.
A left-right political coalition calling for reforms to address mass incarceration emerged in recent years, but it has apparently fallen apart under the Trump presidency. In May 2017, Attorney General Sessions issued a directive ordering federal prosecutors to seek the most serious charges and lengthiest sentences available, including mandatory-minimum prison terms, in drug and other cases. This reversed an Obama administration policy that discouraged prosecutors from charging certain categories of defendants, including nonviolent drug offenders, with crimes that could lead to excessively long prison sentences.
Many critics of the incarceration problem point to abuses and deficiencies at other stages of the legal process. 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 criminal defendants; 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. In December 2017, Sessions retracted a 2016 Justice Department document that had set constitutional guidelines to help state and local authorities reform abusive practices regarding fees and fines.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 3 / 4
Mass shootings and Islamist terrorist attacks remained a concern during 2017, as did high murder rates in certain cities. However, the overall U.S. homicide rate, 5.4 per 100,000 inhabitants as of 2016, is relatively low by regional and historical standards, and crime rates appeared to be falling in most large cities in 2017, in keeping with a long-term trend of declines since the 1990s. The year’s deadliest shooting incident occurred in October, when a 64-year-old habitual gambler opened fire on a crowd in Las Vegas, Nevada, killing 58 people; his motive was unknown. In November, 24 people were killed while attending church in a small Texas community by a man with a history of violence and mental illness. In the most lethal attack linked to Islamist terrorism during 2017, an immigrant from Uzbekistan killed eight people with a rental truck in New York City in October, having declared allegiance to the Islamic State militant group in a note.
The increased policy focus on the criminal justice system in recent years has coincided with a series of widely publicized incidents in which police actions led to the deaths of suspects, many of whom belonged to racial and ethnic minorities. Most high-profile cases involved black civilians, though Native Americans are reportedly killed by police at a higher rate than any other group. A number of these confrontations have been captured on video, appearing to show unjustified use of force by the officers in question. When officers involved in fatal shootings have been brought to trial, however, the cases have typically ended in acquittals—a pattern that continued in 2017. Under President Obama, the Justice Department imposed changes in policing practices on a number of municipalities, but the Trump administration reversed this policy, with Sessions ordering a review of all such interventions on the grounds that they could harm police morale and safety and detract from crime-fighting responsibilities. Among other ongoing criminal justice concerns, the incidence of violence and rape in U.S. prisons and jails remains a serious problem.
Use of the death penalty has declined significantly in recent years. There were 23 executions, in eight states, in 2017—up from 20 in 2016 but down from a peak of 98 in 1999. The death penalty has been formally abolished by 19 states; in another 16 states where it remains on the books, executions have not been carried out for the past five years or more. The most recent federal execution was in 2003. Of particular importance in this trend have been the exoneration of some death-row inmates based on new DNA testing, states’ inability to obtain chemicals used in lethal injections due to objections from producers, and legal challenges to the constitutionality of the prevailing methods of lethal injection. The 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.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 3 / 4
The United States is one of the world’s most racially and ethnically diverse societies. In recent years, residents and citizens of Latin American ancestry have replaced black Americans as the largest minority group, and the majority held by the non-Latino white population has declined. 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 in various social indicators and overall economic standing. For example, although women constitute almost half of the U.S. workforce and are well represented in many professions, the average compensation for female workers is roughly 80 percent of that for male workers. A popular social media campaign in late 2017 encouraged victims of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace—mainly women—to speak out about their experiences. The phenomenon led to the sudden downfall of many powerful men in the worlds of politics, business, news, and entertainment, but it also underscored the scale of the problem in American society.
Federal antidiscrimination legislation does not explicitly include LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people as a protected class, though many states have enacted such protections. The government bans discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in federal employment and among federal contractors. The Trump administration reversed a 2016 guidance document that had directed schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms and other facilities matching their gender identity, and argued that existing legal protections against sex discrimination did not cover sexual orientation or gender identity, as some courts and government agencies have claimed. In July 2017, Trump announced a ban on transgender people serving in the military, but federal courts blocked the move from taking effect in response to lawsuits, which were ongoing at year’s end.
The Trump administration attempted to change U.S. immigration policy on a number of fronts. Beginning in January 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 December, the Supreme Court allowed the third version to take effect as legal challenges continued. It barred entry to most citizens of Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and Chad, as well as most citizens of North Korea and some officials from Venezuela. The administration also implemented stringent new refugee policies that resulted in the admission of far fewer refugees, and a smaller proportion of Muslim refugees, than before, and proposed new rules that would sharply reduce legal immigration. The administration’s drive to deport undocumented immigrants had mixed results. By the end of the fiscal year in late September, total deportations had declined due to the continuation of a longer-term drop in apprehensions at the border, but deportations of those arrested within the country rose sharply, as the administration rescinded Obama-era enforcement priorities that focused on certain categories of undocumented immigrants, such as those with felony convictions. In September, Trump announced that in six months he would end an Obama policy protecting undocumented immigrants who entered the country as children from deportation, asking Congress to resolve the problem through legislation.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 15 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 4 / 4
There are no significant restrictions on freedom of movement within the United States, and residents are generally free to travel abroad without undue obstacles.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 4 / 4
Property rights are widely respected in the United States. The legal and political environment are supportive of entrepreneurial activity and business ownership, which has contributed to the relatively successful integration of immigrants into American society.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 4 / 4
Individuals generally enjoy equal rights in divorce and custody proceedings, and there are no undue restrictions on choice of marriage partner, particularly after a 2015 Supreme Court ruling that all states must allow same-sex marriage. The practice had already become legal in most states through court decisions, legislative action, or referendums. Rape and domestic violence remain serious problems, and 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 protecting those rights, and some have survived judicial scrutiny, adding to state-by-state variation in access.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 3 / 4
The “American dream”—the notion of a fair society in which hard work will bring economic and social advancement, regardless of the circumstances of one’s birth—is a core part of the country’s identity, and voters tend to favor government policies that enhance equality of opportunity. In recent decades, however, studies have shown a widening inequality in wealth and a narrowing of access to upward mobility. One key aspect of inequality is the growing economic 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 have fallen over time as manufacturing and other positions are lost to automation and foreign competition, and successive governments have failed to improve access to education and training in response. Many states and municipalities have enacted substantial hikes in the minimum wage, but workers face a variety of obstacles to stable and remunerative employment, including inadequate public transportation, high costs of living in economically dynamic regions, and a preference among many companies for fragmented and unpredictable shift work. Employment and income statistics have slowly improved amid general economic growth in recent years, but the gains are clustered disproportionately at the highest income levels.