Freedom in the World
You are here
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
George W. Bush was certified as the forty-third president of the United States after one of the closest and most controversial elections in the country’s history. Bush, the nominee of the Republican Party and a son of former President George Bush, actually received slightly fewer popular votes than his Democratic rival, Vice President Al Gore. Gore received 50,996,064 votes, or 48.39 percent of the total, to Bush’s 50,456,167 votes, or 47.88 percent. A third candidate, Ralph Nader, representing the environmentally oriented Green Party, received slightly less than 3 percent. In the end, however, Bush was declared the winner because he won a majority of votes in the Electoral College, an institution that is unique to the U. S. system of federalism. Bush prevailed in the Electoral College by the razor-thin margin of 271 to 266.
Almost as important as the final result was the controversy over the election results in the state of Florida. Given the narrow margin of the national results, Florida’s electoral votes were essential to determining the contest’s outcome. On election night, it appeared that Bush had won the state by fewer than 1,000 votes. The Florida results, however, were immediately challenged by the Gore campaign, which charged that the ballots of thousands of likely Gore voters had not been counted. Gore demanded that votes be recounted by hand in certain heavily Democratic counties; the Bush forces argued that a selective recount was unfair. Ultimately, it took five weeks, marked by numerous court challenges, until Bush was declared the winner, after the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled by a five-to-four margin against a hand recount.
The U.S. federal government has three branches, executive, legislative, and judicial. In addition, the American federal system gives substantial powers to state and local governments and the citizenry.
The president and vice president are elected by popular vote to four-year terms. The technical device for the election of a president is the Electoral College. The voters in each state and Washington, D.C., cast their ballots for a slate of electors pledged to a specific candidate. The electors pledged to the candidate who received the most popular go on to vote for their candidate in the Electoral College.
The U.S. Congress is bicameral. There are 435 members of the House of Representatives as well as non-voting members from Washington, D.C., and several related territories. Each state is guaranteed at least one representative in the House. The rest are apportioned on the basis of population. In the 2000 elections, Republicans continued their domination of the House by winning 221 seats to 212 for the Democrats, with 2 independent. This result represented a net gain of 2 seats for the Democrats. The 100-member Senate has two members from each state, regardless of population. Each senator serves a six-year term. In the 2000 election, Republicans and Democrats each won 50 Senate seats. In such a situation, the Republicans will maintain effective control of the Senate, as the Vice President, in this case Republican Dick Cheney, is empowered to cast a ballot to break tie votes.
Americans can change their government democratically. Voter turnout has been relatively low in recent years; in the 2000 presidential elections, voter turnout stood at 51.2 percent of the voting-age population, an increase of more than two percent from the 1996 presidential contest, but considerably lower than that of 1960, when voter participation stood at more than 60 percent. Elections are competitive, but congressional incumbents win in a majority of cases. In recent years, the cost of political campaigns has risen substantially. Much of a candidate’s time is consumed with fund-raising, and while Congress has periodically passed laws imposing limitations on political contributions, candidates have found ways to circumvent the spirit of the laws and court decisions have limited the laws’ effectiveness. Some critics have argued that generous contributions by business, labor unions, and other “special interests” have made it practically impossible for candidates to dislodge incumbents. Recent elections, however, have tended to weaken the thrust of that argument. In the 1994 midterm election, Republican challengers ousted a substantial number of Democratic incumbents, and in the 1998 elections, Democratic challengers defeated a significant number of sitting Republicans.
The American political system is overwhelmingly dominated by the two major parties. Various insurgent parties of the Left and Right have issued periodic challenges through the years, with little success. In 2000, neither of the two principal small-party presidential candidates, Ralph Nader of the Green Party and Pat Buchanan of the Reform Party, fared well, though Nader's vote total contributed to Bush’s triumph by siphoning support from Gore. In 1998, Jesse Ventura, a former professional wrestler, was elected governor of Minnesota on the Reform Party line.
The two major parties choose their presidential candidates through a lengthy and expensive process during the winter and spring of election years. Party members vote for their preferred candidates either in primary elections or in local meetings of party members, called caucuses. The nominating process has been criticized for its cost and length, and for the sometimes undue influence of unrepresentative minority factions. Defenders of the system claim that allowing rank-and-file party members to participate in the nominating process is more democratic than the system in countries where a small group of party leaders selects the nominee. In 2000, George Bush faced a strong challenge within the Republican Party from Senator John McCain, while Gore was forced to beat back an impressive challenge by former Senator Bill Bradley.
A recent trend has been the increased use of initiatives and referenda to determine issues of public policy. Some states, California most notably, permit public initiatives on almost any issue of public concern; in other states, strict limits are placed on the practice. In recent years, voters in various states have decided on such issues as the imposition of restrictions on illegal immigrants, the legality of assisted suicide, the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, affirmative action for women and minorities, and casino gambling.
The American media are free and competitive. Some observers have expressed concern over the trend towards the ownership of the largest and most influential newspapers, magazines, and television networks by large corporate conglomerates. Another worrying trend is the enhanced role of television, where news is covered in a superficial and sensationalistic way, at the expense of newspapers. On the other hand, some point to the explosion of new, specialized journals as well as the Internet and public affairs programming on cable television in arguing that Americans have suffered no loss of alternative viewpoints or in-depth coverage of public issues.
Public and private discussion is very open in the United States. In recent years, concern has been expressed over the adoption by many universities of restrictive codes designed to prohibit speech that is deemed insulting to women, racial minorities, and homosexuals. Several of these codes have ben struck down by the courts.
The U. S. court system has long been a subject of controversy. Some conservative critics accuse judges of being overly “activist” by issuing rulings on issues which, critics contend, should be resolved through the legislative process. Ironically, the Supreme Court’s decision to halt the recount of the presidential vote in Florida was attacked by many liberals as an act of overzealous judicial activism. More recently, the courts have been at the center of controversial lawsuits that seek millions of dollars in damages from tobacco firms and handgun manufacturers. Some fear that such actions could establish a trend towards social regulation through lawsuit rather than by acts of Congress or state legislatures.
The past year has seen the continuation of a trend towards the decrease in crime throughout the country. Instances of violent crime are at their lowest level in years, especially in major cities like New York. The reason for the decrease is a source of debate, though some credit is given new strategies of zero-tolerance law enforcement adopted in a number of cities. These tactics, in turn, have elicited the criticism of civil liberties organizations, which claim that police abuse of civilians is on the increase. A controversy has recently arisen over what is called racial profiling, a policing tactic in which the members of racial minorities are singled out for questioning during investigations. The federal Justice Department has already launched investigations of racial profiling in several parts of the country, including the state of New Jersey, where officials have admitted that racial profiling was practiced.
The U. S. has freedom of association. Trade unions are free, but have been in decline for some years and today represent the lowest percentage of American workers in the postwar period.
The American economy enjoyed a relatively strong year in 2000, with an official unemployment rate under four percent and one of the world’s lowest rates of inflation. More so than in most other countries, the U.S. economy is well integrated into the world economy. The Clinton administration strongly supported free trade and the further integration of the American economy into the world trading system. Recently, the United States has been the scene of several major protests directed at the key institutions of the global economy, including the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund.
There is religious freedom in America. In 2000, a milestone was established when a Jew, Joseph Lieberman, was nominated for vice president by the Democratic Party. This was the first time that either of the major parties had nominated a Jewish candidate for either president or vice president. A persisting controversy involves the separation of church and state, in particular regarding whether federal money can be given to organizations or projects sponsored by religious groups. Although the courts have generally ruled in favor of strict separation of church and state, the Supreme Court in 1998 let stand a lower court decision which allowed students who attended church-sponsored schools in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to receive government tuition assistance.
Race relations remained one of America’s most serious problems. African-Americans remain disproportionately poor, less likely to complete high school or college, more likely to have out-of-wedlock births, and more likely to suffer major health problems than other groups. Although a substantial degree of integration has been achieved in a number of American institutions, residential segregation is still high as is the tendency of blacks and Hispanics to predominate in the public schools of major cities. Blacks did, however, benefit from the high growth and low unemployment that characterized the economy in the last several years.
One sign of racial division was the presidential election result, where blacks gave an estimated 92 percent of their votes to Democrat Al Gore. A number of prominent black leaders, most notably the Rev. Jesse Jackson, protested the decision of the Supreme Court to stop the hand counting of Florida ballots and asserted that thousands of black voters in Florida had been disenfranchised.
Affirmative action programs remained a source of friction. In recent years, affirmative action plans that give advantages to minority groups or women have suffered reversals through referenda and court decisions. As an alternative to traditional affirmative action plans, two states, Florida and Texas, have adopted schemes to give a specified percentage of top high school graduates automatic admission to state universities. Some predict that such plans may be expanded in the future in an attempt to replace policies based solely on race and gender.
America continued to permit high levels of legal immigration. At the same time, the U.S. has beefed up its patrols at the border with Mexico in an attempt to stem the flood of illegal immigrants. One result has been an increased number of clashes between the border patrol and illegal immigrants. The U.S. has also adopted stricter criteria for the approval of political asylum, and some have raised concerns over the incarceration of some asylum seekers in prisons with regular criminals.
American women have made significant gains in recent years, and have benefited from affirmative action laws, anti discrimination measures, and judicial decisions that have penalized corporations millions of dollars in discrimination cases.
American Indians continued to suffer disproportionately from poverty and social problems such as alcoholism. In recent years, some Indian reservations have experienced some economic progress through the development of gambling casinos on Indian property. However, many have expressed doubts that casino gambling will lead to broad economic development for the majority of impoverished Indians.