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Freedom in the World

United States

United States

Freedom in the World 2005

2005 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
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In a year of intensified controversy over the domestic and international implications of the war in Iraq and the war on terror, the dominating political event of 2004 was the election of President George W. Bush to a second term. Bush won by a 3 percent margin, despite a series of investigations that called into question the administration's rationale for invading Iraq and criticized aspects of its conduct in the war on terror. There were, in addition, disturbing revelations of torture and prisoner abuse in U.S.-run facilities in Iraq and allegations of prisoner abuse at the U.S.-maintained detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The United States of America was founded in 1776 during a revolution against British colonial rule. The current system of government began functioning in 1789, following the ratification of the country's constitution. Because the founders of the United States distrusted concentrated government power, they set up a system in which the federal government has three competing centers of power - executive, legislative, and judicial branches - and they left many powers with the state governments and the citizenry.

In 2000, George W. Bush of the Republican Party was certified as the forty-third president of the United States following one of the closest and most controversial elections in the country's history. Despite having lost the popular vote to the Democratic nominee, former vice president Al Gore, by 47.88 percent to 48.39 percent, Bush won the Electoral College - which under the U.S. system determines the presidential election - by a narrow margin of 271 to 266. A third candidate, Ralph Nader, representing the environmentally oriented Green Party, received slightly less than 3 percent of the popular vote. An even greater source of controversy during the election was the outcome of the vote in the state of Florida, which was ultimately decided in Bush's favor by a 5-4 vote of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Bush achieved reelection in 2004 after one of the country's most bitterly contested and polarized presidential campaigns. The Democratic Party nominee, Senator John Kerry, a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, accused the president of having misled the country about the reasons for launching the war in Iraq in 2003 and asserted that the Bush administration was mishandling the postwar occupation, which had claimed the lives of 1,000 U.S. troops. Nevertheless, voters whose principal motivation was national security tended to favor Bush, as did those who were influenced by what came to be known as "moral values," an elastic concept that, in the context of the 2004 election, referred principally to a stance against abortion, gay marriage, and the perceived exclusion of religion from the public sphere.

Bush and his running mate, Vice President Dick Cheney, gained 51 percent of the national vote to 48 percent for Kerry and his running mate, Senator John Edwards. According to the Electoral College, Bush won with 286 electoral votes to Kerry's 252. The clear-cut nature of the outcome helped dispel some of the cloud that hung over the 2000 presidential contest. In contrast, the 2004 election was conducted without major controversy, although concerns lingered regarding the Ohio vote, and some voting districts reported problems with long lines on election day and malfunctioning equipment. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe sent an observer mission to the United States to monitor the elections and issued a report that polling procedures adhered to international standards.

The 2004 contest was the first conducted since the adoption of legislation designed to curb the influence of financial contributions in presidential politics. However, the election was the most expensive in U.S. history, with tens of millions spent by the campaigns, parties, and advocacy groups on television advertising alone. Both parties conducted extensive drives to get their voters to the polls, with the result that the turnout figure, at 58 percent, was the highest since 1968.

In addition to winning the presidency, the Republican Party increased its majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate. In the Senate, the Republicans added four members to their majority; they now control the 100-seat chamber by a 55-44 margin, with 1 independent. In the House, the Republicans enhanced their majority by 3; they now hold 232 seats, compared with the Democrats' 202. One seat is held by an independent who usually votes with the Democrats.

Aside from the election, the United States was mainly preoccupied with the conflict in Iraq, where insurgents operating primarily in the "Sunni triangle" continued to kill U.S. troops, foreign workers, and Iraqi security officials and civilians. In April, news media outlets published reports that revealed that U.S. troops were responsible for acts of abuse, torture, and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. The revelations were accompanied by shocking photographs, taken by prison guards, which showed prisoners in physically and sexually humiliating positions. Several of the guards responsible for the abuse were subsequently charged and placed before court-martial hearings. There were also charges of abuse of prisoners detained during the 2001 conflict in Afghanistan and interned at a U.S.-controlled facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The prisoner abuse scandals occurred in the context of a debate over whether the United States should strictly adhere to the Geneva Convention in its treatment of prisoners captured in the course of the war on terror. A series of memorandums from the White House and the Defense Department argued that the Geneva accords need not be applied in cases involving terrorists or enemy combatants. Critics contended that such arguments contributed to an environment in which lower-level officials believed they had sanction to apply torture to prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo.

Another controversy to emerge involved what were called "ghost prisoners" - alleged terrorists detained in various parts of the world and held in unspecified locations outside any judicial system or congressional oversight. This issue also reflected differences between the administration - which claims that existing laws and international covenants are inadequate instruments in cases of terrorism - and civil libertarians, who contend that the administration is routinely violating American and international law. The administration has also drawn fire for its policy of "renditions," in which foreign nationals accused of involvement in terrorism are sent to foreign countries that have a reputation for tolerating torture of prisoners.

In addition to the furor over the treatment of prisoners, the Bush administration faced other problems related to its domestic conduct of the war on terrorism. The USA Patriot Act, a measure adopted in the wake of the terrorist assaults on the United States on September 11, 2001, continued to be a source of controversy. Legislation to modify the law was introduced in Congress, and federal courts rolled back some of its provisions. The Supreme Court and lower federal courts also issued rulings asserting jurisdiction over prisoners held at Guantanamo and elsewhere, rejecting the administration's claim that the prisoners were "enemy combatants" rather than prisoners of war subject to the dictates of international law.

In two noteworthy cases, the administration asserted that Jose Padilla and Yasser Hamdi, both of whom had claims to U.S. citizenship, were enemy combatants and were thus not entitled to normal constitutional protections. Both Padilla and Hamdi were incarcerated without formal charges or access to attorneys. After the Supreme Court issued a ruling that asserted that U.S. citizens held in military custody had the right to have their cases heard by an independent authority, Hamdi was released and left the United States for Saudi Arabia.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens of the United States can change their government democratically. The United States has a bicameral legislature. The upper chamber, the Senate, consists of 100 members - two from each of the 50 states. Senators are elected to six-year terms. The lower chamber, the House of Representatives, consists of 435 members elected for two-year terms. Members of this chamber are elected directly by voters in the districts they represent. The president and vice-president are elected for four-year terms. By constitutional provision, the president is limited to two terms in office.

In the U.S. federal political system, a great deal of government responsibility devolves to the 50 individual states. Most law enforcement matters are dealt with at the state level, as is education, and states have been given wide powers to raise revenues through various forms of taxation. Some states give citizens wide powers to influence legislation through institutions of direct democracy, such as referenda on wide-ranging issues like gay marriage, tax rates, and immigrant rights. .

In electing a president, the United States uses a unique system that combines a popular vote and the ballots cast by an electoral college. The Electoral College apportions votes to each state on the basis of population and congressional representation. The electors in a particular state then usually cast all their ballots for the candidate who won the popular vote in their state, no matter what the margin. Two states, Maine and Nebraska, have chosen to apportion their electoral votes between the candidates according to the percentage of the state's votes each receives, and other states are considering similar changes. The Electoral College vote determines the winner of the election. Under this system, it is possible for a candidate to win the presidency even though an opposing candidate may have won a greater number of popular votes nationwide. In 2000, this system led to the anomalous situation in which the winning candidate, George W. Bush, actually received fewer popular votes than his main opponent, Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic nominee.

Presidential election campaigns in the United States are long and expensive. The various candidates for the Democratic nomination began campaign activities in early 2003, nearly two years before the actual polling day. In 2001, Congress passed a law, the McCain-Feingold bill, designed to limit the impact of moneyed interests on presidential politics. Nevertheless, the two parties and the constituency and interest groups that support them have drawn on various methods to circumvent the spirit of the legislation, and the 2004 race was the most expensive ever, with a total expenditure of $1.2 billion, much of which was spent by advocacy groups rather than by the parties themselves.

The United States has an intensely competitive political system dominated by two major parties, the Republicans and the Democrats. The U.S. electoral system is based on a "first past the post," or majoritarian, system for legislative seats, which tends to discourage a multiplicity of parties. In addition, the U.S. system is characterized by legal and other hurdles that act to discourage the rise of new, independent parties. Yet, on occasion, candidates representing third parties or particular causes have had a significant impact on presidential politics. In 2004, however, the most prominent third-party candidate, Ralph Nader, gained approximately 1 percent of the national vote.

A serious problem for American democracy is the widespread practice of drawing districts for the House of Representatives and for state legislatures that are designed to guarantee the election of a particular party or to protect incumbent legislators, whatever their party. This practice, known as "gerrymandering," has been a part of the American system since its inception. Recently, however, sophisticated computer techniques have strengthened the ability of the dominant party in a state to carve out districts that considerably limit the competitive nature of legislative elections. In the 2004 election for the House of Representatives, only five incumbents were defeated and in only 35 races did the winner receive 55 percent or less of the total vote.

The federal government has a high degree of transparency. A substantial number of auditing and investigative agencies function independently of party influence or the influence of incumbent officials. The press is generally vigorous in covering stories of official corruption, as it was in the case of the governors of the states of New Jersey and Connecticut, both of whom were forced to resign as a result of allegations of corruption. The efforts of these entities are reinforced by a number of private watchdog organizations that focus on such disparate issues as political campaign spending, open government, the impact of business lobbying on the legislative process, and the defense budget. The press also plays a major role in investigating and publicizing allegations of improprieties by officials at all levels. Federal agencies regularly place information relevant to their mandate on Web sites to broaden public access. The United States also has in place strict measures to reduce the level of corruption in the private sector. The most recent corporate governance legislation, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, was enacted after a series of scandals involving inflated earnings reports by major corporations.

The United States has a free, diverse, and constitutionally protected press. In recent years, a debate has arisen over the impact of media consolidation, accomplished through the purchase of large press entities - television networks, newspapers, and weekly magazines - by giant corporations with little or no previous interest in journalism. During 2004, controversy erupted over the attempts by federal prosecutors to compel journalists to divulge the names of confidential sources. In all, eight journalists were threatened with contempt-of-court citations. In the most noteworthy case, a special prosecutor demanded that reporters reveal the identity of administration officials who might have leaked the fact that the wife of Ambassador Joseph Wilson, a critic of the administration's Iraq policies, was an undercover employee of the CIA. Several reporters were threatened with imprisonment by a federal judge involved in the case. Internet access is widespread, and Internet journalists and "bloggers" have become an increasingly important force in political coverage and commentary.

The United States has a long tradition of religious freedom. Adherents of practically every major religious denomination, as well as many smaller groupings, can be found throughout the country, and religious belief and religious service attendance is high. There is an ongoing debate over the role of religion in public life, often centered on the question of whether government subsidies to schools sponsored by religious denominations meet constitutional standards. Issues such as gay marriage and so-called partial-birth abortion and even the place of the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance are heavily loaded with religious overtones and serve to mobilize evangelical Christians - and their political counterparts - to engage in the political process.

Although a contentious debate has emerged over the university's role in society, academic life is notable for a healthy level of intellectual freedom. In 2004, academics and students participated in vigorous debates over public policy issues, especially the war in Iraq, the global economy, and U.S. policy towards Israel and Palestine. Organizations opposed to Israel's treatment of the Palestinians have organized campaigns on a number of campuses to encourage university administrations to withdraw investments from corporations doing business in Israel. A number of the country's prestigious universities have adopted policies of "political correctness" intended to combat harassment against traditionally marginalized groups. However, such policies are controversial as they may restrict the expression of opinions, usually voiced by political conservatives, that diverge from mainstream campus views.

Private discussion and public debate are vigorous. In general, the right to public protest is observed by public officials. A controversy emerged during the 2004 Republican Party national convention, held in New York City, over restrictions placed on the location and timing of public protests and over what civil libertarians called overly aggressive police tactics aimed at demonstrators. Serious restrictions were also placed on protest groups at the Democratic Party national convention in Boston. Likewise, during the election campaign period, the Bush campaign was criticized for segregating Kerry supporters in attendance at rallies from the rest of the assemblage or excluding them altogether.

Trade unions by law are guaranteed the right to organize workers and engage in collective bargaining with employers. The right to strike is also guaranteed. Over the years, however, the strength of organized labor has declined, to the point where less than 9 percent of the private workforce is represented by unions, one of the lowest figures among stable, economically advanced democracies. An important factor in labor's decline is the country's labor code, which is regarded as an impediment to organizing efforts. Union organizing efforts are also impeded by strong resistance from employers and the federal government's failure to strictly enforce the law against labor code violators. Several attempts to modify core labor laws have been defeated in Congress over the years. At the same time, trade unions remain an important force in political life. In recent years, unions have become more directly involved in Democratic Party affairs, and unions served as a crucial source of campaign funds and volunteer workers for the Democrats in the 2004 presidential election.

Judicial independence is respected, though the influence of the court system has become a source of sometimes bitter contention over the years, with critics claiming that judicial authority has expanded into areas of governance that are best left to the legislative branch. Despite a strong rule-of-law tradition, a number of controversies have emerged over the treatment of poor and especially minority defendants in criminal law cases. African Americans and Hispanics constitute a large portion of defendants in criminal cases involving murder, rape, assault, and robbery. The police in a number of large cities have been accused of using unnecessary force in dealings with black and Hispanic criminal suspects, although the number and intensity of complaints have declined in the past few years, and most urban police departments mandate some form of human rights training for new officers.

Civil liberty and other groups have advanced a broad critique of the criminal justice system, contending that there are too many Americans (especially minority group Americans) in prison, that prison sentences are often excessive, and that too many people are prosecuted for minor drug offenses. There are movements in several states towards shorter prison sentences and earlier releases for convicted felons. Nevertheless, the most recent survey showed that more than 2.2 million Americans - 44 percent of whom were African American - were in federal, state, or local prisons. Concern has also been raised about prison conditions, especially the disturbing levels of violence and rape and the reportedly inadequate medical attention for prisoners with mental illness. The United States has the highest rate of legal executions in the democratic world. As evidence of a growing controversy over the death penalty, several states have announced a moratorium on capital punishment while studies are undertaken on the death penalty's fairness. During 2003, 144 persons were sentenced to death in federal and state courts, the lowest figure in 30 years.

Civil libertarians and Arab American organizations have expressed concerns that the Justice Department, as part of its offensive against domestic terror, has engaged in the "racial profiling" of men who have come to the United States from countries in the Middle East or South Asia. In response, Justice Department officials contend that a measure of profiling is essential in the war against terror given the Middle Eastern or South Asian origins of the majority of those involved in terrorist plots against the United States. In its most recent annual report, the Federal Bureau of Investigation listed 149 instances of hate crimes against Arab Americans, which is a reduction from the level of complaints immediately following September 11, 2001.

Citizens of the United States enjoy a high level of personal autonomy. The right to own property is protected by law and is a jealously guarded part of the American "way of life," and business entrepreneurship is encouraged as a matter of government policy.

The United States is one of the world's most racially and ethnically diverse societies. In recent years, the country's population dynamics have shifted in important ways, as Americans of Latin American ancestry have replaced African Americans as the leading minority group and the percentage of whites in the population has declined somewhat. A complex variety of policies and programs are designed to protect the rights of minorities, including laws to prevent discrimination on the job, affirmative action plans for university admissions, quotas to guarantee representation in the internal affairs of some political parties, and policies to ensure that minorities are not treated unfairly in the apportionment of government-assistance efforts. African Americans, however, continue to lag in economic standing, education, and other social indicators. Black Americans are more likely to live in poverty, less likely to own businesses, less likely to have gained a university degree, and more likely to have served time in prison than members of other groups, including many recent immigrant groups.

The United States has a long history of liberal immigration policies. In recent years, there has been some debate over the degree to which new immigrants are assimilating into American society. Most observers, however, believe that the country has struck a balance that both encourages assimilation and permits new immigrants to maintain certain religious or cultural customs. The United States has in recent years not faced the kind of controversy that has erupted in other countries over the wearing of the hijab (headscarf) by Muslim girls in public schools or women in public buildings.

The United States government has been less successful in devising a policy for dealing with undocumented immigrants, several million of whom live and work in the country at any one time. Many immigrants' rights advocates assert that the country would not be able to meet labor needs if illegal immigration were curbed. At the beginning of his first presidential administration, Bush indicated he was prepared to reach an agreement with Mexico to establish policies to regulate the flow of migrant workers who cross the border into the United States. After the events of September 11, 2001, negotiations with Mexico were dropped, and the administration adopted a tougher stance towards undocumented workers and visitors whose visas have expired. In 2004, the administration introduced legislation that would grant amnesty to many undocumented workers and establish a guest-worker program aimed primarily at immigrants from Mexico.

The Bush administration has drawn particular criticism for policies that, civil libertarians contend, discriminate against immigrants and visa applicants from countries in the Middle East and South Asia. These measures subject those from predominantly Muslim countries to special registration requirements, interviews by law enforcement officials, and lengthy visa application procedures. Concern has also been expressed about the federal government's policy of holding asylum seekers in detention facilities while their applications are being assessed. At the same time, the United States has not reduced the number of legal immigrants allowed into the country, which is high by global standards.

A major issue in 2004 was the right of homosexuals to marry. Referendums to define marriage as between a man and a woman, thus denying marriage rights to gay couples, were adopted in 11 states.

Women have made important strides towards equality over the past several decades. Women are heavily represented in the law, medicine, and journalism, and predominate in the university programs that train students for these professions. Although the average compensation of female workers is 80 percent of that for male workers, women with recent university degrees have effectively attained parity with men. Nonetheless, there remain many female-headed families that live in conditions of poverty.