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Freedom in the World

United States

United States

Freedom in the World 2006

2006 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
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Political Rights
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Political developments in the United States in 2005 were dominated by controversy over nominations for two vacant positions on the Supreme Court, the country's highest judicial body; angry debates over the apparent ineffectiveness of the federal government's response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina; several high-profile cases of alleged corruption involving, among others, the leader of the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives; and a criminal indictment of the most senior aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, as well as heated debate over the premises of the intervention in Iraq. The year also saw continuing debate over the counterterrorism policies adopted by the administration of President George W. Bush.

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.

The important role of the judiciary in the U.S. system was highlighted in 2005 by the protracted debates over nominees proposed by President George W. Bush for Supreme Court vacancies created by the death of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and the resignation of Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. To succeed Rehnquist, Bush nominated Judge John G. Roberts, Jr., a judge in the federal court system and an official in the Justice Department during the administration of Republican president Ronald Reagan. The vote by the Senate to confirm Roberts followed a lengthy process and a debate that broke along ideological and partisan lines. Republicans strongly championed the nomination, believing that Roberts would support positions they favored on such issues as abortion, property rights, affirmative action for minorities, and federal versus state power. Democrats, on the other hand, generally opposed Roberts, fearing that in a closely divided Supreme Court, he might tip the balance on these and other highly polarized issues. Democrats considered, but ultimately rejected, an effort to block the appointment through a filibuster, a tactic occasionally employed in the American system whereby members of the Senate use nonstop debate to prevent a vote from being taken. In the final confirmation vote, Democrats were divided equally on the Roberts nomination.

For the second Court slot, Bush first appointed the presidential legal counsel, Harriet Miers. He subsequently withdrew the appointment in the wake of a groundswell of opposition led by conservatives within his own Republican Party. He then nominated Judge Samuel Alito, Jr., a federal court judge with a reputation as a judicial conservative. The Senate scheduled hearings on the Alito nomination for January 2006. Even before the formal hearings got under way, pressure groups of both the left and right were mobilized to either oppose or support Alito's confirmation. Organizations supporting abortion rights, racial minorities, and citizens who believe in the strict separation of church and state lined up against the nominee, while conservative Evangelicals and critics of "judicial activism" urged support for Alito.

In a year in which Bush's approval ratings declined to their lowest point of his five years in office, an issue that loomed especially large was the federal government's seeming ineptitude in its response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in summer 2005. One of the most deadly natural disasters in U.S. history, Katrina laid waste to swathes of Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana, and destroyed large sections of New Orleans. Although many evacuated New Orleans prior to the storm, those who remained-mainly poor African Americans-caught the full brunt of the hurricane and ensuing flood. In the first days of the storm's aftermath, the media carried story after story of death, homelessness, anarchy, and lawlessness in which poor blacks suffered while an incompetent federal government stood by. Although many of the more horrifying stories proved to be inaccurate or exaggerated, the perception was widespread that all levels of government in the world's most powerful country were unprepared to cope with a natural catastrophe.

The president and the governing Republican Party suffered a further setback as a result of the criminal investigation and indictment of I. Lewis Libby, Jr., Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, in what is known as the Valerie Plame case. This case involved allegations that government officials might have leaked the fact that the wife of Ambassador Joseph Wilson, a critic of the administration's Iraq policies in early 2003, was an undercover employee of the CIA. Libby was not indicted on charges of leaking information, but rather for lying to federal agents and a grand jury about his conversations with journalists on the issue. Complicating the case was the special prosecutor's insistence that several journalists provide testimony and notes about their contacts with confidential sources. A New York Times reporter, Judith Miller, served 85 days in jail for initially refusing to provide information to the grand jury.

In addition to the Plame case, the Republican Party was further embarrassed by the indictment of Tom DeLay, the leader of the Republican delegation in the House of Representatives. DeLay was charged with having violated campaign-funding laws in Texas. He was also criticized for having encouraged a "pay to play" environment in Washington, in which business executives with interests in government policy understand that their corporations are expected to make contributions to a particular political party in order to gain access to influential officials. In a further scandal involving prominent Republicans, a well-connected lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, was indicted on charges of having misused money from Indian tribes that were seeking his assistance in obtaining licenses for gambling casinos. A former aide to DeLay pleaded guilty in November to conspiracy to bribe members of Congress and agreed to repay $19.6 million to clients he had defrauded.

The United States continued to grapple with the constellation of issues raised by counterterrorism policies adopted since the September 11, 2001, attacks on Washington and New York City and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As the year drew to a close, Congress was considering legislation that would modify several of the more controversial provisions of the USA Patriot Act, a law enacted in the aftermath of the attacks. Civil libertarians have criticized the Patriot Act for enhancing the surveillance capacity of law enforcement agencies and for eroding judicial oversight in antiterror investigations. Critics of the Patriot Act were generally disappointed with the modest adjustments incorporated into congressional legislation.

Likewise, Congress mounted an effort to deal with the problems stemming from allegations that U.S. military officers or intelligence agents had engaged in the torture of terrorism suspects in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the special prison facility operated by the United States in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. A measure with strong bipartisan support that would bar the use of torture, including the "soft" torture techniques that U.S. security officials are said to have used against terrorism suspects, was overwhelmingly passed by the Senate. The bill was opposed by the Bush administration, which sought a compromise that would exempt officers of the CIA from the torture ban. Although there has been no systematic government investigation of torture charges, several members of the military accused of mistreating detainees in Iraq have been prosecuted in military courts, and several members of the military have been arrested on charges of prisoner abuse in Afghanistan.

Another controversy involved "ghost prisoners"-alleged terrorists detained in various parts of the world and held in unspecified locations outside any judicial system or congressional oversight. An investigative report in The Washington Post alleged that prisoners were being sent to locations in Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Middle East for detention and questioning. 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 the torture of prisoners.

The legal status of prisoners detained at Guantanamo remained unresolved in 2005. The Bush administration has labeled these detainees "enemy combatants" and taken the position that, as such, they do not merit the protections guaranteed prisoners of war by the Geneva Conventions. The question of the Guantanamo detainees is being considered by the federal court system. The Supreme Court and lower federal courts have issued rulings asserting jurisdiction over prisoners held at Guantanamo and elsewhere.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens of the United States can change their government democratically. The United States has a bicameral federal legislature. The upper chamber, the Senate, consists of 100 members-two from each of the 50 states-directly elected to six-year terms. The lower chamber, the House of Representatives, consists of 435 members directly elected for two-year terms. All national legislators are elected directly by the voters in the districts or states 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 rests with the 50 individual states. Most law enforcement matters are dealt with at the state level, as are education, family matters, and many land use decisions, and states have been given wide powers to raise revenues through various forms of taxation. Some states give citizens wide-ranging ability to influence legislation through institutions of direct democracy, such as referendums, which have been used on such diverse issues as gay marriage, tax rates, and immigrant rights. Although hailed by some as a reflection of the openness of the U.S. system, direct democracy has come under criticism by others, who contend that making government policy through referendum or recalling democratically elected officeholders midway through their terms weakens the party system and the institutions of indirect democracy in the executive and legislative branches.

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. In most cases, all of the electors in a particular state then cast their ballots for the candidate who won the popular vote in that 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 systems. The Electoral College vote determines the winner of the election. Thus, 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. Such was the anomalous situation in 2000, when the winning candidate, George W. Bush, actually received fewer popular votes than his main opponent, Democratic nominee and former vice president Al Gore.

Bush and his running mate, Vice President Dick Cheney, won election to a second term in 2004, with 51 percent of the national popular vote to 48 percent for the Democratic ticket of Senator John Kerry and his running mate, Senator John Edwards. According to the Electoral College system, Bush won with 286 electoral votes to Kerry's 252.

In addition to retaining the presidency, the Republican Party maintained control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. In the Senate, the Republicans control the 100-seat chamber by a 55-44 margin, with one independent. In the House, the Republicans hold 232 seats, compared with the Democrats' 202. One seat is held by an independent, who usually votes with the Democrats.

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 specific legal and other hurdles that act to discourage the rise of new, independent parties. Yet, on occasion, independent candidates or those representing third parties or particular causes have had a significant impact on presidential politics or at the state level. At the local level in recent years, a number of new parties, such as the Greens, have made a modest impact on politics in a number of municipalities.

Presidential election campaigns in the United States are long and expensive. Candidates often begin campaigning two years prior to the election. Because of the high cost of U.S. election campaigns, serious candidates often find themselves involved in what has been called a "permanent campaign" revolving around a never-ending process of fund-raising. In 2001, Congress passed the McCain-Feingold bill, intended to limit the effect 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. The 2004 race was the most expensive ever, with a total expenditure of $1.2 billion, much of which was spent by advocacy groups supporting or opposing the major candidates, rather than by the parties or candidates themselves.

A serious and increasing problem for American democracy is the widespread practice of drawing districts for the House of Representatives and for state legislatures that are designed to maximize the election of a particular party or to protect incumbent legislators of either party. The 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. Although a number of prominent voices, both liberal and conservative, have called for a reform of redistricting procedures, the reform movement suffered a setback in November 2005, when voters in Ohio and California rejected proposals to hand authority over the drawing of district lines to nonpartisan commissions.

Corruption is a complex phenomenon in the United States. American society has a tradition of intolerance towards corrupt acts by government officials, corporate executives, or labor leaders. In recent years, executives from a number of large corporations have been given lengthy prison sentences for various illegal acts, and officials at the local, state, and federal levels are regularly prosecuted for corrupt acts. The United States also has in place a variety of 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 U.S. media are aggressive in reporting on and publicizing cases of corporate and official corruption; newspapers often publish investigative articles that delve into questions of private or public malfeasance. At the same time, the ever-expanding influence of interest groups on the legislative and policy-making process has given rise to public perceptions of enhanced corruption in Washington. The 2005 indictment of Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist with influence in Republican circles, focused press attention on the growing symbiosis between interest groups, lobbyists, and elected officials. The role of interest groups has become crucial in campaign fund-raising, which has given rise to suspicions that the influence of interest groups is distorting the legislative process. The United States was ranked 17 out of 159 countries in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.

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 also plays a major role in investigating and publicizing allegations of improprieties by officials at all levels and often prompts official bodies to pursue inquiries. Federal agencies regularly place information relevant to their mandate on websites to broaden public access.

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. Controversy has also arisen over attempts by federal prosecutors to compel journalists to divulge the names of confidential sources. This issue emerged most vividly in the case of the CIA analyst Valerie Plame, whose identity was revealed in the press in possible violation of federal law. However, reporters have been threatened with contempt-of-court citations in several other cases as well. In response, a bipartisan group in Congress sponsored legislation that would shield journalists from prosecution for refusing to identify confidential sources in most federal cases.

Criticism was directed at the Bush administration for having given grants to several journalists, who in turn gave favorable publicity to administration education and social programs in news columns. The administration was also criticized for the widespread dissemination of government-produced videos that were then aired by local televisions stations without identification of the government as the program source. In another incident, the chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was forced to resign from the network's board of directors after an investigation suggested that he had misused his authority in an effort to "politicize" the agency, which governs public radio and television broadcasting. Internet access is widespread, and internet journalists and "bloggers" (writers of web logs, or "blogs," many of whom are unaffiliated with media outlets) 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 abortion as well as 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. There are no direct government subsidies to houses of worship.

Although a contentious debate has emerged over the university's role in society, academic life is notable for a healthy level of intellectual freedom. There are ongoing debates on university campuses over such issues as the war in Iraq, the global economy, and alleged politicization of curriculums on Middle East affairs. 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. In 2005, a debate emerged over the incorporation of what is called "intelligent design," a controversial theory that questions the validity of the traditional scientific theory of evolution, into the science curriculum of public schools in several states.

Private discussion and public debate are vigorous. In general, the right to public protest is respected by public officials. Protest demonstrations directed at government policies are frequently held in Washington, New York, and other major cities. The United States gives wide freedom to trade associations, nongovernmental organizations, and issue-oriented pressure groups to organize and argue their case through the political process.

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. Labor may be further weakened by the withdrawal of some unions, including several of the country's largest, from the national labor federation.

Judicial independence is respected. The influence of the court system has become a source of sometimes bitter contention, with critics claiming that judicial authority has expanded into areas of governance that are best left to the legislative branch. The growing polarization over the judiciary's role was reflected by the intense debate over the administration's 2005 Supreme Court nominations. 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.

Civil liberties defenders 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 release for convicted felons. Some have also criticized so-called three strikes and you're out laws, under which criminal defendants receive life sentences, even if the offenses were for minor crimes. The most recent survey showed that more than 2.2 million Americans were in federal, state, or local prisons. The large prison population, combined with lengthy sentences handed out to many criminals, has led to a new phenomenon of imprisoned senior citizens, many of whom are expected to die in prison. Concern has also been raised about prison conditions, especially the disturbing levels of violence and rape. Meanwhile, 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.

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 largest 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-assis-tance efforts. Minorities also benefit from an unemployment rate that is low by global standards and a high percentage of home ownership. 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 a university degree, and much more likely to have served time in prison than members of other groups, including many recent immigrant groups.

Since its immigration laws underwent major changes during the 1960s, the United States has maintained a record 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 legal immigrants to maintain certain religious or cultural customs.

The U.S. government has been less successful in devising a policy for dealing with undocumented immigrants, several millions of whom live and work in the country at any given 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 that 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 legislation, however, has met with opposition from both political parties in Congress, and prospects for serious change in immigration policy are unclear. 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. Concern has been expressed about the federal government's policy of holding asylum seekers in detention facilities while their applications are being assessed.

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. In 2005, a ruling by the Supreme Court that gave the state the right to compel the sale of private property to private developers involved in projects deemed in the public interest was sharply criticized by advocates of individual property rights.

The United States prides itself as a society that offers wide opportunity for economic and social advancement and has favored government policies that enhance equality of opportunity and social mobility. Historically, the opportunities for economic advancement have played a key role in the society's successful assimilation of new immigrants. Recently, however, concern has been expressed in the wake of studies that show a widening of inequality in income and wealth and a narrowing of opportunities for upward mobility. Among the world's prosperous, stable democracies, the United States is unique in having a large underclass of poor people who have at best a tangential role in economic life.

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 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 chronic poverty.

Legalized abortion remains an intensely debated issue in U.S. politics. Abortion was legalized not through an act of legislation, but by a 1973 Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade. In recent years, several states have passed restrictions on the accessibility of abortion, including requirements that minors inform their parents before undergoing an abortion. The Supreme Court has nullified many of these measures.