Freedom in the World
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
By far the most significant development in the United States in 2006 was the sweeping victory of the Democratic Party in midterm congressional elections. Running on a campaign that stressed popular discontent with the conduct of the war in Iraq, unease over the economic impact of globalization, and a perception of widespread corruption among the incumbent Republicans, the Democrats gained enough seats to recapture control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. An issue that generated considerable debate among Americans—although it did not figure substantially in the election returns—was immigration policy, especially regarding undocumented immigrants. The year also saw a series of developments concerning the counterterrorism policies adopted by the administration of President George W. Bush, including court decisions and new legislation enacted by Congress that placed some restrictions on the administration’s activities.
The independence of the United States of America was declared 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 coequal centers of power—executive, legislative, and judicial branches—and left many powers with the state governments and the citizenry.
The interaction between the three branches of the federal government came to the fore most recently in 2005, when President George W. Bush nominated two people to fill vacancies on the Supreme Court. The Senate confirmed the appointment of appeals court judge John G. Roberts Jr. as chief justice, despite objections from the opposition Democratic Party. However, senators within Bush’s own Republican Party forced him to withdraw his nomination of White House counsel Harriet Miers to fill the other open seat. He nominated appeals court judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. instead, and the Senate confirmed him in January 2006. The appointment of the two conservative jurists was expected to shift the ideological balance of the nine-member court to the right, raising concerns among many liberals and moderates.
Also in 2005, Bush’s declining approval ratings received a major blow when his administration failed to respond effectively to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, which battered swathes of Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana in August. The storm inundated New Orleans, and although many evacuated the low-lying city prior to the storm, those who remained—mainly poor African Americans—suffered death, lawlessness, and homelessness in the glaring absence of swift government assistance. The media followed the drama closely, adding to the widespread perception that all levels of government in the world’s most powerful country were unprepared to cope with a natural catastrophe.
The Democratic Party’s triumph in the November 2006 congressional elections ended 12 years of Republican domination in Congress. In the House of Representatives, the Democrats gained a total of 29 seats; in the Senate, the Democratic gain was 6 seats, enough to give the party a razor-thin edge.
The elections were a major setback for President Bush. Opinion polls indicated that many voters were strongly influenced by frustration with the president’s policies. Especially important was disapproval of the conduct of the war in Iraq, which Bush had launched with a 2003 invasion. The escalation of sectarian violence in Iraq convinced many voters that the U.S. presence there was not leading to the establishment of a stable democracy, but was fueling what many feared was evolving into a full-scale civil war. Although the Democrats themselves were divided on future war policies, with some urging a U.S. withdrawal and others calling for a new strategy, the voters rejected the administration’s adherence to what many saw as a failed policy. Shortly after the elections, Bush dismissed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a chief architect of the war.
The Democrats also benefited from the public’s apprehensions over economic conditions. Although unemployment, at 4.6 percent, was at a five-year low, many Americans were concerned about job stability, rising income inequality, growth in the number of people lacking health insurance, and fears over the security of pension payments. In response, Democratic candidates promised to support an increase in the minimum wage and improvements in medical insurance and expressed skepticism of free-trade agreements that were seen as threats to U.S. job security.
Another issue that favored the Democrats was corruption. Over the previous year, a number of prominent Republicans had been implicated in scandals that ranged from bribery to marital infidelity. In the most prominent case, the majority leader of the House of Representatives, Tom DeLay, had resigned after being indicted on charges of violating campaign-funding laws. DeLay and other notable Republicans (as well as a few Democrats) were embarrassed by association with Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist who pleaded guilty to various corruption charges. In another high-profile case, Mark Foley, a Republican congressman from Florida, resigned abruptly after it was revealed that he had sent salacious e-mails to young male pages working in the House of Representatives. The Republicans were also damaged by publicity over the practice of “earmarking” legislation, whereby congressionally appropriated funds were channeled to legislators’ specific projects, many of which were of dubious value to the general public. During the Republican domination of Congress, the use of earmarks had mushroomed, and the practice became an issue of public concern as the DeLay and Abramoff scandals grew.
A major controversy emerged over the country’s policies toward undocumented immigrants, who had been entering the United States in record numbers in recent years. Opinion polls indicated that the American people were ambivalent about illegal immigrants. Many were concerned that millions of undocumented workers would depress wages by accepting jobs at less pay and become a drain on educational and social services. Others saw undocumented workers as an economic boon to the country because of their willingness to take menial but essential jobs that citizens would not accept. As the intensity of the debate increased, national policy veered toward a more restrictive and punitive approach. More resources were allocated to the Border Patrol, and a greater emphasis was placed on deporting illegal workers than in the past.
The immigration debate culminated, in 2006, in a series of legislative proposals and massive demonstrations by undocumented workers and their supporters. On the legislative front, conservative Republicans advanced a bill that, in its initial form, would have imposed criminal penalties on undocumented workers and ordered the construction of a fence along the border with Mexico. It also rejected “amnesty” for illegal immigrants, barring them from any expedited path to citizenship or regularized immigrant status. The bill was countered by a measure, backed by the Bush administration, that would have established a new guest-worker program and eased the path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the United States, while at the same time strengthening efforts to discourage the illegal crossing of the Mexican border.
As the legislative proposals were advanced and discussed in the media, including on conservative talk-radio programs, immigrant advocacy groups organized a series of major rallies in Los Angeles, Dallas, and other urban centers with a substantial immigrant presence. However, while hundreds of thousands participated in these rallies, the political impact was muted. In the end, the only immigration legislation to win adoption was a measure calling for the construction of a fence along 700 miles of the country’s 2,000-mile-long border with Mexico. At the same time, immigration issues played a small role in the elections, and several of the most vocal advocates of a strict policy against undocumented immigrants were defeated in House races.
The counterterrorism policies adopted by the Bush administration in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States remained a source of political friction and litigation. One issue, whether the government could use torture or similar rough techniques during interrogation of terrorism suspects, was possibly resolved in December 2005, when Congress adopted a bill that outlawed the cruel, degrading, or inhumane treatment of prisoners in U.S. custody. After initial resistance, Bush signed the legislation, which established the Army Field Manual’s guidelines for interrogation of prisoners as the basis for U.S. policy. The bill was sponsored by Senator John McCain, a Republican and potential presidential candidate who had been a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War.
The administration suffered a setback in June 2006 when the Supreme Court invalidated plans to use special military commissions to try terrorism defendants detained at the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In its decision, the court asserted that the commissions stood in violation of the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war. In response to this and other legal defeats involving terrorism suspects, Republicans in Congress pushed through legislation in September that handed the president statutory authority to identify suspects in terrorism cases, detain them indefinitely, and interrogate them without the full judicial review ordinarily enjoyed by criminal defendants. Although the new law expanded the legal rights of “enemy combatants,” it significantly restricted the role of the courts in determining the legal status of terrorism suspects. The law also broadened the definition of enemy combatant to include not only those who are involved in military action or acts of terrorism, but also those who assist terrorist actions against the United States. The law, strongly opposed by civil liberties organizations, would almost certainly be challenged in the federal court system.
Several other controversies swirled around the administration’s counterterrorism initiatives, driven by the president’s assertion of broad executive authority in national security matters and critics’ arguments that policies should conform to international law and be subject to oversight by Congress and the judiciary. One involved the practice of extraordinary rendition, in which the United States arrested or seized terrorism suspects who were then shifted to third countries for interrogation and alleged torture. The practice, which was revealed by the press in 2005, was the subject of an investigation by the Council of Europe. The report issued by the Council asserted that a number of European Union countries had been complicit in the renditions, either by allowing the United States to detain the prisoners on their soil or by assisting in their international transit. A prosecutor in Italy has brought charges against several high-ranking Italian intelligence officials and employees of the CIA for allegedly seizing a radical Muslim cleric in Italy and sending him to Egypt for interrogation. Another controversy involves the administration’s policy of warrantless surveillance, whereby telephone conversations and e-mail contacts between people in the United States and individuals abroad were monitored without prior approval from a judicial body. Challenges to the surveillance program were pending in the federal court system in 2006.
The United States is an electoral democracy with 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, with one-third of the chamber coming up for election every two years. The lower chamber, the House of Representatives, consists of 435 members directly elected for two-year terms. As a result of the 2006 elections, Democrats control the House, 233–202. In the Senate, the Democrats and Republicans each hold 49 seats, but two independents are aligned with the Democratic caucus, ensuring the party’s control of that body. 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. 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 the power to raise revenues through various forms of taxation. In some states, citizens have a wide-ranging ability to influence legislation through institutions of direct democracy, such as referendums, which have been conducted on such diverse issues as gay marriage, tax rates, affirmative action, 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 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 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 outgoing vice president Al Gore.
The United States has an intensely competitive political environment 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 prevent the rise of new 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. A number of new parties, such as the Green Party, have modestly influenced politics in a number of municipalities in recent years.
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 costs involved, serious candidates often find themselves in what has been called a “permanent campaign,” with a never-ending process of fundraising. In 2001, Congress passed the McCain-Feingold bill, intended to limit the effect of moneyed interests on national politics. Nevertheless, the two parties and the constituency and interest groups that support them have used various methods to circumvent the spirit of the legislation. The 2006 congressional race was the most expensive ever, with a total expenditure of $2.6 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 growing problem for American democracy is the widespread practice of redrawing districts for the House of Representatives and state legislatures so as to maximize the success of a particular party or 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. Although the substantial turnover in the House of Representatives in 2006 has dampened the gerrymandering debate, most observers continue to regard the practice as a significant problem. A number of prominent voices, both liberal and conservative, have called for a reform of redistricting procedures, but the reform movement suffered a setback in 2005, when voters in Ohio and California rejected proposals to hand authority over the drawing of district lines to nonpartisan commissions. In 2006, the Supreme Court refused to nullify a redistricting plan for Texas that critics said was meant to guarantee Republican domination of the state’s congressional delegation.
Corruption is a complex phenomenon in the United States. American society has a tradition of intolerance toward 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 passed in the wake of a series of scandals involving inflated earnings reports by major corporations. The U.S. media are aggressive in reporting on 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 and lobbyists on the legislative and policy-making process, combined with their crucial role in campaign fundraising, has given rise to public perceptions of enhanced corruption in Washington. The United States was ranked 20 out of 163 countries in Transparency International’s 2006 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, and such agencies are often spurred to action by the investigative work of journalists. 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 ownership consolidation, accomplished through the purchase of large media entities—television networks, newspapers, and weekly magazines—by giant corporations with little or no previous interest in journalism. At the same time, internet journalists and bloggers play a growing role in the coverage of political news, and internet access is widespread in the country.
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 CIA analyst Valerie Plame, whose identity was revealed in the press in 2003 in possible violation of federal law. In the course of the case, a special prosecutor demanded that several reporters testify as to the identity of sources who provided information about Plame. Investigation of the case concluded in 2006 with no charges brought on the principal issue of leaking the identity of an intelligence agent, though I. Lewis Libby, then the chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, was indicted on charges of lying to a grand jury. Reporters have been threatened with contempt-of-court citations in several other cases as well; an internet journalist, Josh Wolf, was jailed in August 2006 for refusing to provide federal prosecutors with tapes of an antiglobalization demonstration in San Francisco that ended in violence, and he remained behind bars at year’s end.
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 both 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 conform with constitutional rules requiring the separation of church and state. 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 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 discussions on university campuses over such issues as the war in Iraq, the global economy, and the alleged politicization of curriculums on Middle East affairs. A number of the country’s prestigious universities have adopted policies intended to combat harassment against traditionally marginalized groups by enforcing what is known pejoratively as political correctness. Such policies are controversial because 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 the United States.
In general, the right to public protest is respected by 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 cases through the political process.
Federal law guarantees trade unions 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, so that less than 8 percent of the private workforce is currently represented by unions, one of the lowest such figures among stable, economically advanced democracies. An important factor in organized labor’s decline is the country’s labor code, which is regarded as an impediment to organizing efforts. Decisions by the National Labor Relations Board, which adjudicates labor-management disputes, have also circumscribed unions’ ability to effectively organize and represent workers. In 2006, the board dealt unions a serious blow by greatly expanding the pool of workers deemed to have management responsibility, making them ineligible for union representation. 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. Despite its institutional decline, organized labor continues to play a vigorous role in electoral politics. In the 2006 elections, unions are said to have contributed $100 million to various candidates, mostly Democrats opposed to the Bush administration’s domestic agenda.
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. 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 those in minority groups) 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 toward shorter prison sentences and earlier release for convicted felons. Some have also criticized “three strikes and you’re out” laws, under which criminal defendants receive life sentences after conviction on a third felony, even if the offenses are relatively minor. The most recent survey showed that more than 2.2 million people were behind bars at the federal, state, or local level. Concern has 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. Reflecting growing doubts about the death penalty, several states have announced a moratorium on capital punishment while studies are undertaken on the practice’s fairness. New DNA testing efforts have exonerated some inmates slated for execution, and a number of others have challenged the predominant lethal-injection method as technically flawed and inhumane.
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 residents 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 assistance. 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. They 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. Affirmative action in employment and university admissions remains a contentious issue. The Supreme Court has given approval to the use of race or ethnicity as a factor in university admissions under certain, narrow conditions. However, affirmative action has been banned, in whole or in part, by referendum voters in four states, most recently in a 2006 ballot in Michigan.
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.
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. Business entrepreneurship is encouraged as a matter of government policy. In 2005, a ruling by the Supreme Court gave the state the right to compel the sale of private property to private developers involved in projects deemed to be in the public interest, drawing sharp criticism from advocates of individual property rights. Eminent domain powers had traditionally been used to advance infrastructure projects like bridges and railroads, but they were increasingly applied to development deals designed simply to improve the local or state economy and increase the tax base. In response to the ruling, a majority of states have adopted laws limiting the ability of the authorities to seize private property, including seven states that adopted such measures through referendums in 2006.
The United States prides itself as a society that offers wide opportunity for economic and social advancement and favors 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, studies have shown 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. According to opinion surveys, many Americans believe that their standard of living is threatened by economic globalization. This belief had political ramifications in 2006, as Democrats benefited from support by those who expressed concern over the state of the economy.
Women have made important strides toward equality over the past several decades. Women are heavily represented in the legal profession, medicine, and journalism, and predominate in university programs that train students for these careers. 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.
The issue of gay rights is highly contentious. Federal law does not include homosexuals as a protected class in antidiscrimination legislation, though many states have enacted civil rights protection for them. An intense controversy erupted over gay marriage after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued a decision in 2003 that said homosexual couples had the same right to marry as heterosexual couples under the state constitution. Since the ruling, many states have passed laws or constitutional amendments explicitly banning same-sex marriage, though an increasing number of states do permit civil unions or other legal arrangements for gays that guarantee economic and family rights similar to those enjoyed by married couples. During 2006, voters in eight states approved referendums that banned same-sex marriage.
Legalized abortion remains an intensely debated issue in U.S. politics. Abortion rights were guaranteed nationwide not through an act of federal legislation, but by a 1973 Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade . In recent years, several states have passed restrictions on access to abortion, including requirements that minors inform their parents before undergoing the procedure. The Supreme Court has nullified many of these measures. In a 2006 referendum, the voters of South Dakota, a relatively conservative state, struck down a measure that would have prohibited abortion in almost all cases.