Freedom in the World
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Intense campaigning for the 2008 presidential election began in 2007, with a special focus on the emergence of Barack Obama, an African American first-term senator, as a major contender for the Democratic Party nomination. The campaign overshadowed an ongoing struggle between the newly elected Democratic majorities in Congress and the Republican administration of President George W. Bush. Debate over the country’s immigration policies continued, with no sign of a resolution before the election of a new president. There was also continuing controversy over the administration’s counterterrorism policies, particularly the treatment of prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay military base and interrogation policies that some said amounted to torture.
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 authority, they set up a system in which the federal government has three coequal branches—executive, legislative, and judicial—and left many powers with state governments and the citizenry.
For most of the country’s history, power has alternated between the Democratic and Republican parties. President George W. Bush of the Republicans was reelected for a second four-year term in 2004, but he subsequently suffered from major policy setbacks and declining public approval ratings. In the 2006 midterm elections, the Democrats won control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1994, adding pressure to the Republicans’ effort to find a viable presidential candidate for the 2008 contest.
As with other recent elections, campaigns for the party presidential nominations got under way well in advance of the election itself, in early 2007. Numerous candidates, serious and otherwise, entered the competition in both parties, but the races quickly narrowed to a few leading contenders. In the Republican Party, the most prominent figures were Senator John McCain of Arizona, former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, and Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. In the Democratic Party, three candidates emerged from a crowded pack: Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, the former first lady; Senator Barack Obama of Illinois; and former senator John Edwards of North Carolina, the party’s vice presidential candidate in 2004. Obama, with his biracial background and charismatic campaign style, received much attention. Although several African Americans had sought the presidency in the past, Obama was the first black presidential candidate to be widely regarded as a serious contender.
The early months of the presidential campaign took place during a time of political gridlock between Congress and the White House. The Democrats had seized clear control of the House of Representatives in the 2006 elections, but their Senate victory was narrow, and neither the Democratic leadership nor the administration was able to enact significant parts of their respective agendas.
The debate over the country’s policies toward undocumented immigrants continued during the year, with no resolution in sight. Although the controversy was partly driven by security concerns, the major issues stemmed from apprehension over the effects of record numbers of undocumented migrants on the American economy and culture. Opinion polls indicated that Americans were ambivalent about illegal immigrants. Many were concerned that an influx of millions of undocumented workers would strain educational and social services and depress wages. Others saw undocumented workers as an economic boon due to their willingness to work in menial yet essential jobs that citizens would not accept. An attempt to forge a bipartisan approach to immigration policy collapsed when Congress rejected a bill supported by Bush and a number of leading Democrats that would have combined border-control measures with a route to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the United States and a guest-worker program targeting specific economic sectors. Another bill, which would have offered a path toward legal status for children of undocumented immigrants in exchange for their enrollment in college or the military, failed to win sufficient support in the Senate. The defeat of this legislation, combined with the enactment of a measure providing for the construction of a barrier along large sections of the border, led some to claim that the United States had opted for an “enforcement first” policy on immigration. The decision to build a border fence came on the heels of stepped-up federal efforts to deport illegal immigrants through worksite raids.
Also in 2007, controversy continued over certain features of the administration’s counterterrorism policies. In one development that administration critics praised, President Bush issued an executive order banning the use of torture against prisoners held in the CIA’s interrogation program. It remained unclear, however, whether the order would eliminate the use of the technique known as waterboarding, in which detainees were subjected to simulated drowning.
At the same time, little progress was made toward a resolution of the status or fate of prisoners detained at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. One major unsettled issue was the detainees’ habeas corpus rights to challenge their imprisonment in the federal court system. On two occasions, the Supreme Court had ruled that federal law enabled the prisoners to petition courts regarding their status. In 2006, Congress passed the Military Commissions Act, which stripped courts of the power to review challenges to the status of foreign detainees at Guantanamo. In February 2007, a federal court upheld the Military Commissions Act, setting the stage for another appeal to the Supreme Court. Separately, a federal judge barred the Bush administration from sending a Guantanamo inmate to his home country, Tunisia, on the grounds that he risked torture there. Meanwhile, the administration announced that it was considering a new round of hearings to determine the status of the 330 men still held at Guantanamo. The hearings would determine whether the detainees would be treated as “enemy combatants,” a status that did not afford prisoner-of-war rights under international law. The American Bar Association announced that it was backing out of an agreement to provide lawyers for the detainees because it did not want to lend credibility to proceedings that it found to offer inadequate legal protections. In another case related to the war on terrorism, it was revealed that the CIA had destroyed several videotapes showing the interrogation of terrorism suspects. According to news reports, the intelligence agency destroyed the tapes partly due to concerns that the harsh techniques captured on video might put agency officials in legal jeopardy. At year’s end, the Justice Department was conducting an investigation to determine whether criminal laws were violated by the destruction of the tapes.
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—serving six-year terms, with one-third coming up for election every two years. The lower chamber, the House of Representatives, consists of 435 members serving two-year terms. 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 voters in the districts or states they represent. The president and vice president are elected to four-year terms. Under a 1951 constitutional amendment, 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 states. Most law enforcement matters are dealt with at the state level, as are education, family matters, and many land-use decisions. States also 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 issues including 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 by referendum or recalling democratically elected officeholders in the middle of their terms weakens the party system and the institutions of representative democracy.
For presidential elections, the United States has a unique system combining a popular vote with ballots cast by an electoral college. The Electoral College apportions votes to each state based on the size of its 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, regardless of 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 now considering similar systems. The Electoral College vote determines the winner of the election. Thus it is possible for a candidate to win the presidency while losing the national popular vote.
The United States has an intensely competitive political environment dominated by two major parties, the Republicans and the Democrats. The country’s “first past the post” or majoritarian electoral system tends to discourage the emergence of additional parties, as do a number of specific legal and other hurdles. However, on occasion, independent or third-party candidates have significantly influenced politics at the presidential and state level, and a number of newer parties, such as the Green Party, have modestly affected politics in certain 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 frequently 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 legislation’s restrictions. Furthermore, the Supreme Court on several occasions has struck down controls on campaign spending on the grounds that they violated free speech rights. The 2006 congressional race was the costliest ever, with a total expenditure of $2.6 billion, much of which was spent by advocacy groups that effectively supported or opposed the major candidates, rather than by the parties or candidates themselves. Spending for the 2008 presidential race is expected to easily surpass that of previous elections.
A serious and growing problem for American democracy is the widespread practice of redrawing districts for the House of Representatives and state legislatures 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 given state to carve out districts that considerably limit the competitive nature of legislative elections.
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 received lengthy prison sentences for various financial crimes, and officials at the local, state, and federal levels are regularly prosecuted for corruption. There are a variety of measures in place to reduce private-sector corruption. The most recent corporate-governance legislation, the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act, 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, however, the expanding influence of interest groups and lobbyists on the legislative and policy-making process, combined with their crucial role in campaign fund-raising, has given rise to public perceptions of enhanced corruption in Washington. Some civil libertarians have raised concerns about prosecutors’ overzealous tactics in corruption cases and the use of organized-crime legislation to punish political or corporate misconduct. The United States was ranked 20out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The federal government has a high degree of transparency. A substantial number of auditing and investigative agencies function independently of political influence. Such bodies are often spurred to action by the investigative work of journalists. 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, though, a debate has arisen over the impact of ownership consolidation, either by sprawling media companies with outlets in many states and formats or by corporate conglomerates 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. In 2007, a federal judge threatened two reporters from the San Francisco Chronicle with imprisonment for refusing to reveal the source of information leaked from a grand jury investigating steroid use by professional athletes. The case was resolved when the attorney responsible for the leak acknowledged his role. A bill to provide limited protection from demands for information about confidential sources in federal cases has passed the House. Such press shield laws already exist in 37 states.
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; rates of both religious belief and religious service attendance are high. The debate over the role of religion in public life is ongoing, however, and often centers 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 words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, are heavily loaded with religious implications and tend to mobilize political action by Evangelical Christians. Predominantly African American churches are also intensely involved in political affairs at both the local and national levels. There are no direct government subsidies to houses of worship.
Although a contentious debate has emerged over the university’s role in society, the academic sphere enjoys a healthy level of intellectual freedom. There are regular discussions on university campuses over such issues as the war in Iraq, the global economy, and the alleged politicization of curriculums on Middle Eastern affairs.
In general, officials respect the right to public protest. 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 figures among 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 punish labor code violators. Several attempts to modify core labor laws have been defeated in Congress over the years. Despite its institutional decline, however, organized labor continues to play a vigorous role in electoral politics. Unions are expected to spend millions of dollars toward the election of Democratic candidates for president and Congress in 2008.
Judicial independence is respected. Although there has been occasional criticism of the judiciary for allegedly extending its powers into areas of governance that are best left to the legislative branch, most observers regard the judiciary as a linchpin of the American democratic system. The courts have played an especially important role in disputes over President George W. Bush’s counterterrorism policies.
While the United States has a strong rule-of-law tradition, the criminal justice system’s treatment of minority groups has long been a controversial issue. African Americans and Hispanics constitute a disproportionately large percentage of defendants in criminal cases involving murder, rape, assault, and robbery.
Civil liberties organizations and other groups have advanced a broad critique of the criminal justice system, arguing that there are too many Americans (especially members of minority groups) in prison, that prison sentences are often excessive, and that too many people are prosecuted for minor drug offenses. Over two million Americans are serving time in federal and state prisons and local jails at any given time, producing the highest national incarceration rate in the world. The number of incarcerated Americans has continued to increase even as the national rate of violent crime has declined in recent years. There is also a disturbing number of juveniles serving lengthy prison terms in adult penitentiaries. Some observers have criticized “three strikes and you’re out” laws, under which criminal defendants receive life sentences after conviction on a third felony, even for relatively minor offenses. Concerns have been raised about prison conditions, especially the unsettling 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 pending studies on the practice’s fairness. In 2007, New Jersey became the first state in decades to abolish capital punishment. Of particular importance in the campaign against the death penalty has been the exoneration of some death-row inmates based on new DNA testing. There have also been regular legal challenges aimed at the methods of execution, most recently the prevalent form of lethal injection, which allegedly places convicts at risk of severe pain and suffering before death.
The United States is one of the world’s most racially and ethnically diverse societies. In recent years, the country’s demographics have shifted in important ways as residents and citizens of Latin American ancestry have replaced African Americans as the largest minority group, and the percentage of whites in the population has declined somewhat. An array of policies and programs are designed to protect the rights of minorities, including laws to prevent workplace discrimination, 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 distribution of government assistance. African Americans, however, continue to lag in economic standing, educational attainment, and other social indicators. They are more likely to live in poverty, less likely to own businesses, less likely to hold 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, through referendums in four states, and several additional states will hold referendums on affirmative action in 2008.
Since its immigration laws underwent major changes during the 1960s, the United States has generally maintained liberal immigration policies. In recent years, there has been a major 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 their religious and 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 jealously guarded as part of the American way of life. Business entrepreneurship is encouraged as a matter of government policy.
The United States prides itself as a society that offers wide access to economic and social advancement and favors government policies that enhance equality of opportunity. Historically, the opportunities for economic advancement have played a key role in the successful assimilation of new immigrants. Recently, however, studies have shown a widening inequality in wealth and a narrowing of access to 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 marginal role in economic life.
Women have made important strides toward equality over the past several decades. Women are heavily represented in the legal profession, medicine, and journalism, and they predominate in university programs that train students for these careers. Although the average compensation for 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 under antidiscrimination legislation, though many states have enacted civil rights protections. An intense controversy erupted over gay marriage after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in 2003 that 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 permit civil unions or other legal arrangements for gays that guarantee economic and family rights similar to those enjoyed by married couples.