United States | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

United States

United States

Freedom in the World 2010

2010 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


President Barack Obama’s first year in office was dominated by efforts to revive the economy and enact a series of sweeping domestic reforms. While the administration succeeded in passing a major spending package to stimulate the economy, other proposals—such as an overhaul of the country’s health insurance system—encountered significant obstacles in Congress. Also during the year, Obama made important changes to the counterterrorism programs inherited from his predecessor, George W. Bush, but he left many elements of previous policy in place.

The United States declared independence in 1776, during a rebellion against British colonial rule. The current system of government began functioning in 1789, following 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, and in 2008, Democratic Senator Barack Obama won the presidency, defeating the Republican nominee, Senator John McCain.
Obama, the first black candidate to become president, triumphed in the November general election amid fears of economic collapse triggered by a steep decline in the stock market, a housing crisis that entailed hundreds of thousands of home-mortgage foreclosures, and a major increase in the unemployment rate. He ultimately secured 53 percent of the popular vote, with McCain receiving 46 percent. In the Electoral College balloting, which determines the presidential election outcome, Obama and his vice presidential nominee, Senator Joseph Biden, received 365 votes, compared with 173 for McCain and his running mate, Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska. Although McCain did well among white men, Obama scored substantial majorities among several groups, including black, Hispanic, and younger voters. The turnout rate, at over 61 percent of eligible voters, was one of the highest recorded in recent years. In concurrent legislative elections, the Democrats increased their majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Once in office, Obama moved to fulfill campaign pledges to reverse a number of Bush administration counterterrorism policies. He issued a policy document that forbade the use of torture by U.S. personnel, and announced plans to quickly shut down the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. However, many civil libertarians criticized the new administration for its unwillingness to roll back other Bush-era practices. For example, it declined to end the collection of Americans’ voice and internet communications by the National Security Agency, and it invoked the doctrine of state secrets to block information requests in several court cases.
Likewise, the Obama administration showed little interest in investigating the actions of former Bush officials, as many civil libertarians and Democratic Party leaders had asked. Even the plan to shut down the Guantanamo detention facility remained incomplete at year’s end, as the administration encountered resistance from ordinary citizens and political representatives in mainland U.S. areas to which the detainees might be transferred. A further complication emerged when defense officials reported that a number of former Guantanamo detainees had joined militant groups and taken up arms against the United States after being released. While the administration announced its intention to try some high-profile terrorism defendants in civilian courts, it indicated that others would be tried before military tribunals, asserting that the Bush-era tribunal system would first be reformed.
On domestic policy, Obama had entered office with an ambitious legislative agenda, including sweeping health insurance reform, measures to combat climate change and shift the country’s energy policy, and new regulations for the financial industry. By year’s end, with the exception of a spending package designed to stimulate the economy, little of the administration’s domestic agenda had been passed by Congress despite the robust Democratic majorities in both houses. The president’s difficulties were due in part to divisions within the Democratic Party, but more significant was the vocal and unified opposition of the Republican Party. The Republicans particularly relied on the filibuster in the Senate, a mechanism that requires a supermajority of 60 senators to bring legislation to a vote.

In his two most important foreign policy actions, Obama announced a plan for a phased withdrawal from Iraq that would have most U.S. combat forces out of the country in 2011, but also initiated a major increase in U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, where the United States and other NATO countries were fighting a difficult conflict with the Taliban.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

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. At the end of 2009, the Democrats controlled the House, 257–178. In the Senate, the Democrats held a substantial lead, with 58 seats as opposed to 40 for the Republicans; there were also two independents who voted with the Democratic caucus. 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.
Presidential elections are decided by an Electoral College, meaning it is possible for a candidate to win the presidency while losing the national popular vote. Electoral College votes are apportioned to each state based on the size of its congressional representation. In most cases, all of the electors in a particular state cast their ballots for the candidate who won the statewide popular vote, regardless of the margin. Two states, Maine and Nebraska, have chosen to divide their electoral votes between the candidates based on their popular-vote performance in each congressional district, and other states are now considering similar systems.
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 tax rates, affirmative action, and immigrant rights. Direct-democracy mechanisms have been hailed by some as a reflection of the openness of the U.S. system. However, they have also been criticized on the grounds that recalling elected officials in the middle of their terms or making policy through referendums can lead to incoherent governance, undermine the institutions of representative democracy, and weaken the party system.
The intensely competitive U.S. political environment is dominated by the two major parties, the right-leaning Republicans and the left-leaning 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 levels, and a number of newer parties, such as the Green Party, have modestly affected politics in certain municipalities in recent years. While the majoritarian system has discouraged the establishment of parties based on race, ethnicity, or religion, religious groups and minorities have been able to gain political influence through participation in the two established parties. Conservative Christian groups, for example, play a substantial role in Republican Party affairs, while black, Hispanic, and homosexual rights advocates play important roles in the Democratic Party. A number of laws have been enacted to ensure the political rights of minorities, especially blacks. In June 2009, the Supreme Court upheld a provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that allows the federal government to vet changes to election laws in certain states and municipalities with histories of discriminatory balloting rules.
Election campaigns in the United States are long and expensive. Serious candidates frequently find themselves in a “permanent campaign,” with a never-ending process of fundraising. The two parties and the constituency and interest groups that support them have used various methods to circumvent legal restrictions on campaign spending, and the Supreme Court on several occasions has struck down such restrictions, finding that they violated free speech rights. Election spending for the 2008 contests easily surpassed that of previous years, reaching over $5 billion; the presidential race alone cost $2.4 billion.
American society has a tradition of intolerance toward corrupt acts by government officials, corporate executives, or labor leaders. In 2009, charges of corruption were brought against government officials in a number of states, including New York, New Jersey, and Illinois. In one notable case, the former governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, was indicted in April for what prosecutors said was a broad graft scheme that included efforts to sell the Senate seat vacated by newly elected president Barack Obama, which the governor had the authority to fill by appointment. Blagojevich had been impeached and removed from office in January following his arrest in late 2008. 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 expanding influence of interest groups and lobbyists on the legislative and policymaking processes, combined with their crucial role in campaign fundraising, has given rise to public perceptions of enhanced corruption in Washington. The United States was ranked 19out of 180countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 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 mandates on websites to broaden public access. In an action widely praised by scholars and civil libertarians, Obama in 2009 ordered that millions of government documents from the Cold War era be declassified and made available to the public.
The United States has a free, diverse, and constitutionally protected press. A long-standing debate 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—has evolved into doubts about the financial viability of newspapers. Various papers in 2009 either shut down, made sharp cuts in staffing and print production, or opted to abandon print and produce web-only versions. Some analysts have argued that the end of the newspaper era is at hand, and that Americans will get nearly all of their news from online sources in the future. Already, internet journalists and bloggers play an important and growing role in the coverage of political news, and internet access is widespread in the country. Meanwhile, the traditional news divisions of major broadcast television networks have increasingly given way to 24-hour cable news stations and their internet sites.
Controversy has emerged in recent years over attempts by federal prosecutors and private attorneys to compel journalists to divulge the names of confidential sources or turn over notes and background material in legal cases. A bill that would provide journalists with limited protection from demands for information about confidential sources in federal cases was pending in Congress in 2009. 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, and rates of both religious belief and religious-service attendance are high. The constitution protects religious freedom while barring any official endorsement of a religious faith, and there are no direct government subsidies to houses of worship. The debate over the role of religion in public life is ongoing, however, and religious groups often mobilize to influence political discussions on the diverse issues in which they take an interest, including gay marriage, abortion, civil rights, and immigration.
The academic sphere enjoys a healthy level of intellectual freedom. There are regular discussions on university campuses over such issues as the global economy, Israel and the Palestinians, and the alleged politicization of curriculums on Middle Eastern affairs.
In general, officials respect the right to public assembly. 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. In recent years, local authorities have sometimes employed strict crowd-control tactics at the presidential nomination conventions of the two major parties, large antiwar demonstrations, and protests at gatherings of the World Bank or other transnational institutions.
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-sector workforce is currently represented by unions. An important factor in this trend is the country’s labor code, which is regarded as an impediment to organizing efforts. The National Labor Relations Board, which adjudicates labor-management disputes, has been accused of circumscribing unions’ ability to effectively organize and represent workers. This could change with Obama’s appointment of board members who are more sympathetic to unions. Organizing efforts are also impeded by strong resistance from private employers. Several attempts to modify core labor laws have been defeated in Congress over the years, and in 2009, even with the enlarged Democratic majority, the legislature failed to adopt a union-supported reform measure that would have made it easier to organize workers. Despite its institutional decline, organized labor continues to play a vigorous role in electoral politics.
Judicial independence is respected. Although the courts have occasionally been accused of intervening in areas that are best left to the political branches, most observers regard the judiciary as a linchpin of the American democratic system. In recent years, much attention has been paid to the ideological composition of the Supreme Court, which has issued a number of significant decisions by a one-vote margin. In 2009, Obama named Sonia Sotomayor, a federal appeals court judge and former advocate for the rights of Puerto Ricans, to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court, making her the first Hispanic and third woman to serve on the nine-member panel.
While the United States has a strong rule-of-law tradition, the criminal justice system’s treatment of minority groups has long been a concern. A disproportionately large percentage of defendants in criminal cases involving murder, rape, assault, and robbery are black or Hispanic. Minority groups also account for an outsized share of the prison population.
Indeed, civil liberties organizations and other groups have advanced a broad critique of the criminal justice system, arguing that there are too many Americans in prison, that prison sentences are often excessive, and that too many people are prosecuted for minor drug offenses. Over two million Americans are behind bars 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. Concerns have been raised about prison conditions, especially the unsettling incidence of violence and rape.
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, and the number of executions has declined steadily in recent years. Of particular importance in the campaign against the death penalty has been the exoneration of some death-row inmates based on new DNA testing. The Supreme Court has in recent years struck down the death penalty in cases where the perpetrator is a juvenile or mentally handicapped.
The United States is one of the world’s most racially and ethnically diverse societies. In recent years, residents and citizens of Latin American ancestry have replaced blacks 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. Blacks, however, continue to lag in economic standing, educational attainment, and other social indicators. 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 five states, and the Supreme Court further circumscribed the use of race in job promotions in a case involving firefighters from New Haven, Connecticut, in 2009.
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 prominent 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. Americans remain troubled by the large number of illegal immigrants in the country, and the federal government has responded by strengthening security at the border with Mexico. In a departure from previous policy, the Obama administration announced in 2009 that it would focus its enforcement efforts on employers rather than raiding job sites in search of undocumented workers who were subject to deportation.
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. They now constitute a majority of the American workforce; 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 for female workers is roughly 80 percent of that for male workers, women with recent university degrees have effectively attained parity with men. Nonetheless, many female-headed families continue to live in conditions of chronic poverty.
Federal law does not include homosexuals as a protected class under antidiscrimination legislation, though many states have enacted such protections. Since Massachusetts’s highest court ruled in 2003 that the state constitution gave homosexual couples the same right to marry as heterosexual couples, many states have passed laws or constitutional amendments explicitly banning same-sex marriage. At the same time, an increasing number of states have granted gay couples varying degrees of family rights, and a handful have endorsed full marriage rights.
Explanatory Note: 

The numerical ratings and status listed above do not reflect conditions in Puerto Rico, which is examined in a separate report.