Freedom in the World
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President Barack Obama won a second term in November 2012, while his Democratic Party increased its majority in the Senate and narrowed the Republican Party’s margin in the House of Representatives. Nevertheless, the Republicans maintained control of the House, meaning the United States faced at least two more years of divided government. Among other matters, Obama encountered mounting criticism during 2012 over military and intelligence agencies’ extensive use of remotely piloted aircraft, or drones, to kill suspected terrorists in various foreign countries.
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. In 2008, then senator Barack Obama, a Democrat, became the first black American to win a presidential election, taking 53 percent of the popular vote. Senator John McCain, the Republican nominee, took 46 percent. In concurrent legislative elections, the Democrats increased their majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Obama entered the White House with an ambitious domestic agenda dictated in part by fears of economic collapse in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008. During his first two years in office, he pushed through measures to stimulate the economy, revive the automobile industry, and, after a lengthy and bitter struggle, overhaul the nation’s health care system. In response, Republicans accused the president of improperly expanding the government’s involvement in economic affairs and increasing an already large budget deficit.
In the November 2010 congressional elections, Republicans recaptured control of the House and narrowed the Democratic majority in the Senate. Many of the successful Republican candidates aligned themselves with the Tea Party movement, a loose grouping of citizen and lobbying organizations that demanded reductions in the federal budget, a much smaller role for government in domestic affairs, and tax cuts.
The Republican electoral gains acted as a check on Obama’s agenda. Indeed, the following year was notable for what most observers described as legislative gridlock. Several efforts to forge compromises aimed at reducing the budget deficit ended in failure, leading to a pattern of crises and grudging, temporary solutions. One rating agency downgraded the credit rating for U.S. bonds after a particularly damaging budget standoff in August 2011.
Obama won reelection in November 2012, though his margin of victory narrowed. He received 51 percent of the popular vote, while his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, received 47 percent. In concurrent congressional elections, Democrats strengthened their hold on the Senate, with 53 seats plus two independents who generally vote with the party, versus 45 for the Republicans. In the House, Republicans retained control with 234 seats, versus 201 for the Democrats. Republicans also held the majority of state governorships and legislatures.
Although Romney won a solid majority among white voters, and won overwhelmingly among white men, Obama mobilized a winning coalition by scoring substantial majorities among black, Latino, and Asian voters, as well as young voters and women. The growing Latino population was regarded as particularly important to the future of American electoral politics, and a key issue for Latino voters was immigration reform. In the wake of the elections, some Republican leaders called on the party to adopt more immigrant-friendly policy positions, including support for long-stalled legislative proposals that would both offer legal status to the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country and strengthen controls at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Obama secured a second term despite the domestic economy’s slow recovery since 2009 and an unemployment rate in excess of 7.5 percent—high by U.S. standards. During the campaign, the Republicans criticized Obama’s stewardship of the economy, while the president accused Republicans of blocking legislation and refusing to agree to a compromise on reducing the federal budget deficit. While foreign policy was a secondary issue in the campaign, Obama focused on his having ended America’s military role in Iraq, his promise to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by 2014, and a counterterrorism offensive punctuated by the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden, leader of the international terrorist network Al-Qaeda.
However, a major instrument of the administration’s war on terrorism—targeted killings of suspected terrorists abroad by means of remotely piloted “drone” aircraft—drew criticism from a range of sources during 2012, including civil libertarians, members of Congress, elements of the press, and foreign governments. Some opponents argued that this use of drones constituted a violation of international law and the ethics of warfare. Others focused on the secretive and unaccountable nature of the administration’s decision-making process regarding the selection of targets, urging more robust oversight and approval by Congress or a special court.
The United States also continued to struggle with other aspects of counterterrorism policy. Early in his presidency, Obama had failed to persuade Congress to accept the closure of the prison facility at a U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where a number of terrorism suspects have been detained since Al-Qaeda’s 2001 attacks on the United States and the beginning of the war in Afghanistan. There were ongoing controversies and legal challenges involving the use of military tribunals to try key suspects at the base, as well as the indefinite detention of other Guantanamo inmates without charge or trial. Many had been cleared for repatriation, but remained at Guantanamo due to concerns about the security situations in their home countries.
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. 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 2012 election, President Barack Obama won the Electoral College tally by 332 to 206.
A great deal of government responsibility rests with the 50 states. Most criminal cases are dealt with at the state level, as are education, family matters, gun ownership policies, and many land-use decisions. States also have the power to raise revenues through taxation. In some states, citizens have a wide-ranging ability to influence legislation through referendums. Such direct-democracy mechanisms, often initiated by signature campaigns, 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 they can lead to incoherent governance, undermine representative democracy, and weaken the party system. Referendums in 2012 legalized same-sex marriage in three states and the recreational use of marijuana in two.
The intensely competitive U.S. political environment is dominated by two major parties, the right-leaning Republicans and the left-leaning Democrats. The country’s “first past the post” or majoritarian electoral system discourages 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 or groups aligned with organized labor, 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 main parties. A number of laws have been enacted to ensure the political rights of minorities. However, new laws in a number of states require voters to present driver’s licenses, birth certificates, or other forms of identification before casting ballots. Sponsors claim that the intent is to combat voter fraud, but critics contend that such fraud is a minor problem at most, and accuse Republicans of adopting the laws to suppress voting by demographic groups that tend to support Democrats, particularly low-income blacks. While the courts have struck down some voter identity laws, others were in place for the 2012 elections. In the end, participation rates for minority voters were relatively high, especially for black Americans.
Election campaigns are long and expensive. 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. The cost of the 2012 presidential race alone reached at least $5.8 billion, with billions more spent on elections for Congress and state and local offices. In general, candidates with a financial advantage are more likely to prevail, though a number of Senate races were won by candidates who trailed in fund-raising.
American society has a tradition of intolerance toward corrupt acts by government officials, corporate executives, or labor leaders. In recent years, the most serious instances of political corruption have been uncovered among state-level officials. In New York State, a number of state legislators and municipal officials have been indicted on charges of bribery, theft, and other forms of graft. The 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. However, there are concerns that financial difficulties in the newspaper industry have reduced the press’s willingness to devote resources to investigative journalism. Moreover, the expanding influence of interest groups and lobbyists on the legislative and policymaking processes, combined with their crucial role in campaign fund-raising, has given rise to public perceptions of enhanced corruption in Washington.
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 instructed federal agencies to adopt a cooperative attitude toward public information requests. But the administration has come under criticism for its lack of openness with the press and public and its determination to punish leaks by government officials.
The United States has a free, diverse, and constitutionally protected press. However, financially stressed newspapers have carried out major staff reductions over the past decade while instituting cost-cutting format changes, including dropping print editions altogether or limiting them to a few days a week. News websites now constitute a major source of political news, along with cable television networks and talk radio programs. News coverage has also grown more polarized, with particular outlets and their star commentators providing a consistently right- or left-leaning perspective.
Controversy has emerged in recent years over attempts by federal prosecutors and private attorneys to compel journalists to divulge their confidential sources or reporting materials, particularly in prosecutions of government employees accused of leaking information on national security issues. While laws that protect journalists’ sources and materials have been adopted in 39 states, a similar measure at the federal level has yet to win congressional approval.
Congressional efforts in 2012 to adopt legislation to prevent copyright infringement on the internet were shelved in response to strong opposition from leading internet companies, websites, and ordinary users. The bills would have given the authorities sweeping powers to block entire sites containing allegedly unauthorized content, potentially affecting legal content and compelling host companies to police the activities of their users.
The United States has a long tradition of religious freedom. The constitution protects the free exercise of religion 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. The academic sphere enjoys a healthy level of intellectual freedom.
In general, officials respect the right to public assembly. Demonstrations against government policies are frequently held in Washington, New York, and other major cities. Over the past decade, local authorities have often placed restrictions on the location or duration of large protests directed at meetings of international institutions, political party conventions, or targets in the financial sector. Police and protesters sometimes clashed during 2011 demonstrations by the Occupy movement against growing economic inequality, though similar demonstrations in 2012 generally took place without violence, as did protests at the national political conventions. 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 and engage in collective bargaining. The right to strike is also guaranteed. Over the years, however, the strength of organized labor has declined, so that only about 7 percent of the private-sector workforce is currently represented by unions. The country’s labor code and decisions by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) during Republican presidencies have been regarded as impediments to organizing efforts. Union organizing is also hampered by strong resistance from private employers. In 2012, Michigan became the 24th state to adopt “right to work” legislation, which makes union organizing more difficult. Organized labor’s political clout has diminished along with its membership, but unions provided significant support to Obama and other Democratic candidates during the 2012 election campaign.
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 major decisions by a one-vote margin and is currently seen as having a conservative majority. Concern has also been raised about a trend toward the politicization of judicial elections in some states.
While the United States has a strong rule-of-law tradition, the criminal justice system’s treatment of minority groups has long been a problem. Black and Latino inmates account for a disproportionately large percentage of the prison population. Civil liberties organizations and other groups have also advanced a broader critique of the justice system, arguing that there are too many Americans in prison, that prison sentences are often excessive, that too many prisoners are relegated to solitary confinement or other maximum-security arrangements, and that too many people are incarcerated 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. There is also a large number of juveniles serving lengthy prison terms in adult penitentiaries. Concerns have been raised about prison conditions, especially the incidence of violence and rape.
The United States has the highest rate of legal executions in the democratic world, though the number has declined since a peak in the late 1990s. There were 43 executions in the United States in 2012. The death penalty has been formally abolished by 18 states, mostly recently Connecticut in April 2012, and 12 states where it remains on the books have not carried out executions for the past five years. Of particular importance in this trend has been the exoneration of some death-row inmates based on new DNA testing. The Supreme Court has ruled out the death penalty in cases where the perpetrator is a juvenile or mentally handicapped. In 2012, the court further decided that juvenile offenders could not be subjected to mandatory sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
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 black Americans as the largest minority group, and the majority held by the non-Latino white population has declined. 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. The black population, however, continues to lag in overall 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.
The United States has generally maintained liberal immigration policies in recent decades. Most observers believe that the country has struck a balance that both encourages assimilation and permits new legal immigrants to maintain their religious and cultural customs. Many Americans remain troubled by the large number of illegal immigrants in the country, and the government has responded by strengthening border security and stepping up efforts to deport illegal immigrants, especially those found guilty of criminal offenses. Some states have enacted laws to restrict various economic and civil rights of undocumented immigrants, though the federal courts have struck down key sections of these laws, partly because of their potential side effects on the rights of U.S. citizens. During 2012, the Obama administration announced a reprieve from deportation for undocumented immigrants who arrived as children and meet certain other requirements.
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. Recently, however, studies have shown a widening inequality in wealth and a narrowing of access to upward mobility, trends that have been accentuated in the years since the 2008 financial crisis. 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 and are well represented in professions like law, medicine, and journalism. 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. In recent years there has been a renewed effort in some states to restrict access to abortion; in the past, most such measures were ultimately struck down by the Supreme Court.
Federal antidiscrimination legislation does not include LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people as a protected class, though many states have enacted such protections. Many states have passed laws or constitutional amendments explicitly banning same-sex marriage, but an increasing number have granted gay couples varying degrees of family rights, and by the end of 2012 same-sex marriage was legal in nine states and Washington, D.C. During the year, Obama reversed his previous opposition to same-sex marriage, which is now supported by a slight majority of Americans in many opinion polls.
The numerical ratings and status listed above do not reflect conditions in Puerto Rico, which is examined in a separate report.