Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
For the second consecutive year, a polarized political environment seriously weakened the ability of the United States to adopt new policies through the normal legislative process. Indeed, legislative gridlock precluded the adoption of a federal budget for much of the year and triggered a previously mandated “sequestration,” or automatic reductions in federal spending across broad categories. In October, continued failure to reach a spending accord resulted in a partial shutdown of the federal government that lasted for about two weeks. The opposition Republican Party, which holds a majority in the House of Representatives, refused to pass essential spending bills unless they included provisions that defunded the 2010 Affordable Care Act, a federal health insurance measure championed by President Barack Obama that was set for implementation in 2014. Republican leaders eventually agreed to drop the demand and pass legislation that funded the government through January 2014 and extended federal borrowing power through February.
Compounding the perception of the federal government as ineffectual was a major technical failure on the Affordable Care Act’s website, which temporarily prevented uninsured individuals from signing up for insurance coverage as required under the law.
The Obama administration also faced an international furor over revelations that the National Security Agency (NSA), a Defense Department division responsible for electronic surveillance, had been amassing a huge database of information on telephone calls, e-mail messages, mobile phone exchanges, and other forms of communication. The existence of the NSA programs was made public through voluminous leaks provided by Edward Snowden, a contract worker for the agency who fled the United States and settled, at least temporarily, in Russia to avoid prosecution by U.S. authorities. While much of the data collection focused on individuals outside the United States and was meant to serve either traditional espionage or counterterrorism purposes, information on communications within the United States was also amassed.
The NSA controversy was the latest chapter in an ongoing series of debates over America’s counterterrorism tactics that stretched back to the 2000–08 administration of President George W. Bush. While many of the more contentious policies were eliminated during the latter part of the Bush administration or Obama’s first term, Obama failed in his efforts to close the military detention facility for terrorism suspects in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. During 2013, Obama again attempted to persuade Congress to ease the transfer or release of Guantanamo detainees, but was thwarted by resistance from the Republican Party. Obama himself was criticized for his administration’s failure to fully exercise its existing authority and release more detainees to their home or third countries.
In August, Army private Chelsea Manning (then known as Bradley Manning) was sentenced to 35 years in prison for providing hundreds of thousands of classified documents to the antisecrecy organization WikiLeaks. The leaks were published over the course of 2010, exposing internal diplomatic and military communications on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other topics. Manning, who had been held under military detention conditions that were widely criticized, would be eligible for parole in roughly seven years.
Political Rights: 37 / 40 [Key]
A. Electoral Process: 11 / 12
The United States is a presidential republic, with the president serving as both head of state and head of government. Cabinet secretaries and other key officials are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, the upper house of the bicameral Congress. 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, as happened most recently in 2000. 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. The president may serve up to two four-year terms. In the 2012 election, incumbent Barack Obama of the Democratic Party won the Electoral College tally by 332 to 206 and the popular vote by 51 to 47 percent, defeating his Republican Party challenger, Mitt Romney.
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. In the 2012 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.
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. Recent referendums in various states have resulted in the legalization of same-sex marriage, legalization of recreational use of marijuana, and approval of certain forms of gambling.
Election campaigns are long and expensive. The two main parties and the constituency and interest groups that support them have used an array of 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.
B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 16 / 16
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 identification laws, others have been given approval by the judiciary. In the 2012 presidential election, participation rates for minority voters were relatively high, especially for black Americans, who voted in higher percentages than did whites.
C. Functioning of Government: 10 / 12
American society has a tradition of intolerance toward corrupt acts by government officials, corporate executives, or labor leaders. In the wake of the 2008–09 financial crisis, the Justice Department and some state governments launched several high-profile prosecutions directed at various forms of misconduct in banking and financial institutions. Several of the more prominent cases have resulted in multibillion-dollar settlements. Cases of corruption involving administration officials, members of Congress, and others in the federal government have been relatively rare or small in scale in recent years. The most serious instances of political corruption have instead been uncovered among state-level officials. In New York State, a number of state legislators and municipal officials have been convicted 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. A controversy erupted during 2013 when it was revealed that the Internal Revenue Service had applied special scrutiny to applications for tax-exempt status submitted by nonprofit organizations with a conservative political profile. It later emerged that the agency had given similar scrutiny to some liberal groups, and charges appeared unlikely at year’s end.
The United States has a history of open and transparent government. It was the first country to adopt a freedom of information law. 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. 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.
However, the Obama administration has encountered criticism in recent years for engendering an atmosphere of secrecy, especially in relations with the press. In addition to prosecutors’ efforts to compel journalists to reveal the sources of leaked national security information, the administration has been accused of implementing an aggressive policy to discourage government officials from having contact with the media. A report issued by the Committee to Protect Journalists in October 2013 criticized the administration’s “Insider Threat Program,” under which federal employees are obliged to monitor the behavior of colleagues to prevent unauthorized leaks. Some have also criticized the administration for its efforts to arrest Edward Snowden and for the military’s prosecution of Chelsea Manning. Nevertheless, both cases are controversial, and many observers have argued that the government’s actions are justified on national security grounds.
Civil Liberties: 55 / 60 (-1)
D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 15 / 16 (-1)
The United States has a free, diverse, and constitutionally protected press. While newspapers have been in economic decline for the past decade, the media environment retains a high degree of pluralism. 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.
In May 2013, the Justice Department revealed that three months earlier it had secretly subpoenaed and seized records for 20 Associated Press (AP) telephone lines for a two-month period in 2012. The subpoena was part of an investigation into an AP story about American covert operations in Yemen. It was also revealed that the Justice Department had secretly subpoenaed and seized the e-mail and telephone records of James Rosen, a Fox News correspondent, in connection with an investigation into Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, a former State Department contractor accused of illegally disclosing classified information.
The AP and Fox News cases provoked a firestorm of criticism from the media, civil libertarians, and members of Congress. Subsequently, Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder held meetings with media representatives, issued statements expressing the administration’s commitment to journalistic freedom, and indicated a more favorable attitude toward a national shield law. While such shield laws, which protect journalists’ sources and materials from government scrutiny, have been adopted in 39 states, a similar measure at the federal level has yet to win congressional approval. Furthermore, after a policy review prompted by the AP and Fox News revelations, the Justice Department issued new guidelines that significantly narrowed conditions under which the government could gain access to records of journalists’ communications with sources.
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 features a healthy level of intellectual freedom. Nevertheless, universities have faced problems related to their establishment of overseas branches in such authoritarian settings as China, Singapore, and Dubai. Critics have charged such universities with agreeing to a form of academic self-censorship by avoiding discussion of sensitive issues at their foreign campuses, and agreeing to tamp down student political activism. U.S. universities have also been accused of caving in to pressure from activist groups that object to speakers who have been invited to campus events. Speakers have regularly been disinvited or decided to withdraw from speaking engagements after protests were launched.
Americans generally enjoy open and free private discussion, including on the internet. However, civil libertarians in 2013 pointed to the potential effect of NSA data collection on the rights of U.S. citizens, and free speech organizations asserted that the surveillance revelations—combined with the year’s scandals over the seizure of journalists’ records—were causing some to practice self-censorship.
E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 11 / 12
In general, officials respect the right to public assembly. Demonstrations against government policies are frequently held in Washington, New York, and other major cities. In response to acts of violence committed in the course of some past demonstrations, local authorities often place restrictions on the location or duration of large protests directed at meetings of international institutions, political party conventions, or targets in the financial sector.
The United States gives wide freedom to trade associations, nongovernmental organizations, minority rights advocates, and issue-oriented pressure groups to organize and pursue their civic or policy agendas.
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 less than 7 percent of the private-sector workforce is currently represented by unions. While public-sector unions have higher rates of membership, they have come under pressure from officials concerned about the cost of compensation and pensions to states and municipalities. 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 at the national level has diminished along with its membership, but unions provided significant support to Obama and other Democratic candidates during the 2012 election campaign.
F. Rule of Law: 14 / 16
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. In 2013, however, a pair of Supreme Court rulings removed important obstacles to same-sex marriage. 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. Although the incarceration rate has declined somewhat in recent years, the United States still has the highest proportion of citizens in prisons or jails in the world. Additional calls for prison reform have focused on the incidence of violence and rape behind bars.
The United States has the highest rate of legal executions in the democratic world, though the number has declined from a peak in the late 1990s. There were 39 executions in the United States in 2013. The death penalty has been formally abolished by 18 states, most recently Maryland in May 2013; in another 13 states where it remains on the books, executions have not been carried out for the past five years or more. Of particular importance in this trend has been the exoneration of some death-row inmates based on new DNA testing, as well as legal challenges to the constitutionality of the prevailing methods of lethal injection. The Supreme Court has ruled out the death penalty in cases where the perpetrator is a juvenile or mentally disabled, among other restrictions. 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. At the same time, some states have actually adopted policies that discourage local law enforcement officials from identifying or reporting illegal immigrants, except in cases of serious crimes. Although the Obama administration and most Democrats support proposed plans that would offer many current illegal immigrants a path to resident status and eventual citizenship, such immigration reform has been opposed by most Republican elected officials. The Obama administration has recently refocused its enforcement policies to target criminals and other high-priority categories of migrants while sparing groups like those who entered the country illegally as children.
G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 15 / 16
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.
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 women’s access to abortion. In the past, most such measures were ultimately struck down by the Supreme Court, but the new laws are being tailored to push the boundaries of prior court decisions, and some have survived initial judicial scrutiny, adding to state-by-state variation in access.
Federal antidiscrimination legislation does not include LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people as a protected class, though most 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 2013 same-sex marriage was legal in Washington, D.C., and 15 states, including such populous states as California, New York, and Illinois. A pair of Supreme Court rulings in June paved the way for same-sex marriage in California and struck down a federal law that had barred federal agencies from recognizing the marriages of same-sex couples and conferring related benefits.
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 2008–09 financial crisis. Obama has cited the reduction of inequality as a major objective of his administration. The government has proposed an increase in the federal minimum wage, and a number of states and municipalities have proposed substantial rises in their own minimum wage levels. At the same time, Americans seem resistant to increases in tax rates, and Democratic Party leaders have generally failed to win passage of tax measures that call for wealthier citizens to contribute more. 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.
X = Score Received
Y = Best Possible Score
Z = Change from Previous Year
The numerical ratings and status listed above do not reflect conditions in Puerto Rico, which is examined in a separate report.