TODAY’S AMERICAN: HOW FREE?
By Arch Puddington and Thomas O. Melia
How free is today’s American? The state of freedom within the United States has been a matter of considerable contention, especially in the years since September 11, 2001. Some elements of President George W. Bush’s counterterrorism effort—such as the monitoring of domestic telecommunications and the detention and interrogation of suspected terrorists—have drawn criticism from the public as well as multiple and ongoing challenges in the courts and by Congress. These concerns, coupled with other, long-standing critiques of the American system, have led some to ask whether Americans are facing an erosion of the rights and freedoms that are central to our national identity.
In the following pages, Freedom House presents its views on the state of freedom in the United States. In addition to addressing the effects of recent counterterrorism programs on civil liberties, it examines crucial topics including religious freedom, immigration, race relations, academic freedom, equality of opportunity, criminal justice, property rights, corruption, the political process, and freedom of expression and the press.
Having undertaken this examination over many months, Freedom House concludes that today’s American is quite free. The United States in 2008 remains a society in which political rights and civil liberties are widely though not universally respected. Challenges to those freedoms by government officials or other actors encounter vigorous and often successful resistance from civil society and the press, the political opposition, and a judiciary that is mindful of its role as a restraint on executive and legislative excess. Indeed, the dynamic, self-correcting nature of American democracy—the resilience of its core institutions and habits even in a time of military conflict—is the most significant finding of Today’s American: How Free?
The study draws three broad conclusions that go to the heart of both the strengths of the American system and the challenges confronting it.
The United States has been relatively successful in managing the inevitable tensions of a society characterized by substantial racial, ethnic, and religious diversity. Unlike the European democracies, for instance, America has been a destination for immigrants throughout its history. Indeed, it has been defined by its continually changing demography. The country’s ability to receive and integrate tens of millions of non-Europeans in recent decades is an impressive testament to the flexibility, fairness, and pragmatism of the American system. One might consider the United States to be the world’s first truly globalized nation, given the origins of its people and its increasing economic and communications integration with their many homelands.
Nevertheless, America’s comparative success in creating a multiracial and, in a sense, multinational society should not obscure the very real problems associated with such diversity. Racial minorities and immigrants are central to practically every issue that confronts the country today, including the difficult relationship between African Americans and the criminal justice system, the debate over the role of Muslims in American society, and the recurring controversy over illegal immigrants. Racial and religious differences give rise to demagogues on all sides. Angry arguments about “controlling our borders” and affirmative action are vivid reminders that pluralism makes hard demands on the institutions of free societies. The tensions and debates over the status of minorities and immigrants will remain with the United States long after the current contention over issues like the PATRIOT Act has been put to rest.
The restrictions on freedom posed by counterterrorism measures are worrying. This study expresses grave concern about attempts to extend executive authority without the usual congressional and judicial review, extraordinary renditions, mistreatment of those in U.S. custody, and warrantless wiretaps in contravention of the requirements of U.S. law.
However, the controversy surrounding the Bush administration’s counterterrorism policies must be assessed at least in part within the context of the strains on civil liberties in previous times of war. To be sure, the United States should be judged by the standards of the 21st century, and not by those of yesteryear. It is important and heartening to note the extent to which the response of civil liberties advocates has been both crisp and ultimately persuasive with judges, including those presiding in military courts. But it is also worthwhile to acknowledge the great distance our society has traveled in the evolution of its democracy. In 1798, newspaper editors were jailed under the Sedition Act; during the Civil War, habeas corpusprivileges were suspended; during World War I, women peaceably picketing at the White House for suffrage were imprisoned for “disrupting the war effort”; during World War II, censorship was imposed and Japanese Americans were placed in internment camps; and in the Vietnam War era, the FBI and CIA investigated thousands of Americans whose patriotism was questioned because of their antiwar opinions. Today, none of these practices would be tolerated, or even seriously considered.
The excesses of these earlier periods of conflict were each addressed and resolved by the normal workings of the American system, though often after some delay. Regarding today’s civil liberties controversies, a process of rethinking and adjustment is already under way as this work goes to print. The executive branch is being challenged by the courts and by Congress, and Congress is being challenged by the voters. Further corrections can be expected in the coming months and years. This is the larger, more important reality that gives Freedom House confidence in the democratic future of the United States. The American democracy responds to transgressions and is constantly reinvigorated.
A free press and an independent judiciary continue to be linchpins of the American system and are essential to preserving freedom in our society. The judiciary’s role in repeatedly defending individual rights can be seen throughout this study. The rights of religious and racial minorities, the free speech protections for students and academics, the due process rights of American citizens (and others) detained as enemy combatants, the ability of accused criminals to mount an effective defense, the rights of women to secure equal access to economic opportunity—these are but a few examples of the many aspects of democratic fairness that are regularly addressed by the courts. The judiciary’s function as guardian of minority rights is visible now in the national discussion about the rights of gay men and lesbians to marry, adopt, and inherit. The role of the press as a vital bulwark of freedom appears throughout this study in much the same way, and with respect to many of the same issues. The strength and independence of these two institutions has long been crucial to the protection of American freedoms, and is no less so in the current period of conflict and uncertainty.
ASSESSMENT OF MAJOR FINDINGS
The study highlights a number of enduring and systemic challenges to American democracy and the condition of individual freedom in the United States:
The United States has made important progress in race relations since the civil rights revolution. The fact that two African Americans, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, have served as secretary of state in the administration of a Republican president, and that, as this study goes to press, Senator Barack Obama is a serious contender for the presidency, reflects the sweeping changes that have taken place over the past half century. Black Americans today are more prosperous and more visible at the upper echelons of society—in business, the professions, and politics—than at any time in our history. That Hispanics and Asian Americans have also served in important cabinet positions and at the heights of the corporate world, the armed forces, journalism, and academia is further evidence of the acceptance of racial and ethnic diversity as a fact of American life.
The justified celebration of pluralism, however, can obscure the substantial and enduring gap between whites and blacks in the United States. Racial inequality is a reality across a broad set of institutions, but is most notable in three areas: living standards, education, and criminal justice. African Americans are more likely than whites to be born out of wedlock, drop out of high school, fail to obtain a college degree, and be unemployed, and are much more likely to have spent time in prison or jail. On average they earn less than whites, and are less likely to work in high-paying professions. To be sure, most indicators are changing for the better. But for the sizeable segment of blacks who are living in poverty or in near poverty, the prospects remain bleak. This is especially the case for young black men in inner-city neighborhoods. There is in fact an emerging gender divide among young blacks, with women much more likely than men to graduate from high school and enter college.
Hispanics, the other of America’s two largest minority groups, share with blacks a number of socioeconomic problems, including high rates of incarceration, substantial levels of poverty, and worryingly low rates of high school graduation. Since many are relatively recent immigrants, Hispanics are in certain respects following a pattern established by previous waves of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, especially given the large portion of unskilled workers among Hispanic newcomers. But in an era in which education represents the most significant vehicle for joining the economic mainstream, the lag in Hispanic school achievement is a cause for concern.
Clearly the legacy of America’s sordid history of slavery and segregation is an important factor in the problems that blacks confront today. The degree to which outright racial bias continues to be responsible for inequality is less obvious. The United States has done a lot over the past 40 years to expunge racism from its public institutions, economic life, and popular culture. In addition to the basic set of antidiscrimination laws, the country has mandated affirmative action in hiring and promotion policies, rewritten employment criteria (and exams for public-sector jobs) to eliminate potential cultural bias, adopted policies to ensure that minority political influence is not diluted by election laws or redistricting plans, and established a broad array of projects to encourage young blacks to enroll in higher education. The Justice Department continues to investigate and prosecute crimes committed against blacks and activists during the civil rights era, and various states have established the equivalents of truth commissions or otherwise acted to acknowledge historical wrongs, bringing a measure of belated justice for past crimes against African American citizens.
These measures have changed America in fundamental ways. But they have not contributed significantly to an improvement in the state of the inner-city poor. Increasingly, policymakers and African American community leaders have identified education as the key to future movement toward equality. Some within the black community have also pointed to aspects of black youth culture as an obstacle to achievement, especially for boys. Moreover, two of the most cherished goals of the movement for racial equality, residential integration and school desegregation, remain stubbornly out of reach. While some of the other pressing problems identified in this study—deficiencies in the electoral process and the civil liberties excesses of America’s counterterrorism policies, to take two important examples—can clearly be addressed by policymakers, the solutions to America’s racial divide are more elusive and appear at this juncture to be less obviously dependent on government action than was the case in the past.
Counterterrorism and Civil Liberties
There are many reasons to be critical of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism policies, and these issues are addressed in some detail in the chapter on civil liberties. The central question of this assessment, however, is the state of Americans’ individual freedom and the degree to which that freedom has been undermined or threatened by government actions. Generally speaking, the controversies over counterterrorism policies can be traced to the Bush administration’s assertion of a degree of executive authority that is extraordinary even in wartime. A number of specific policy debates arose belatedly due to the administration’s efforts to circumvent the normal checks and balances provided by Congress and the judiciary. We want to note the damage that some of the policies could cause if permitted to stand, but we do not want to exaggerate the extent to which they have actually affected Americans’ civil liberties in the past few years.
The war on terrorism has resulted in significantly fewer violations of individual freedom than previous conflicts. In particular, American officials and the mainstream media have gone to great lengths to avoid demonization of Arab Americans and Muslims, in stark contrast to the treatment of German Americans during World War I and the placement of Japanese Americans in internment camps just over two decades later. During World War II, political leaders and the press routinely smeared the Japanese and Japanese Americans with crude, blatantly racist remarks. In the current situation, those few prominent Americans (including politicians, media commentators, and civic leaders) who have impugned the patriotism of Muslims and Arabs in America have themselves often been sharply rebuked by high officials from both parties and other leaders.
Similarly, there have been no efforts to curb political dissent in ways comparable to what transpired during both world wars and the Vietnam War. A series of huge antiwar rallies have been held since the invasion of Iraq, with no significant obstruction by federal or state authorities.
It remains to be seen whether evolving approaches to protecting national security will in the end prove equal to the task of countering the new and more lethal form of terrorism, and whether the existing body of international and domestic law takes the terrorism challenge sufficiently into account. Nonetheless, this study concludes that the international reputation of the United States, and thus its ability to pursue the “Freedom Agenda” that President Bush has so eloquently articulated in his foreign policy, has suffered a significant setback due to policies attributed to the war on terrorism. Of particular concern for this examination of the state of freedom in the United States are those policies that have led to the mistreatment of foreigners in American custody—including extraordinary rendition of suspects to countries with unsavory reputations regarding due process and torture, the acknowledged American use of interrogation techniques that are widely viewed as torture, and the long-term lack of legal status for those detained at Guantanamo—along with the growing use of warrantless wiretapping and computerized “data mining” on American citizens.
The direct impact of the USA PATRIOT Act and other counterterrorism measures on the civil liberties of American citizens overall is uncertain, although the electronic surveillance actions could involve millions of Americans. In addition, new revelations regularly point to overreach in antiterrorism cases by law enforcement agencies. While there is as yet little evidence to suggest that counterterrorism programs have severely impinged on the rights of substantial numbers of Americans, the potential for more widespread violations must be taken seriously. The judiciary (including military courts) has struck down some aspects of counterterrorism policy, and the prospects are good for further action by the courts and Congress to curtail or terminate initiatives that pose threats to individual rights.
The findings on the functioning of the criminal justice system are perhaps the most disquieting in this study. This is especially the case because, in so many other areas, the United States stands as a model rule-of-law society. Analysts consistently point to strong evidence of unequal treatment of blacks and Hispanics compared with whites, prison overcrowding and mistreatment of prisoners, and excessively long sentences, especially for nonviolent drug offenders.
The increase in incarceration rates is jarring. In 1980, the rate of incarceration overall in America was 1.39 per thousand residents; by 2006, that figure had risen to 7.5. Also disturbing is the fact that a black man today has a one in three chance of being behind bars at some point during his lifetime. (If he has not completed high school, he has a 60 percent chance of going to prison.) In contrast, a white man has only a 1 in 17 chance of going to prison.
Those who defend recent American policies note that stricter enforcement and sentencing practices coincided with a major reduction in crime over the past quarter century. This is an important point. Public fears that crime is out of control have contributed to a lack of faith in democracy in a number of countries around the globe. While the effects of crime had not reached that level in America, the law-and-order issue was certainly a factor in political life, and violent crime was clearly contributing to the decline of major American cities and the impoverishment of minority neighborhoods. High rates of violent crime, and the sense that the country’s political leadership was unable to offer effective remedies, enhanced cynicism toward the political process among many Americans.
Yet while one would expect some degree of correlation between crime rates and the rate of incarceration, in recent years the prison population has continued to expand despite the preceding drop in crime. Moreover, new policing initiatives have relied heavily on methods that some deem discriminatory toward blacks and Hispanics, such as stop-and-frisks and saturation-level police presence in certain neighborhoods.
Looking more broadly at the criminal justice system in America, important concerns have also been raised about prosecutorial tactics in cases of white-collar crime. Some have questioned whether the criminalization of certain business practices is appropriate, and whether due process is observed in the seizure of assets during the investigation and prosecution of alleged crimes. The zealous pursuit of particular white-collar cases has even drawn accusations of political motivation.
The American political system is, in many critical aspects, either a work in progress or in need of serious repair. Some points of concern date back several decades (low voter turnout) and some date to the adoption of the Constitution (the Electoral College). Other issues, such as the effects of our decentralized system on the fairness of voting procedures, have come to the forefront more recently, as systemic barriers to participation and inequities within and across states have become better appreciated. The pervasive role of money in politics pits libertarian defenders of donors’ First Amendment freedoms against those seeking to regulate campaign finance. The desire to regulate is in part a response to the apparently corrupting influence of candidates’ perpetual search for campaign funds. It is also rooted in the notion that all Americans should have equal access to their government officials, regardless of personal wealth. Libertarians argue that such restrictions limit the choices available to voters, and that the only regulation needed is full disclosure of all contributions, allowing voters to decide whether a candidate may be unduly obligated to a particular donor or group of donors.
No American would say that the United States is a perfect democracy, or even that it administers elections as well it should. Indeed, controversies arising from electoral practices that could be corrected have in recent years dismayed America’s admirers, and brought glee to its critics.
Notwithstanding the flaws discussed in the chapter on this topic, the American political system essentially works, in that new actors constantly enter the arena while incumbents and party majorities are ousted at each election; public opinion matters, and those citizens who choose to mobilize can affect outcomes very directly. The midterm elections of 2006 demonstrated anew that—despite concerns about the impact of gerrymandering, the presumed fund-raising advantages of incumbency, and efforts at vote suppression in key areas—the American people retain the power to change their leaders democratically.
After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, some feared that the United States would experience a new wave of anti-immigrant nativism that would threaten the country’s tradition as a home for immigrants from around the world. There is ample precedent in American history to justify such fears. The anti-German sentiment associated with World War I and the political radicalism that followed the conflict played important roles in triggering three decades of highly restrictive immigration policy. Similarly, as noted above, World War II led to an upsurge in anti-Japanese feeling and the internment of more than 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans.
Furthermore, worries about the loyalty of immigrants from Muslim countries in the post-9/11 period dovetailed with a growing unease about the porousness of America’s border with Mexico. Fears of terrorist infiltration combined with concern over the economic and social impact of millions of undocumented workers from Mexico and other Latin American countries elevated immigration to the top of the political agenda while this study was being prepared.
The tone and content of the debate is at times disturbing, especially the depiction of undocumented workers as lawbreaking economic burdens to American society. Some public officials have even advocated the deportation of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants currently in the country. If this were seriously attempted, it would entail massive human injustice and violations of civil liberties. Still, unlike past periods of intense debate over immigration, the current controversy has not triggered widespread nativism or racism (although there have been localized incidents). And while failure to gain control over America’s borders could obviously weaken public support for continuing substantial legal immigration, it is noteworthy that the main thrust of the restrictionist argument has been directed at illegal aliens and not at the basic U.S. policy of welcoming robust, legal inflows in a nondiscriminatory manner. The leading proposals for coping with existing undocumented immigrants have focused on ways to guide them toward legal status and citizenship. The events of 9/11 have reinforced the conviction that a principal objective of immigration policy should be the assimilation of new residents into the social and economic mainstream. Thus there has been a renewed emphasis on all immigrants learning the English language, moving toward citizenship, and integrating into the American workplace.
The treatment of immigrant Muslims and Arabs has been a concern in the post-9/11 period. In the months following the attacks, hate crimes against Muslims, which had been at a relatively low level, increased substantially. In a blatant violation of civil rights, the federal government rounded up and imprisoned some 1,200 Muslim men. Those detained were, with few exceptions, never charged with a crime and were often deprived of access to legal counsel. Many had overstayed their visas and were eventually sent back to their countries of origin. Other Muslims who were in the United States legally as immigrants or students were subjected to heightened scrutiny, and occasionally investigation, by the federal government.
While many Muslims complained that they were victims of unwarranted suspicion and or outright discrimination, the overall impact on their status in the United States was limited. Almost immediately after the attacks, the leaders of Muslim and Arab American organizations were consulted by senior federal officials and were often asked to appear at forums sponsored by Republicans and Democrats, public policy organizations, and interfaith groups. Within two years, the number of hate crimes against Muslims declined significantly. A survey published by the Pew Research Center in May 2007 found that the vast majority of Muslims in America are “pretty happy” or “very happy.” The findings suggested widespread contentment with their economic status and indicated considerable intermingling with other groups. As Muslim and Arab immigrants continue to seek admission to the United States, established residents from both groups have increased their participation in the American political process since 9/11. Significantly, the Pew study found important differences between Muslim immigrants, who seemed to feel that they had in important ways attained the American dream, and U.S.-born Muslims, who were far less satisfied with their situation. This latter group primarily consists of African Americans, and their views thus reinforce this study’s conclusion that reducing the black-white divide remains America’s most formidable long-term challenge.
Equality of Opportunity Amid Economic Globalization
Among major liberal democracies, no country has been more aggressive in embracing the global economy than the United States. America’s policies have had tangible benefits: the country is well positioned for global economic competition, has enjoyed several decades of low inflation, and has maintained a rate of unemployment that is low by the standards of the developed free-market world.
Most jobs in America are created by private businesses, large and small. The legal and cultural climate in the United States—which permits an individual to develop an idea and seize an economic opportunity by launching a new business, often aided by infusions of capital from risk-taking investors—is unparalleled in the world today, and is the foundation upon which American prosperity is built.
America’s economic course, however, has also had its negative side. Most notable is the widening gap between those in the minority with the skills and training to take advantage of the new economic environment, and the rest of society. While rising inequality was initially put forward as a concern by liberals, conservatives too have recently begun to comment on the phenomenon. Even former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan has recently said that the growing differentials in income and wealth constitute potential threats to the future of capitalism.
In the United States, organized labor has traditionally worked to defend the rights of workers and soften capitalism’s sharp edges. The steep decline in union membership over the past few decades is therefore unsettling. In 2006, only 12 percent of American workers were represented by unions, a remarkably low figure for a developed industrial democracy. An even more telling statistic is the unionization figure for the private sector: 7.4 percent (36.2 percent of public employees are unionized).
Unions in practically every liberal democracy have suffered losses in recent decades, due to the evolution of their economies away from industrial production and toward the provision of services. Yet in most of these countries, unions continue to represent a quarter or more of the private workforce and play a vital role, in partnership with management and government, in ensuring that the benefits of a productive economy are widely shared. In Canada, for instance, workers in the private sector are four times more likely to be unionized than their U.S. counterparts. The decline of unions is not in itself evidence that the rights of employees are being trampled or that workers are unhappy in their jobs. If workers choose to reject unions, that is their right in a democratic society. In the United States, however, the playing field has tilted against organized labor over the past three decades. Management resistance to unionization has increased, and both federal policies and the decisions of the National Labor Relations Board have narrowed the ability of unions to secure bargaining rights for workers.
Since the adoption of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the United States has established an elaborate framework of laws and policies that are designed to prevent discrimination against women and racial and ethnic minorities. These laws have played an important role in transforming the status of groups that had previously played subordinate roles in the nation’s economic life and had often been excluded from institutions of higher education.
Women in particular have gained from policies meant to accelerate their participation in the economy. While they are still grossly underrepresented in the halls of Congress, executive mansions, and corporate boardrooms across the country, women today are more likely than men to attend college, and their presence in medicine, law, and other professions has increased exponentially over the past several decades. We are confident that this will continue, as glass ceilings are broken by the pressures of meritocracy, targeted legal action, and the continuing evolution of cultural sensibilities on the part of men and women alike.
America’s antidiscrimination legislation also applies to certain immigrant groups, and has thus had an impact on Hispanics and, to a lesser extent, Asians. Affirmative action plans for university admissions have generally lumped Hispanics with African Americans as beneficiaries of preferential treatment. The inclusion of Hispanics in such plans has generated controversy above and beyond the basic divisions over giving preference based on group identity. Some question whether Hispanics and other immigrant groups should be included in programs originally designed to compensate for the historical injustices endured by black Americans during and after slavery.
While 19 states, the District of Columbia, and numerous municipalities have enacted laws barring discrimination based on sexual orientation, federal law in this area offers nothing comparable to the antidiscrimination legislation covering race, religion, ethnicity, sex, age, disability, and pregnancy. As this report was finalized in November 2007, the U.S. House of Representatives passed, 235 to 184, the Employment Nondiscrimination Act. If cleared by the Senate and signed into law, it would grant broad protections against discrimination in the workplace for gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals. Opinion surveys show that a plurality of Americans oppose discrimination against homosexuals, but a majority still reject same-sex marriage, a matter with which state legislatures and the courts continue to grapple.
Religious Freedom After 9/11
The American tradition of tolerance and protection for religious minorities has held firm despite a measure of popular resentment aimed at Muslims in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks. Muslims, like Catholics, Jews, and adherents of other faiths and denominations, are free to practice their religion in what remains a predominantly Protestant country. While new policies established under the PATRIOT Act allow federal authorities to monitor religious institutions, there have been few complaints that the state is interfering with the normal routines of churches, synagogues, and mosques. Indeed, the religious life of today’s American is robust, with the one of the highest rates of regular attendance at religious services in the developed world. Aside from the unhappiness in the Sikh community in the summer of 2007, when airport security-screening procedures were extended to head coverings including the turbans worn by Sikh men, the United States has largely avoided major controversies of the sort that have erupted in some European countries over the wearing of headscarves, veils, or other items that have a religious significance. Likewise, the American tradition of church-state separation has been maintained, despite some efforts to weaken it.
The American media face a number of problems, some of which emerged after 9/11, but they remain free to collect and report news and information. The press long ago established itself as an indispensable guarantor of the broader array of democratic freedoms in the United States. While some have complained that the mainstream media were insufficiently skeptical of the government’s case for the invasion of Iraq, the press has been notably independent and vigorous in its overall reporting on controversial aspects of the war on terrorism. Major newspapers and television networks have devoted extensive coverage to the administration’s surveillance program, the detention of terrorism suspects in foreign jails, the prison camp at Guantanamo, and the Abu Ghraib scandal. There was some debate over the practice of reporters being embedded with American military units during the initial phases of the Iraq war, but even then the press was subject to very little censorship. In the years since the invasion, American media have provided fulsome coverage of the escalating civil strife and the succession of American setbacks in the country. Separately, the press has closely followed a series of domestic scandals involving corporate leaders, elected officials, and lobbyists.
Freedom of information has been threatened in recent years by the Bush administration’s pronounced tendency toward enhanced secrecy. The manifestations of this shift have included limited press access to administration officials and a major increase in the volume of documents that have been classified and thus made unavailable to the public. Indeed, according to press reports, a program to reclassify previously declassified documents was launched at the behest of Vice President Dick Cheney. Meanwhile, there have been a number of cases in which the press has published information that had been classified for national security reasons, and journalists have faced an increase in demands by prosecutors and judges to reveal the identity of confidential sources and turn over investigative notes. Although a direct confrontation between the government and the press has been avoided during the post-9/11 period, the issue of the media’s right to publish classified material may yet require the attention of policymakers and the courts.
An accelerated decline in the economic conditions of the newspaper industry and the continued consolidation of major media outlets have raised concerns about media diversity. Critics have also highlighted the power of certain media, such as talk radio and political blogs, to polarize public opinion on various matters. These problems, however, are perhaps more than offset by the exponential growth in information options driven by cable and satellite services; the internet, including opinion and commentary venues like blogs; and better access to the remaining variety of U.S. and foreign newspapers, magazines, and wire services.
While this study examines the deficiencies in American democracy today, our conclusions about the overall state of freedom are optimistic. More than six years after 9/11, the American people are blessed with a society dedicated to the protection of liberty and committed to the institutions of democratic politics and the rule of law.
This publication is not meant to be prescriptive. We have not included a list of proposals and policies to deal with the weaknesses that are identified. Some problems, in fact, appear to lie beyond the scope of traditional government action. Thus while we have cited racial inequality as perhaps the most important problem facing American democracy, we do not see a direct and obvious link between the poverty that continues to afflict African Americans disproportionately and any particular legislative remedy.
However, other problems highlighted in this study could certainly be ameliorated, if not entirely resolved, through a change in administration policies or in the law. The courts have issued decisions to deal with certain excesses of counterterrorism policy, but more can and should be done by Congress. Likewise, state legislatures can and should enact measures to develop a more equitable and humane criminal justice system.
Finally, as the world’s leading democracy, the United States has a special obligation to ensure that its own electoral and political processes adhere to the highest standards of fairness, inclusion, and transparency. The aftermath of the 2000 presidential election brought national and international attention to a number of problems with the conduct of elections, campaign funding, and the selection of nominees that had been festering for years. While Congress has addressed a few of these deficiencies, more aggressive action is called for if the American method of choosing political leaders is to match our nation’s democratic ideals.
Today’s American lives in freedom. The self-correcting democratic system will continue to protect that freedom so long as its institutions remain robust and Americans remain willing to scrutinize and improve their own conditions and practices. It is our hope that this report helps to catalyze that process.