Press release September 28, 2020
Principles for Safeguarding US Democracy
The United States has a unique capacity and a moral obligation to cultivate alliances with free nations and lend support to democracy advocates in authoritarian or transitional settings.
Freedom House was founded on the understanding that the United States, as the world’s most influential democracy, has an essential part to play in the global struggle for liberty. It has a unique capacity and a moral obligation to cultivate alliances with free nations and lend support to democracy advocates in authoritarian or transitional settings. Doing so ultimately protects the freedom, security, and prosperity of Americans by promoting a stable international order, preventing armed conflicts and failed states, and ensuring the support of like-minded global powers.
The United States cannot play this role if the country’s own democratic institutions continue to erode, as it will not have the internal capacity or the international credibility. Based on Freedom House’s decades of work on democracy, including its flagship report, Freedom in the World, we believe it is essential for elected officials, aspiring politicians, political parties, civil servants, and an active citizenry to adhere to the following principles in all aspects of their public lives, and to pursue policies that will strengthen them in both the near and long-term future.
1. Credible and inclusive elections
- To ensure public confidence in elections, there must be adequate resources for voting, all candidates and parties must commit to respecting results, and the public must be provided with complete, timely, and accurate electoral information.
- Access to suffrage is fundamental to democracy, and all undue constraints on who can vote and how or where they cast ballots should be eliminated, with a particular emphasis on reducing barriers faced by historically marginalized groups. Politicians should not be permitted to select their own voters through the manipulation of electoral maps and rules.
2. Equality and freedom from discrimination
- The human rights of all individuals must be protected no matter who or which party is in power. Elected officials should be mindful that their mandate is to represent and serve the entire public, not just the regional, demographic, or other groups that may form their political base.
- Extra care should be taken to respect the due process rights of historically marginalized ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, or other relevant groups, as well as vulnerable populations such as noncitizen immigrants and asylum seekers.
- The scapegoating of particular ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, or other such populations for political gain—or the deliberate encouragement of hostility between demographic groups—should be considered an assault on democracy.
3. Checks and balances
- The separation of powers and limits on executive authority in particular are necessary to sustain a democratic system. Judicial and prosecutorial independence should be protected from political pressure, selective prosecution of or impunity for political opponents or allies should be strictly prohibited, and significant changes to judicial systems must adhere to constitutional procedures and democratic legal norms.
- The executive branch should voluntarily submit to robust legislative oversight, including in the appointment of executive officials. Political leaders and government officials should be required to avoid even the appearance of conflicts of interest in order to maintain public trust in democratic institutions.
4. Freedom of expression and information
- Democracy thrives on open debate grounded in good faith and factual evidence. Such a free exchange of ideas enables social and political progress and the correction of past wrongs.
- Press freedom, freedom of expression, and access to information must be upheld, both online and off. There should be no undue restrictions on the free flow of information, including curbs on internet connectivity and access to digital platforms.
- Authorities should recognize the democratic function of the media and civil society in holding the government to account by ceasing and condemning any harassment, intimidation, or arrests of journalists and peaceful activists; formalized or de facto restrictions on journalistic access, such as politically motivated allocation or revocation of press credentials; and censorship of independent or critical sources of information.
- Professional media should ensure high journalistic standards, including by marking paid content clearly and differentiating opinion from fact-based reporting.
5. Freedoms of assembly and association
- The rights to associate and peacefully assemble, online and off, should be free from undue restrictions, including excessive use of force by police, government authorities, or nonstate actors; unnecessary physical or bureaucratic barriers; and preemptive or arbitrary detentions and arrests.
6. Privacy and freedom from surveillance
- Personal privacy and the free exercise of political, civic, and other human rights should not be undermined by surveillance. Disproportionate, arbitrary, or discriminatory monitoring—such as through the use of spyware, social media surveillance, and AI-assisted surveillance—should be assiduously avoided.
- Data privacy laws should be enacted to ensure the democratic oversight, accountability, and transparency of any surveillance systems or programs, and should include clear limitations on which agencies have access to the relevant tools and data, for which purposes.
7. Rule of law
- The chief executive is a temporary public servant whose designated powers are checked and balanced by coequal branches of government and constrained by the rule of law. Any wrongdoing by the president, whether in an official or a private capacity, must be subject to investigation and prosecution by independent institutions. The same is true of all subordinate executive officials and private associates of the president.
- The justice system of any democracy must deliver fair and timely trials, uphold the right of the accused to counsel, provide protections against arbitrary or discriminatory arrests or detentions, and ensure that law enforcement agencies are independent, accountable, and subject to oversight and transparency.
Policy Recommendations: Strengthening Democracy
Democracies should work to support their core principles at home and around the world. The following recommendations are intended to provide a framework for democratic countries as they pursue this goal.
Freedom in the World 2020: United States Country Report
The United States is rated Free in Freedom in the World 2020.
Freedom on the Net 2020: United States Country Report
The United States is rated Free in Freedom on the Net 2019.