Freedom in the World
President Barack Obama encountered stiff resistance to his legislative agenda from congressional Republicans during 2011. The result was legislative gridlock, with little or no progress on a series of measures designed to reduce the federal budget deficit. Meanwhile, civil libertarians and others grew increasingly critical of the administration’s use of remotely piloted aircraft overseas to kill suspected terrorists, including American citizens. In the fall, police sometimes employed aggressive tactics in response to a protest movement fueled by growing economic inequality.
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 18 months 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 involvement of the federal government in economic affairs, and of implementing policies that irresponsibly increased an already large budget deficit.
In the November 2010 congressional elections, Republicans recaptured control of the House of Representatives, taking 242 seats, and narrowed the Democratic majority in the Senate, securing a new total of 47 seats. This left the Democrats with 193 House seats and 51 seats in the Senate. There were also two independent senators who voted with the Democratic caucus. 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 domestic 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.
The administration stepped up the use of remotely piloted drone aircraft to attack alleged terrorist leaders in countries including Pakistan and Yemen, reportedly killing U.S. citizens in at least two cases. The campaign drew criticism from U.S. civil liberties organizations, as did various other aspects of the government’s counterterrorism efforts. While Obama had made a number of changes to the counterterrorism policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush, including an explicit ban on the use of torture by U.S. personnel, he declined to roll back other Bush-era practices, such as the collection of Americans’ voice and internet communications by the National Security Agency. The administration also blocked information requests in several
security-related court cases; made no effort to amend the USA PATRIOT Act, aspects of which have been criticized by civil libertarians; continued to rely on the use of indefinite detention of terrorism suspects; and, in the face of political and popular resistance, abandoned efforts to close down the military detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Obama also drew criticism from press freedom and other groups for the aggressive prosecution of leaks of classified information, which in some cases led to pressure on journalists to reveal the identity of confidential sources.
The United States has avoided the hard-edged debates over Muslim immigrants that have afflicted a number of European societies, but a series of controversies over the assimilation of Muslims have occurred since the 2001 terrorist attacks. During 2011, the media revealed the New York police department’s monitoring of mosques, Muslim student organizations, and other institutions of the Muslim community throughout the Northeast. While relations between black and Hispanic Americans and local police departments have improved over the years, civil rights organizations criticized police in various cities in 2011 for “stop-and-frisk” tactics that disproportionately target young black and Hispanic men.
Also in 2011, growing wealth disparities and a perceived decline in equality of opportunity gave rise to the “Occupy” protest movement. The movement began in September as Occupy Wall Street, featuring a round-the-clock encampment in a small park in New York City’s financial district. Similar encampments were then established in other cities. While the Occupy forces drew considerable publicity, they failed to exert serious influence on the political process. After a few months, municipalities began to remove the protesters from their sites. While police generally used nonviolent tactics to contain marches and clear public spaces, in several cities, most notably New York, law enforcement authorities at times resorted to rougher methods that led to clashes with the Occupy participants.
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.
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, which have been conducted on issues including tax rates, affirmative action, and immigrant rights. 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 recalling elected officials in the middle of their terms or making policy through referendums can lead to incoherent governance, undermine representative democracy, and weaken the party system.
The intensely competitive U.S. political environment is dominated by the two major parties, the right-leaning Republicans and the left-leaning Democrats. The country’s “first past the post” or majoritarian electoral system 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 parties 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, a major controversy has been triggered by new laws in a number of states that require voters to present certain types of identification documents at the polls. Sponsors of the laws claim that the intent is to combat voter fraud. But critics contend that voter fraud is a minor problem at most, and accuse Republicans of adopting the laws to suppress voting by demographic groups that tend to support Democratic candidates by heavy margins, particularly low-income blacks.
Election campaigns are long and expensive. Serious candidates frequently find themselves in a “permanent campaign,” with a never-ending process of fundraising. The two parties and the constituency and interest groups that support them have used various methods to circumvent legal restrictions on campaign spending, and the Supreme Court on several occasions has struck down such restrictions, finding that they violated free speech rights. Election spending for the 2008 contests easily surpassed that of previous years, reaching over $5 billion; the presidential race alone cost $2.4 billion.
American society has a tradition of intolerance toward corrupt acts by government officials, corporate executives, or labor leaders. In recent years, the most serious instances of political corruption have been uncovered among state-level officials. In the most notable case, former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich was convicted in 2011 on multiple counts of corruption, including attempts to benefit financially from his appointment of a replacement for Barack Obama after he vacated his Senate seat to become president. The U.S. media are aggressive in reporting on cases of corporate and official corruption; newspapers often publish investigative articles that delve into questions of private or public malfeasance. However, there are concerns that financial difficulties in the newspaper industry have reduced the press’s willingness to devote resources to investigative journalism. At the same time, the expanding influence of interest groups and lobbyists on the legislative and policymaking processes, combined with their crucial role in campaign fundraising, has given rise to public perceptions of enhanced corruption in Washington.
The 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 ordered federal agencies to adopt a cooperative attitude toward public information requests. A Knight Foundation study released in March 2011 found that about half of federal government agencies had adhered to the new standard.
The United States has a free, diverse, and constitutionally protected press. A long-standing debate over the impact of ownership consolidation—either by sprawling media companies with outlets in many states and formats, or by corporate conglomerates with little or no previous interest in journalism—has evolved into doubts about the financial viability of newspapers. A number of newspapers have carried out major staff reductions over the past decade while instituting various format changes. Nevertheless, circulation and especially advertising revenue continue to erode. Meanwhile, news websites have begun to assume the role once played by newspapers and newsmagazines, and the traditional news divisions of broadcast television networks have increasingly given way to 24-hour cable news stations. 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 the names of confidential sources or turn over notes and background material. While laws that protect the media from such pressures have been adopted in many states, a similar measure at the federal level has yet to win congressional approval.
The United States has a long tradition of religious freedom. Adherents of practically every major religious denomination, as well as many smaller groupings, can be found throughout the country, and rates of both religious belief and religious-service attendance are high. The constitution protects religious freedom while barring any official endorsement of a religious faith, and there are no direct government subsidies to houses of worship. The debate over the role of religion in public life is ongoing, however, and religious groups often mobilize to influence political discussions on the diverse issues in which they take an interest, including gay marriage, abortion, civil rights, and immigration. There is also a long-running debate over the possible use of public money to enable students from impoverished backgrounds to attend private schools with religious affiliations.
The academic sphere enjoys a healthy level of intellectual freedom. There are regular discussions on university campuses over such issues as the global economy, Israel and the Palestinians, and the alleged politicization of curriculums on Middle Eastern affairs.
In general, officials respect the right to public assembly. Protest demonstrations in opposition to government policies are frequently held in Washington, New York, and other major cities. Over the past decade, local authorities have often placed restrictions on large protests directed at meetings of international institutions, political party conventions, or targets in the financial sector. These restrictions, which generally limit the time and route of marches, were instituted in the wake of violent episodes at antiglobalization rallies. 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 workers and engage in collective bargaining with employers. The right to strike is also guaranteed. Over the years, however, the strength of organized labor has declined, so that less than 8 percent of the private-sector workforce is currently represented by unions. 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. Under Obama, a prolabor majority on the NLRB has issued decisions deemed favorable to unions. In 2011, state-level measures to roll back the rights of public employee unions were adopted in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana. Despite its institutional decline, organized labor continues to play a vigorous role in electoral politics.
Judicial independence is respected. Although the courts have occasionally been accused of intervening in areas that are best left to the political branches, most observers regard the judiciary as a linchpin of the American democratic system. In recent years, much attention has been paid to the ideological composition of the Supreme Court, which has issued a number of significant decisions by a one-vote margin 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. A disproportionately large percentage of defendants in criminal cases involving murder, rape, assault, and robbery are black or Hispanic. Minority groups also account for an outsized share of the prison population.
Indeed, civil liberties organizations and other groups have advanced a broad critique of the criminal justice system, arguing that there are too many Americans in prison, that prison sentences are often excessive, that too many prisoners are relegated to solitary confinement or other maximum-security arrangements, and that too many people are prosecuted for minor drug offenses. Over two million Americans are behind bars in federal and state prisons and local jails at any given time, producing the highest national incarceration rate in the world. The number of incarcerated Americans has continued to increase even as the national rate of violent crime has declined. 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. Reflecting growing doubts about the death penalty, a number of states have formally abandoned executions, while others have announced a moratorium pending studies on the practice’s fairness. The number of executions has declined since a peak in the late 1990s. Of particular importance in the 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.
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-Hispanic 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 federal government has responded by strengthening security at the border with Mexico and stepping up efforts to deport illegal immigrants, especially those found guilty of criminal offenses or apprehended while crossing the border. 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.
Citizens of the United States enjoy a high level of personal autonomy. The right to own property is protected by law and is jealously guarded as part of the American way of life. Business entrepreneurship is encouraged as a matter of government policy.
The United States prides itself as a society that offers wide access to economic and social advancement and favors government policies that enhance equality of opportunity. Historically, the opportunities for economic advancement have played a key role in the successful assimilation of new immigrants. Recently, however, studies have shown a widening inequality in wealth and a narrowing of access to upward mobility. Among the world’s prosperous, stable democracies, the United States is unique in having a large underclass of poor people who have at best a marginal role in economic life.
Women have made important strides toward equality over the past several decades. They now constitute a majority of the American workforce 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.
Federal antidiscrimination legislation does not include homosexuals as a protected class, though many states have enacted such protections. Since Massachusetts’s highest court ruled in 2003 that the state constitution gave homosexual couples the same right to marry as heterosexual couples, many states have passed laws or constitutional amendments explicitly banning same-sex marriage. At the same time, an increasing number of states have granted gay couples varying degrees of family rights, and a handful have endorsed full marriage rights, the most recent being New York in 2011.
The numerical ratings and status listed above do not reflect conditions in Puerto Rico, which is examined in a separate report.