Slow-motion bummer: A decade of Freedom House on the U.S.

One real-time view of how we got “here.”

Every year, Freedom in the World contains a blurb on the United States. Here they are, 2010-2020. It wasn’t all bad — but much of it was.

2010: W. Europe and N. America: Some Change in U.S., Assimilation Crisis Endures in Europe

The countries of Western Europe and North America continued to register the highest scores on the Freedom in the World scale despite their ongoing struggle to assimilate large numbers of immigrants from developing countries, the continued tension between security and civil liberties, and problems stemming from libel tourism and other threats to freedom of expression.In the United States, the presidency of Barack Obama was greeted with enthusiasm by civil libertarians, as his campaign platform had suggested a major rollback of controversial antiterrorism policies instituted by his predecessor, George W. Bush. In some areas, Obama did pursue a markedly different course than did Bush. For example, at year’s end Obama issued an order than will result in the release to the public of millions of documents that had been classified during World War II, the Cold War, and other conflict periods. The new administration also issued a policy that forbade the use of torture by U.S. personnel; announced plans to close down the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and decided that some of the terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo would be tried in U.S. civilian courts, while others would be brought before military tribunals. More broadly, however, Obama decided against reversing course on many Bush-era security policies. Furthermore, the goal of shutting down the Guantanamo facility was complicated by the revelation that a number of previously freed detainees had joined jihadist groups in Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere; by a nearly successful attempt to destroy an American airliner at year’s end; and by political resistance to the relocation of terrorism detainees to facilities in the United States.

2011: While the United States has a generally more successful record of absorbing large numbers of immigrants than does Europe, the country has recently experienced a heated and sometimes ugly debate over policies toward undocumented workers, especially from Latin America. In a testament to federal legislative paralysis on the issue, Congress in late 2010 rejected a bill that would have offered a path to citizenship to young illegal immigrants who had been raised in the United States and enrolled in college or the U.S. military.

President Barack Obama has not attempted major rollbacks of his predecessor’s antiterrorism policies. While the Obama administration has put an end to practices that were widely regarded as torture and taken other steps applauded by civil libertarians, it has also aggressively pursued terrorists abroad—including through targeted killings by unmanned aircraft—and declined to investigate, much less prosecute, officials from the Bush administration who were responsible for extreme antiterrorism measures. Moreover, Obama has so far failed in his efforts to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where over 100 terrorism suspects are still held.

2012: The United States endured a year of deep political polarization and legislative gridlock. Despite the efforts of a bipartisan commission and a select committee of lawmakers drawn equally from both major parties, the legislative branch and the White House were unable to reach agreement on a plan to reduce the federal deficit to manageable levels. Even as Congress and the president failed to agree on key economic measures, left-wing critics of the country’s wealth disparities and ties between politics and big business came together to launch the Occupy Wall Street movement. Beginning with an encampment near the financial district in New York City, the Occupy movement spread to cities across the country, with protesters camping out in parks or other public spaces for indefinite periods. After several months, municipal authorities moved to evict the protesters, often through peaceful police actions but in some cases using batons, tear gas, pepper spray, and arrests. Some observers voiced criticism of the police for employing confrontational tactics and military-style equipment when dealing with protesters.

In fulfillment of a pledge made during his election campaign, President Barack Obama revoked the policy known as “don’t ask, don’t tell,” under which military personnel were not asked about their sexual orientation, but openly gay and lesbian individuals were barred from military service. In another step toward observance of homosexual rights, the state of New York legalized gay marriage through legislative action, joining a small number of other states that allow same-sex marriage or civil unions.

2013: In the United States, President Barack Obama won a second term in elections that also saw gains for his Democratic Party in both houses of Congress. While the Republican Party still controls the lower chamber, its majority has shrunk, enhancing the prospects for Obama to overcome the legislative gridlock of recent years. The president won despite a disappointing economy, persistent unemployment, and a massive budget deficit. His calls for higher taxes on the rich and the protection of social programs, among other policies, garnered strong support from the country’s growing ethnic minority populations, while his opponent, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, drew mostly white male voters with his program of tax and spending cuts. Romney was notably the first Mormon to win a major party’s presidential nomination. The election was by far the most expensive in American history, with both sides spending billions of dollars raised largely through special committees designed to circumvent political contribution limits for candidates and political parties.

While the Obama administration has instituted changes in the country’s antiterrorism effort, a number of controversial policies are still in place. The president has been criticized by civil libertarians for the United States’ expansive use of unmanned aircraft to kill suspected terrorists and allied militants—including U.S. citizens—in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen. Nevertheless, Obama’s approach to the war on terrorism generally enjoys bipartisan support from the American people and members of Congress.

The president endorsed the concept of same-sex marriage during the year, becoming the first in his position to do so. And referendum voters in three more states approved equal marriage rights for gay men and lesbians in November. Nevertheless, most states continue to ban such rights, including a number that have enshrined a limited definition of marriage in their constitutions. The Supreme Court is scheduled to issue important rulings on gay marriage in the coming months.

2014: Europe and North America: Dysfunction in the United States, an uncertain future for Turkey

The United States in 2013 endured a level of government gridlock not seen in over a century. The long-running standoff between the administration of President Barack Obama and his Republican Party opponents in Congress culminated in a two-week partial shutdown of the federal government. Ultimately, the Republicans backed down and a budget agreement was adopted. But little progress was made on a broad set of important issues. For example, Republican resistance played a major role in thwarting Obama’s proposed overhaul of the country’s immigration laws, which would include a path toward citizenship for some undocumented immigrants.

The U.S. government pledged to redouble its efforts to close down the military prison facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where scores of terrorism suspects have been held without trial since 2001. However, only a handful of detainees were released and placed in other countries during 2013; at year’s end there were over 150 detainees at the facility.

The administration also found itself under criticism from civil libertarians at home and a number of foreign governments for the eavesdropping and data-collection tactics of the National Security Agency (NSA). The intelligence agency’s sprawling activities, including its collection of communications metadata on American citizens and its intrusive monitoring of close foreign allies, was made public through a series of leaks by Edward Snowden, a contractor who had worked for the NSA. Fearing arrest, Snowden fled to Hong Kong and then to Russia, where he was granted asylum.A special presidential commission set up to review the NSA’s practices after the leaks did not find violations of Americans’ constitutional rights, but it did recommend a series of changes in intelligence policy and procedures. The administration separately came under fire during the year after prosecutors gained access to the telephone records of journalists who worked for the Associated Press as part of an internal investigation into leaked national security information.

2015: A major development in the region was the announcement that the United States and Cuba had agreed to the normalization of relations after a rupture of more than 50 years. Although Cuba is the Americas’ worst-rated country in Freedom in the World, it has shown modest progress over the past several years, with Cubans gaining more rights to establish private businesses and travel abroad. In 2014, Cuba registered improvement for a growth in independent media, most notably the new digital newspaper 14ymedio. While it remains illegal to print and distribute such media, independent journalists have found ways to share their stories online and via data packets that circulate in the black market. As part of the normalization agreement, Cuba released a number of political prisoners, including U.S. contractor Alan Gross. However, the accord included no other human rights stipulations.

The United States experienced a wave of protests over separate police killings of unarmed black males in Missouri, New York, and elsewhere, and the repeated failure of prosecutors to secure indictments of the officers responsible. The protests led to a variety of proposals for reforming police tactics, including the introduction of video cameras to record officers’ interactions with civilians. Separately, in December the Senate released a lengthy report on the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)’s torture and mistreatment of terrorism suspects in the years immediately after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the country. The report detailed the frequency and severity of CIA interrogation techniques, as well as the lack of oversight by the White House and Congress. Human rights groups and others reiterated calls for the prosecution of those responsible for the abuses, but critics said the report was biased, and there were no immediate signs of a new criminal investigation.

2016: The United States did not face refugee flows or terror-ist attacks on the same scale as Europe, but it too is experiencing a crisis of confidence in its democratic institutions and international role. While the American system remains dynamic and open to the participation of minorities and immigrants, its elections and legislative process have suffered from an increasingly intricate system of gerrymandering and undue interference by wealthy individuals and special interests. Racial and ethnic divisions have seemingly widened, and the past year brought greater attention to police violence and impunity, de facto residential and school segregation, and economic inequality, adding to fears that class mobility, a linchpin of America’s self-image and global reputation, is in jeopardy.

With these concerns as a backdrop, the political de-bate over immigration and national security—at least on the right—took on an angry, anti-Muslim tone, and Islamophobic hate crimes spiked, especially after 14 people were killed in a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California. Some elected officials on both sides of the political spectrum also cast doubt on America’s long-standing goal of supporting democracy overseas, arguing that U.S. involvement only causes instability.


The United States received a downward trend arrow because of the cumulative impact of flaws in the electoral system, a disturbing increase in the role of private money in election campaigns and the legislative process, legislative gridlock, the failure of the Obama administration to fulfill promises of enhanced government openness, and fresh evidence of racial discrimination and other dysfunctions in the criminal justice system.

2017: Terrorism continued to fuel political upheaval in Europe and the United States despite major territorial losses suffered by IS and other extremist groups such as Boko Haram. France, Belgium, and Germany endured high-profile terrorist attacks, an IS-inspired mass shooting struck the U.S. state of Florida, and smaller assaults elsewhere in Europe were foiled or interrupted by the authorities.

Several European governments reacted by adopting laws that gave enhanced powers to security forces and eased constraints on surveillance. More ominously, persistent fears over the upsurge in terrorist attacks stoked public hostility toward Muslim minorities and immigrants, deepening existing social rifts and threatening civil liberties. During the American presidential campaign, Donald Trump at various times promised to prevent all Muslims from entering the United States, deport Syrians already in the country, and carry out “extreme vetting” of the beliefs of refugees and immigrants.


Even in the United States, home to the world’s most entrenched two-party system, challengers with minimal ties to their respective parties—Bernard Sanders and Donald Trump—contributed to major intraparty fractures during the presidential primary campaign. Trump’s eventual victory appeared likely to transform the Republican Party’s policy orthodoxy, though it remained unclear whether this would ultimately weaken or strengthen the Republicans’ hold on power.

2018: The United States in decline

Freedom House has tracked a slow decline in political rights and civil liberties in the United States for the past seven years. Prominent concerns have included the influence of money in politics, legislative dysfunction, and severe inequalities in the criminal justice system. In 2017, however, the deterioration accelerated. The United States lost three points on the 100-point scale used by Freedom in the World due to:

• growing evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election campaign and a lack of action by the Trump administration to prevent a reoccurrence of such meddling;

• violations of basic ethical standards by the new administration, including the president’s failure to divest himself of his business empire, his hiring of family members as senior advisers, and his appointment of cabinet members and other senior officials despite apparent conflicts of interest; and

• a reduction in government transparency, including an unusual pattern of false statements by the administration, the president’s failure to disclose basic information such as his personal tax data, policy and other decisions made without meaningful input from relevant agencies and officials, and the removal of information on issues of public interest from government websites for political or ideological reasons.

The United States now receives a score of 86 out of 100 points. While this places it below other major democracies such as France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, it is still firmly in the Free category. Nevertheless, a three-point decline in a single year is rare for an established democracy. In particular, Freedom House is closely watching President Trump’s verbal attacks on the press and their potential impact on the public’s access to free and independent news media.

2019: The United States in Decline

Freedom House has tracked a slow overall decline in political rights and civil liberties in the United States for the past eight years, punctuated by an unusual three-point drop for developments in 2017. Prominent concerns have included Russian interference in US elections, domestic attempts to manipulate the electoral system, executive and legislative dysfunction, conflicts of interest and lack of transparency, and pressure on judicial independence and the rule of law. This year, the United States’ total score on the 100-point scale used by Freedom in the World remains the same as in the report covering 2017, with two indicators changing in opposite directions:

• The score for freedom of assembly improved, as there was no repetition of the protest-related violence that had led to a lower score for the previous two years. In fact, there was an upsurge of civic action and demonstrations on issues ranging from women’s rights and immigration policy to the problem of mass shootings in schools.

• The score for equal treatment before the law declined due to government policies and actions that improperly restricted the legal rights of asylum seekers, signs of discrimination in the acceptance of refugees for resettlement, and excessively harsh or haphazard immigration enforcement policies that resulted in the separation of children from adult family members, among other problematic outcomes.

The United States currently receives a score of 86 out of 100 points. While this places it below other major democracies such as France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, it is still firmly in the Free category. Nevertheless, its decline of eight points in as many years is significant. The United States’ closest peers with respect to total Freedom in the World scores are Belize, Croatia, Greece, Latvia, and Mongolia.

2020: […] Balancing specific security and economic considerations with human rights concerns has been difficult for every administration, but the balance has grown especially lopsided of late.

This problem has been compounded by efforts to undermine democratic norms and standards within the United States over the past several years, including pressure on electoral integrity, judicial independence, and safeguards against corruption. Fierce rhetorical attacks on the press, the rule of law, and other pillars of democracy coming from American leaders, including the president himself, undermine the country’s ability to persuade other governments to defend core human rights and freedoms, and are actively exploited by dictators and demagogues.

An ongoing decline in fair and equal treatment of refugees and asylum seekers is also particularly worrisome for a country that takes pride in its traditional role as a beacon for the oppressed. In 2019, new federal rules or policies allowed the blanket rejection of asylum claims for those who cross through Mexico from other countries to reach the southern US border, forced asylum seekers with credible claims to wait in Mexico while their applications are considered, and gave states and localities the power to block refugee resettlement in their jurisdictions, among other restrictions. Many of the administration’s tactics appear to violate existing national and international law, leading to a plethora of court challenges. In a move that also drew lawsuits, President Trump declared a national emergency in order to redirect Defense Department funds to the construction of a wall along the southern border. The project was a core feature of his efforts to control migration and reduce the number of asylum claims, but Congress had refused to provide the necessary spending.

A more consequential circumvention of congressional authority lay at the heart of the impeachment process touched off in November by allegations that President Trump had abused his office in a bid to extract a personal political favor from Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Trump temporarily blocked military aid that Congress had allocated to Ukraine and withheld a White House visit, while concurrently asking Zelenskyy to announce two investigations—one aimed at his potential 2020 election rival, former vice president Joe Biden, and another bolstering a debunked conspiracy theory meant to absolve Russia of interference in the 2016 election. The administration then ordered current and former officials to defy all congressional subpoenas for documents and testimony about the matter. These actions threatened important components of American democracy, including congressional oversight of the executive branch and the fairness and integrity of electoral competition. The constitution’s impeachment mechanism offers a powerful means of holding presidents and other senior officials accountable for major transgressions, but it remains unclear whether the process that began in 2019, and ended in acquittal, will ultimately be successful in restoring balance to the system. Indeed, with Republican lawmakers largely defending the president’s actions and questioning the motives and fairness of House Democrats’ efforts, the impeachment seemed to drive a wedge through the American public and political class, reinforcing the impression on both sides that elected representatives were placing partisan loyalty above the national interest and the constitution.

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