Thursday, January 2, 2020

The State of Political and Civil Freedom in America

With democracy being a very important part of the lives of most people living in the Western World, Freedom House and its annual freedom analyses "Freedom in the World" for 2019 provide us with a sense of which nations are experiencing threats to their freedom.  In this posting, I will look at overall trends and focus on how democratic freedom in the United States compares to other nations in the world and key developments in America's democratic institutions.

Freedom House's analysis of global freedom began in the 1950s and, in 1972, launched a comprehensive analysis of assessing scores for political rights and civil liberties for 151 nations and 45 territories around the world, categorizing them as Free, Partly Free or Not Free.  Freedom House uses a point scoring system of between zero and four (zero being least free and four being most free) for 10 political rights indicators and 15 civil liberties indicators.   Here are more details on the scoring process for the two main categories:

"The political rights questions are grouped into three subcategories: Electoral Process (3 questions), Political Pluralism and Participation (4), and Functioning of Government (3). The civil liberties questions are grouped into four subcategories: Freedom of Expression and Belief (4 questions), Associational and Organizational Rights (3), Rule of Law (4), and Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights (4). The political rights section also contains an additional discretionary question. For the discretionary question, a score of 1 to 4 may be subtracted, as applicable (the worse the situation, the more points may be subtracted). The highest overall score that can be awarded for political rights is 40 (or a score of 4 for each of the 10 questions). The highest overall score that can be awarded for civil liberties is 60 (or a score of 4 for each of the 15 questions). The scores from the previous edition are used as a benchmark for the current year under review. A score is typically changed only if there has been a real-world development during the year that warrants a decline or improvement (e.g., a crackdown on the media, the country’s first free and fair elections), though gradual changes in conditions—in the absence of a signal event—are occasionally registered in the scores.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties Ratings – A country or territory is assigned two ratings—one for political rights and one for civil liberties—based on its total scores for the political rights and civil liberties questions. Each rating of 1 to 7, with 1 representing the greatest degree of freedom and 7 the smallest degree of freedom, corresponds to a specific range of total scores.

Free, Partly Free, Not Free Status – The average of a country or territory’s political rights and civil liberties ratings is called the Freedom Rating, and it is this figure that determines the status of Free (1.0 to 2.5), Partly Free (3.0 to 5.0), or Not Free (5.5 to 7.0)."

Here are three tables which outline the scoring process:

Freedom House has recorded declines in political rights and civil liberties for 13 consecutive years, beginning in 2005.  The average global score has declined each year and nations with net score declines have outnumbered those with improving freedom.  Here is a graphic showing how the share of free and not free nations has changed over the past three decades: 

Here is a graphic showing how the nations with net declines in freedom have outnumbered those with gains over the past 13 years:

Now, let's look at the world's 25 most free nations in 2019:

You may notice that one nation is not present in the 25 most free nations in the world; the United States.  At an aggregate score of 86, the United States comes in 53rd place, behind former Soviet Bloc nations of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Latvia.  The United States has the following scores keeping mind that a score of 1 is most free:

Freedom Rating - 1.5

Political Rights - 2.0

Civil Liberties - 1.0

Let's look at some of the concerns about the state of freedom in the United States.  Freedom House notes that the current Congress was elected through free and fair elections but that there are significant concerns about the nation's political rights:

1.) Gerrymandering of House districts in which elected officials craft district boundaries to take advantage of their position of power.

2.) Voting procedures in many states are administered by elected and partisan officials that may be running for office themselves.

3.) The Electoral College system for presidential elections violates the principle that each citizen's vote should carry equal weight.

4.) The U.S. political environment is dominated by two political parties and, in combination with its "first past the post" electoral system, discourages the emergence of independent candidates and new political parties.

5.) Various interest groups are playing an increasing role in the nominating process for president and members of Congress.  This is largely because the expense and length of political campaigns requires that candidates raise large amounts of funding from major donors.  Here is a graphic from Open Secrets showing how the amount spent on midterm elections has nearly quadrupled since 1998:

6.) Supreme Court invalidation of certain portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has the potential to lead to the implementation of laws that may disproportionately harm the voting rights of minority voters, the elderly and people with disabilities.

7.) Partisan infighting and political polarization has made it increasingly difficult for Congress to perform its duties, a factor that has led to the implementation of short-term spending measures to maintain government operations.

8.) The Executive Branch has been slow in filling vacant positions across higher levels of government departments and agencies.

When it comes to America's civil liberties, the following concerns are evident:

1.) While the media is considered free and independent, it has become increasingly biased either for or against the current administration.  The increased use of social media and other online sources for political news has led to American voters becoming vulnerable to disinformation and propagandistic content.

2.) While the judiciary is largely independent, Trump Administration appointees to the Supreme Court have faced significant backlash from Congress.  At the state level, many judges are chosen through the electoral process, raising the cost of campaigns which leads to an increased threat of bias.  As well the use of plea bargaining in criminal cases has reduced the role of the judiciary.  major increases in incarceration have taken place over the past five decades with the incarceration rate rising from 100 per 100,000 people in 1970 to 450 per 100,000 people in 2016.

3.) While there is generally protection from illegitimate use of physical force, the United States is still  experiencing significant numbers of mass shootings and police actions against racial and ethnic minorities, many of which end up with the suspect being killed.  

4.) While government policies and programs are designed to protect the rights of individuals against discrimination, federal antidiscrimination legislation does not include LGBT people.  The current administration has also undertaken actions to deter Central American asylum-seeking families from entering the United States along the southern border.   

5.) Growing wealth inequality and a decline in access to upward mobility has grown in recent years, particularly for those with a high school degree or less. 

While Washington loves to tout itself as the model for democracies around the globe, the Freedom House report for 2019 shows that the political landscape and civil liberties in the United States have significant problems that other freer nations do not have.  The greatest problem would appear to be the growing political divide in the nation which has led to its lower position on Freedom House's score sheet for 2019.

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