With freedom in decline worldwide for the tenth consecutive year, the United States stands not as a bright and shining beacon but a worrisome if modest example of a seriously worrisome trend. That is the chastening assessment from Freedom House, the venerable human rights organization, in its annual report Freedom in the World 2015, released this week [Jan. 27].
The reasons for global gloom on political freedom and civil liberties are well known: crackdowns on dissent in China and Russia; the post-Arab Spring turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa; and the rise of illiberalism in parts of Europe as seen in the xenophobic reaction to the flood of refugees from Syria’s brutal civil war. For the year, Freedom House gave downward arrows to 105 countries based on their aggregate scores for political and civil freedoms.
Among the countries with downward arrows, the United States has the highest overall score 90 and the decline over a five-year span is only a few points. But the reasons for a downbeat assessment of freedom in the United States are also familiar: legislative gridlock, accentuated by political gerrymandering; the growing influence of money in political campaigns; erosion of the right to vote; a lack of transparency in the Obama administration; and racial and other issues in the criminal justice system from policing to prosecutions to prisons.
“The United States still has the most dynamic political system in the world,” says Arch Puddington, who oversees the annual reports as the organization’s vice president for research. But, he adds, “In some areas, we’re showing some weaknesses.”
Overall, Freedom House rates 86 countries, including the United States, as “free,” with about 44 percent of the world’s population. With lower ratings, 59 countries are counted as “partly free,” with about 24 percent of the world’s people; and 50 countries as “not free,” with the remaining 36 percent of global population.
The U.S. aggregate score of 90 is high, but far from the highest. Some 40 countries score higher, including three Scandinavian nations given perfect scores of 100. Almost all of Europe is in the 90s, including several former communist countries: Czech Republic, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland and Slovenia. Other countries that rank higher than the United States include Canada, Australia, Japan, and two neighbors to the South: Chile and Uruguay.
Among the global human rights organizations, Freedom House ranks as perhaps the oldest: founded in 1941, two decades before Amnesty International and well before the foundings of the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch and Human Rights Watch in 1978. It was founded with bipartisan support from President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Republican opponent in 1940, Wendell Willkie. With the start of the Cold War, it quickly adopted a strong anti-communist stance even as some on the political left were fellow travelers or apologists for communism.
In some sense then, Freedom House sits toward the right in the present-day array of human rights groups. But the critique of U.S. policies in the current report strikes chords with notes heard from the left-leaning popular movements Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter.
Puddington lists “the shooting of unarmed black civilians” and “the lack of real competent defense for indigent defendants” as among the issues facing the U.S. criminal justice system. “Racial and ethnic tensions have seemingly widened,” the written report states. It points not only to “police violence and impunity,” but also to “de facto residential and school segregation.”
The report also complains of “undue interference by wealthy individuals and special interests” in elections and the legislative process. And it cites growing attention to economic inequality and “fears that class mobility, a linchpin of America’s self-image and global reputation, is in jeopardy.”
Without naming names, the report also scores the “angry, anti-Muslim tone” heard in the political debate over immigration and national security “at least on the right.” And it notes the spike in Islamophobic hate crimes following the terrorist attack in San Bernardino.
More worrisomely, the report also notes concern about the role the United States should play in promoting democracy worldwide. “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 report states.
Those doubts fit with part of Freedom House’s overall theme for the past year: “Anxious Dictators, Wavering Democracies.” The mixed reaction to the migrant crisis in Europe is seen as casting doubt on Europe’s ability to maintain high democratic standards in what the report calls “a time of rising populism.”
Against the overall gloom, bright spots are relatively few but not insignificant. Puddington cites among others the elections that ousted undemocratic leaders in Nigeria and Burma and the anti-Chavez opposition’s ground-gaining in Venezuela.
The giddy days of advancing democratization in the 1990s are now a fading memory, along with the hopes stirred by the Arab Spring. The “Free World” faces growing challenges in countering anti-democratic trends in authoritarian states and even in some democracies. Sadly, the report depicts the United States as something less than the confident and credible leader needed to meet those challenges and reverse the downward trend for freedom in the world.