The new report, entitled "Populists and Autocrats: The Dual Threat to Global Democracy," links the decline to the rise of "populist and nationalist forces" in democratic states in Europe and elsewhere and to "brazen acts of aggression" by autocratic states such as Russia and China.
Turning to the United States, the report depicts Donald Trump's presidential campaign as akin to "the kind of populist appeals that have resonated across the Atlantic in recent years." And it notes unfavorably that Trump "belittled" the United States' treaty alliances and criticized the European Union while praising the Russian president Vladimir Putin and appearing to accept Russia's occupation of Crimea.
The United States was one of 67 countries with a net decline in Freedom House's numerical scores, based on its combined assessment of political rights and civil liberties in each country. Beginning in 2006, the number of countries with net declines has exceeded the number with net increases each year. For 2016, the gap 67 declines versus 36 increases was wider than in any of the previous years except for 2009 when it was 67 to 34. Troublingly, countries listed as "free" (as opposed to "partly free" or "not free") accounted for a larger share of the declines than at any time in the previous decade.
The United States' score dropped only a tick: from 90 in 2015 to 89 in 2016, the equivalent of a B-plus instead of an A-minus. But embarrassingly for the world's self-proclaimed greatest democracy, some 40 countries are given higher ratings. Many are familiar: the Scandinavian countries and others in Europe plus Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, among others. In politically vibrant Taiwan, news media gave headline coverage to its newly established status, thanks to a score of 90, as "freer" than the United States.
Admittedly, Freedom House was lukewarm in assessing the United States' support for global democracy under President Obama. The Obama years ended, the report says, "with America's global presence reduced and its role as a beacon of world freedom less certain." But the report describes Trump's campaign positions more worrisomely. His statements "raised fears of a foreign policy divorced from America's traditional strategic commitments to democracy, human rights, and the rules-based international order that it helped construct beginning in 1945."
Explaining the United States' slippage, Freedom House's veteran democracy watcher Arch Puddington listed a handful of issues, including what he called "voter suppression," partisan gerrymandering, the role of money in political campaigns, and the role of race in the criminal justice system. As a private citizen, Trump may bear no responsibility for those long-term conditions, but nothing in his campaign or his first two weeks in office offers even the slightest hope for addressing any of them in the least bit constructively.
The Freedom House report, released on Jan. 31, noted approvingly that Trump appeared to have "abandoned or softened" some of his "contentious" campaign promises, including "mass deportations of immigrants." But speakers at the program joined in criticizing Trump's executive order four days earlier limiting entry into the United States from seven majority-Muslim countries, even by valid visa holders or legal permanent residents.
The report expressed concern whether the United States and Europe might retreat from what it called "their responsibilities as global leaders" to help support "vulnerable democracies." In office, Trump has only added to that fear. Reporting from London, the New York Times's diplomatic correspondent Steven Erlanger described widespread concern among European leaders about Trump's intentions in foreign policy. Erlanger noted that Trump has attacked and insulted U.S. allies for example, in the combative telephone call with Australia's prime minister Malcolm Turnbull while reserving praise for "populists and strongmen" such as Putin, the Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte, and the Brexit-favoring Independence Party leader Nigel LaFarage in Britain.
The United States has been the self-proclaimed leader of the Free World ever since the end of World War II. With the end of the war, the United States helped its major enemies, Germany and Japan, in political as well as economic reconstruction. With scores in the mid-90s, both countries are now rated as "freer" than the United States in the Freedom House report. On the other hand, Afghanistan is "not free" despite U.S. support for reconstruction over the past 15 years and has dropped 10 points in the Freedom House scale over the past decade.
In the name of anti-Communism, the United States lent its aid during the Cold War to any number of undemocratic regimes -- for example, the Chilean dictatorship led by Augusto Pinochet from 1974 to 1990. But Democratic presidents beginning with Jimmy Carter have moved U.S. foreign policy toward somewhat more consistent support for democratic as opposed to undemocratic governments. Today, Freedom House gives Chile a score of 94 freer, that is, than the United States.
The baseball season resumes in the United States later this month with spring training, along with the ritual pregame singing of the national anthem. But the anthem's closing lyric will ring less true than in years past: home of the not so brave and land of the not so free. Sad!