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Freedom in the World 2011 - United States of America

Publisher Freedom House
Publication Date 17 August 2011
Cite as Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2011 - United States of America, 17 August 2011, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4e4bb0f636.html [accessed 28 December 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Capital: Washington, D.C.
Population: 309,600,000

Political Rights Score: 1 *
Civil Liberties Score: 1 *
Status: Free

Overview

The Republican Party made major advances in midterm congressional elections in 2010, gaining majority control of the House of Representatives and narrowing the Democratic Party's lead in the Senate. The elections followed the passage of legislation to overhaul the country's health care system, a measure that had been a high priority for President Barack Obama but drew stiff opposition from Republicans. Separately, a major controversy emerged over the release of hundreds of thousands of classified government documents by the antisecrecy group WikiLeaks.

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 Party and the Republican Party. President George W. Bush of the Republicans was reelected for a second four-year term in 2004, but he subsequently suffered from major policy setbacks and declining public-approval ratings. In the 2006 midterm elections, the Democrats won control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1994, and in 2008, Democratic senator Barack Obama won the presidency, taking 53 percent of the popular vote. Senator John McCain, the Republican nominee, took 46 percent. In concurrent 2008 legislative elections, the Democrats increased their majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Obama, the first black candidate to become president, entered the White House with an ambitious domestic agenda dictated in part by fears of economic collapse in the wake of a financial crisis in late 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, the 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. Republicans, many with Tea Party endorsements, won a majority of the state governorships that were contested in 2010 and made substantial gains in state legislatures.

Also during 2010, a major controversy surrounded the release of thousands of classified military and diplomatic documents by the antisecrecy group WikiLeaks. The leaked documents were initially published by several prominent newspapers, including the New York Times. There were calls by leading political figures to consider prosecuting the Times and Julian Assange, the Australian founder of WikiLeaks, though in similar situations in the past, American courts had generally upheld the right of the press to publish leaked government information. A U.S. soldier, Bradley Manning, was arrested on charges of having handed the classified documents over to WikiLeaks. At year's end he was facing a military trial and a possibly lengthy term of imprisonment.

In a major gain for homosexual rights in December 2010, Congress passed and the president signed a bill that repealed the ban on gay men and women serving openly in the military. The measure, once fully implemented, would end a "don't ask, don't tell" policy under which gays were permitted to serve if they did not disclose their sexual orientation.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

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 law enforcement matters are dealt with at the state level, as are education, family matters, and many land-use decisions. States also have the power to raise revenues through various forms of taxation. In some states, citizens have a wide-ranging ability to influence legislation through institutions of direct democracy, such as referendums, which have been conducted on issues including tax rates, affirmative action, and immigrant rights. In 2010, for example, voters in California rejected a proposal to legalize the possession and sale of marijuana. Direct-democracy mechanisms have been hailed by some as a reflection of the openness of the U.S. system. However, critics have argued that they lead to incoherent governance, undermine the institutions of 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, independent or third-party candidates have at times significantly influenced politics at the presidential and state levels, and a number of newer parties, such as the Green Party, 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 established parties. Conservative Christian groups, for example, play a substantial role in Republican Party affairs, while black, Hispanic, and homosexual rights advocates play important roles in the Democratic Party. A number of laws have been enacted to ensure the political rights of minorities. In 2009, the Supreme Court upheld a provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that allows the federal government to vet changes to election laws in certain states and municipalities with histories of discriminatory balloting rules.

Election campaigns in the United States 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 2010, charges of corruption were brought against government officials in a number of states and municipalities. The U.S. media are aggressive in reporting on corruption, and 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, President Barack Obama in 2009 ordered that millions of government documents from the Cold War era be declassified and made available to the public. Nevertheless, the Obama administration has been more aggressive than its predecessors in prosecuting leaks of classified information.

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. While there were signs of increased stability among traditional media in 2010, the circulation of daily newspapers continued to decline. Internet journalists and bloggers play an important and growing role in the coverage of political news, and internet access is widespread in the country. Meanwhile, the traditional news divisions of major broadcast television networks have given way to 24-hour cable news stations and their internet sites. News coverage has also grown more polarized, with particular outlets and their star commentators providing a consistently right- or left-leaning perspective on the news.

Controversy has emerged in recent years over attempts to compel journalists to divulge the names of confidential sources or turn over notes and background material in the course of legal cases. A bill that would provide journalists with limited protection from such demands in federal cases has stalled in Congress in the wake of the WikiLeaks document releases. Similar laws already exist in 37 states. The United States has been a staunch opponent of the phenomenon known as "libel tourism," whereby plaintiffs, often with substantial financial resources, shop for a friendly foreign venue in which to initiate libel cases. In August 2010, Congress passed a law that protects American journalists, publishers, and authors from defamation decisions reached in countries with low thresholds for libel suits.

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 an ongoing debate over proposals to allow public money to be used to enable students from low-income families to attend private schools with religious affiliations.

While the United States has avoided the hard-edged debate over Muslim immigrants that has afflicted a number of European societies, a series of controversies over the assimilation of Muslims have arisen in recent years. During 2010, a plan to establish a Muslim community center near the site of the 2001 terrorist attack in New York City triggered a protracted and at times angry argument, with local and national political figures taking a range of positions on the issue. However, most agreed that the center's organizers had the legal right to proceed with their project, even if some found it unseemly.

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 directed at government policies are frequently held in Washington, New York, and other major cities. 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. In recent years, local authorities have sometimes employed strict crowd-control tactics during the presidential nomination conventions of the two major parties, large antiwar demonstrations, and protests at gatherings of the World Bank or other transnational institutions.

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 during Republican presidencies have been regarded as impediments to organizing efforts. Union organizing is also hampered by strong resistance from private employers. 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 nine-member Supreme Court, which has issued a number of significant decisions by a one-vote margin and is currently seen as having a conservative majority.

While the United States has a strong rule-of-law tradition, the criminal justice system's treatment of minority groups has long been a concern. 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, 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 disturbing number of juveniles serving lengthy prison terms in adult penitentiaries. Concerns have been raised about prison conditions, especially the unsettling 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, several states have announced a moratorium on capital punishment pending studies on the practice's fairness, and the number of executions has declined steadily in recent years. Of particular importance in the campaign against the death penalty has been the exoneration of some death-row inmates based on new DNA testing. The Supreme Court has struck down the death penalty in cases where the perpetrator is a juvenile or mentally handicapped, and for crimes other than murder.

Obama entered office with pledges to reverse many of outgoing president George W. Bush's counterterrorism policies, which had drawn major criticism by civil liberties groups in the United States and governments abroad. Obama quickly issued a policy document that forbade the use of torture by U.S. personnel, and announced plans to quickly shut down the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But he expressed little interest in investigating the actions of former Bush officials, and 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 invoked the doctrine of state secrets to block information requests in several court cases; made no effort to amend the USA PATRIOT Act, aspects of which have been criticized by civil libertarians; and continued to rely on the use of indefinite detention of terrorism suspects.

By the end of 2010, the plan to shut down the Guantanamo detention facility had effectively been abandoned due to public and congressional opposition to the relocation of the detainees to prison facilities in the United States and their possible trial in civilian courts. In November 2010, Ahmed Ghailani, the first Guantanamo detainee to be tried in a civilian court, was convicted of conspiring to destroy government property for his role in the 1998 bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa, but the jury acquitted him of over 280 other charges. The Justice Department indicated that high-profile terrorism suspects may be tried by military tribunals in the future. In another decision that disturbed some civil libertarians, the Justice Department abandoned an investigation into the 2005 destruction of videotapes showing the interrogation of terrorism suspects by the Central Intelligence Agency. The tapes were believed to show interrogators using harsh techniques that might have placed them in legal jeopardy.

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 somewhat. An array of policies and programs are designed to protect the rights of minorities, including laws to prevent workplace discrimination, 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. 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. In a departure from previous policy, the Obama administration announced in 2009 that it would focus its domestic enforcement efforts on employers rather than raiding job sites in search of undocumented workers who were subject to deportation.

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. Recently, however, studies have shown a rising inequality in wealth and narrowing opportunities for 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 the legal profession, 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.

* Countries are ranked on a scale of 1-7, with 1 representing the highest level of freedom and 7 representing the lowest level of freedom.

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