As this blog highlights the inspiring contributions of citizen reformers to strengthen and renew America’s democracy, it is worthwhile noting the context of very real threats that our country faces. A respected assessment of global freedom underscores a disturbing decline both here in the U.S. and around the world.
Freedom House ‘s “Freedom in the World 2019” report monitors the global status of political rights and civil liberties, as it has done annually since the early 1970s. While remaining firmly in the “Free” category, Freedom House ranked the U.S. behind other major democracies such as France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. “US rule of law declined as government policies and actions improperly restricted the legal rights of asylum seekers, discrimination became evident in the acceptance of refugees for resettlement, and immigration enforcement and detention policies were excessively harsh or haphazard. In contrast, freedom of assembly improved, with an upsurge in civic action and no repetition of the previous year’s protest-related violence.”
The report noted that “Freedom House is not alone in its concern for US democracy. Republicans, Democrats, and independents expressed deep reservations about its performance in a national poll conducted last year by Freedom House, the George W. Bush Institute, and the Penn Biden Center. A substantial majority of respondents said it is “absolutely important” to live in a democracy, but 55 percent agreed that American democracy is weak, and 68 percent said it is getting weaker. Big money in politics, racism and discrimination, and the inability of government to get things done—all long-standing problems—were the top concerns of those surveyed.”
The President of Freedom House, Mike Abramowitz, noted that “the great challenges facing US democracy did not commence with the inauguration of President Donald Trump. Intensifying political polarization, declining economic mobility, the outsized influence of special interests, and the diminished influence of fact-based reporting in favor of bellicose partisan media were all problems afflicting the health of American democracy well before 2017.”
The report adds that “at the midpoint of his term, however, there remains little question that President Trump exerts an influence on American politics that is straining our core values and testing the stability of our constitutional system. No president in living memory has shown less respect for its tenets, norms, and principles. Trump has assailed essential institutions and traditions including the separation of powers, a free press, an independent judiciary, the impartial delivery of justice, safeguards against corruption, and most disturbingly, the legitimacy of elections. Congress, a coequal branch of government, has too frequently failed to push back against these attacks with meaningful oversight and other defenses.”
Freedom House’s poll found that a strong majority of Americans, 71 percent, believe the US government should actively support democracy and human rights in other countries. But Mr. Abramowitz states that “America’s commitment to the global progress of democracy has been seriously compromised by the president’s rhetoric and actions. His attacks on the judiciary and the press, his resistance to anticorruption safeguards, and his unfounded claims of voting fraud by the opposition are all familiar tactics to foreign autocrats and populist demagogues who seek to subvert checks on their power.”
“Such leaders,” Abramowitz continues, “can take heart from Trump’s bitter feuding with America’s traditional democratic allies and his reluctance to uphold the nation’s collective defense treaties, which have helped guarantee international security for decades. As former US defense secretary James Mattis put it in his resignation letter, ‘While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies.’”
Freedom House stresses that “we cannot take for granted that institutional bulwarks against abuse of power will retain their strength, or that our democracy will endure perpetually.” It calls for Congress, the courts, and the media to perform their vital roles “to defend [our democracy’s] rules and norms. Just as importantly, the report states that citizens, “ including Americans who are typically reluctant to engage in the public square, must be alert to new infringements on their rights and the rule of law, and demand that their elected representatives protect democratic values at home and abroad.”
The findings and analysis contained in the Freedom House report should serve as a important reminder that ordinary citizens cannot take their democracy for granted. Let us learn from the example of citizen reformers and consider how each of us can find a way to join them, support them, or emulate their contributions in our own unique way.
Freedom House is a U.S.-based 501(c)3 U.S. government-funded non-governmental organization (NGO) that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights. Freedom House was founded in October 1941, and Wendell Wilkie and Eleanor Roosevelt served as its first honorary chairpersons. The organization’s annual Freedom in the World report, which assesses each country’s degree of political freedoms and civil liberties, is frequently cited by political scientists, journalists, and policymakers.