Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world. It was founded in in October 1941, and Wendell Willkie and Eleanor Roosevelt served as its first honorary chairpersons.
Prestigious American Think Tank Scores American Democracy–In Their Own Words
The Struggle Comes Home: Attacks on Democracy in the United States
By Mike Abramowitz
President, Freedom House
Freedom House has advocated for democracy around the world since its founding in 1941, and since the early 1970s it has monitored the global status of political rights and civil liberties in the annual Freedom in the World report. During the report’s first three decades, as the Cold War gave way to a general advance of liberal democratic values, we urged on reformist movements and denounced the remaining dictators for foot-dragging and active resistance. We raised the alarm when progress stagnated in the 2000s, and called on major democracies to maintain their support for free institutions.
Today, after 13 consecutive years of decline in global freedom, backsliding among new democracies has been compounded by the erosion of political rights and civil liberties among the established democracies we have traditionally looked to for leadership and support. Indeed, the pillars of freedom have come under attack here in the United States. And just as we have called out foreign leaders for undermining democratic norms in their countries, we must draw attention to the same sorts of warning signs in our own country. It is in keeping with our mission, and given the irreplaceable role of the United States as a champion of global freedom, it is a priority we cannot afford to ignore.
US FREEDOM IN DECLINE
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. Previous presidents have contributed to the pressure on our system by infringing on the rights of American citizens. Surveillance programs such as the bulk collection of communications metadata, initially undertaken by the George W. Bush administration, and the Obama administration’s overzealous crackdown on press leaks are two cases in point.
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.
We recognize the right of freely elected presidents and lawmakers to set immigration policy, adopt different levels of regulation and taxation, and pursue other legitimate aims related to national security. But they must do so according to rules designed to protect individual rights and ensure the long-term survival of the democratic system. There are no ends that justify nondemocratic means.
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.
And yet Republicans and Democrats alike expressed strong attachments to individual liberty. A solid majority, 54 percent, believes it is more important for the rights of the minority to be protected than for the will of the majority to prevail.
So far, America’s institutions have largely honored this deeply democratic sentiment. The resilience of the judiciary, the press corps, an energetic civil society, the political opposition, and other guardrails of the constitutional system—as well as some conscientious lawmakers and officeholders from the president’s own party—have checked the chief executive’s worst impulses and mitigated the effects of his administration’s approach. While the United States suffered an unusual three-point drop on Freedom in the World’s 100-point scale for 2017, there was no additional net decline for 2018, and the total score of 86 still places the country firmly in the report’s Free category.
But the fact that the system has proven durable so far is no guarantee that it will continue to do so. Elsewhere in the world, in places like Hungary, Venezuela, or Turkey, Freedom House has watched as democratic institutions gradually succumbed to sustained pressure from an antidemocratic leadership, often after a halting start. Irresponsible rhetoric can be a first step toward real restrictions on freedom. The United States has already been weakened by declines in the rule of law, the conduct of elections, and safeguards against corruption, among other important indicators measured by Freedom in the World. The current overall US score puts American democracy closer to struggling counterparts like Croatia than to traditional peers such as Germany or the United Kingdom.
The stakes in this struggle are high. For all the claims that the United States has lost global influence over the past decade, the reality is that other countries pay close attention to the conduct of the world’s oldest functioning democracy. The continuing deterioration of US democracy will hasten the ongoing decline in global democracy. Indeed, it has already done so.
Ronald Reagan declared in his first inaugural address, “As we renew ourselves here in our own land, we will be seen as having greater strength throughout the world. We will again be the exemplar of freedom and a beacon of hope for those who do not now have freedom.” Nearly four decades later, the idea that the United States is such an exemplar is being steadily discredited.
ASSAILING THE RULE OF LAW
In any democracy, it is the role of independent judges and prosecutors to defend the supremacy and continuity of constitutional law against excesses by elected officials, to ensure that individual rights are not abused by hostile majorities or other powerful interests, and to prevent the politicization of justice so that competing parties can alternate in office without fear of unfair retribution. While not without problems, the United States has enjoyed a strong tradition of respect for the rule of law.
President Trump has repeatedly shown disdain for this tradition. Late in 2018, after a federal judge blocked the administration’s plan to consider asylum claims only from those who cross the border at official ports of entry, the president said, “This was an Obama judge. And I’ll tell you what, it’s not going to happen like this anymore.”
The remark drew a rare rebuke from Chief Justice John Roberts, who declared “we don’t have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges,” and defended an independent judiciary as “something we should all be thankful for.” But Trump shrugged off Roberts’s intervention of behalf of the judicial branch, insisting that the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit was “a complete and total disaster” and that if his asylum policy was obstructed, “there will be only bedlam, chaos, injury and death.”
Nor was this the first sign of hostility to the rule of law from the president. As a candidate in 2016, he questioned the impartiality of an American-born judge with a Hispanic surname who presided over a fraud suit filed against “Trump University.” Soon after taking office, he disparaged a federal judge who ruled against his travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries as “this so-called judge.”
The president has since urged the Department of Justice to prosecute his political opponents and critics. He has used his pardon power to reward political and ideological allies and encourage targets of criminal investigations to refuse cooperation with the government. He has expressed contempt for witnesses who are cooperating with law enforcement in cases that could harm his interests and praised those who remain silent. His administration’s harsh policies on immigrants and asylum seekers have restricted their rights, belittled our nation’s core ideals, and seriously compromised equal treatment under the law. In October 2018, the president went so far as to claim that he could unilaterally overturn the constitutional guarantee of birthright citizenship.
The president’s attacks on the judiciary and law enforcement, echoed by media allies, are eroding the public’s trust in the third branch of government and the rule of law. Without that trust, the outright politicization of justice could well ensue, threatening the very stability of our democracy. Any American is free to contest the wisdom of a judge’s ruling, but no one—least of all the president—should challenge the authority of the courts themselves or use threats and incentives to pervert the legal process.
DEMONIZING THE PRESS
Legal protections for reporters are enshrined in America’s founding documents, and press freedom remains strong in practice. An array of independent media organizations have continued to produce vigorous coverage of the administration. But the constant vilification of such outlets by President Trump, in an already polarized media environment, is accelerating the breakdown of public confidence in journalism as a legitimate, fact-based check on government power. We have seen in other countries how such practices paved the way to more tangible erosions of press freedom and, in extreme cases, put journalists in physical danger. It would be foolish to assume it could never happen here.
In a tweet posted two days after a mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue last October, and not long after a series of pipe bombs had been sent by a Trump supporter to targets including CNN, the president blamed the media for inciting public rage: “There is great anger in our Country caused in part by inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting of the news,” Trump wrote. “The Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People, must stop the open & obvious hostility & report the news accurately & fairly. That will do much to put out the flame … of Anger and Outrage and we will then be able to bring all sides together in Peace and Harmony. Fake News Must End!”
Previous presidents have criticized the press, sometimes bitterly, but none with such relentless hostility for the institution itself. Trump alone has deployed slurs like “enemy of the people,” flirted with the idea that the media are responsible for and perhaps deserving of violence, and defended his own routine falsehoods while accusing journalists of lying with malicious, even treasonous intent.
These practices have added to negative trends that were already apparent by 2017, including the emergence of more polarized media outlets on the right and left, the decline of independent reporting at the state and municipal level, the consolidation of ownership in certain sectors, and the rise of social media platforms that reward extreme views and fraudulent content. In this environment, more Americans are likely to seek refuge in media echo chambers, heeding only “reporting” that affirms their opinions rather than obtaining the factual information necessary to self-governance.
An independent, pluralistic, and vigilant press corps often antagonizes the subjects it covers. That is an acceptable consequence of the essential service it provides—keeping our democratic system honest, transparent, and accountable to the people. The press exposes private and public-sector corruption, abuses of power, invasions of privacy, and threats to public health and safety. Attempts by our leaders to disrupt this process through smears and intimidation could leave all Americans, the president’s supporters and detractors alike, more vulnerable to exploitation, perfidy, and physical hazard.
SELF-DEALING AND CONFLICTS OF INTEREST
Corruption and transparency are crucial factors in Freedom House’s assessments of democracy around the world. When officials use their positions to enrich themselves, or even tolerate conflicts of interest that sow public doubts about their motivations, citizens lose faith in the system and begin to avoid their own responsibilities, including paying taxes, participating in elections, and obeying the law in general. To avoid such decay, it is imperative that government and citizens alike uphold ethical rules and norms against corruption.
The United States benefits from a number of strong antigraft protections, including independent courts, congressional oversight mechanisms, and active monitoring by the media and civil society. But as on other topics, President Trump has broken with his modern predecessors in flouting the ethical standards of public service.
From the outset of his administration, the president has been willing to ignore obvious conflicts of interest, most prominently with his decision not to divest ownership of his businesses or place them in a blind trust. Instead, he moved them into a revocable trust, managed by his sons, of which he is the sole beneficiary. During his presidency, his businesses have accepted money from foreign lenders, including banks controlled by the Chinese government. Trump has swept aside the norm against nepotism by having his daughter and son-in-law, both seemingly saddled with their own conflicts of interest, serve as senior White House advisers. He also rejected the tradition obliging presidents to release their income tax records.
Trump properties have hosted foreign delegations, business dinners, trade association conferences, and Republican Party fund-raising events, complete with Trump-branded wines and other products, likely arranged in the hope of earning the president’s gratitude. The Washington Post revealed that a month after President Trump’s election, lobbyists representing Saudi Arabia booked hundreds of rooms at Trump International Hotel in the capital. Indeed, a number of foreign and domestic interests allegedly sought to influence the new administration by arranging donations to Trump’s inauguration festivities, which are now under investigation.
The unusual nature of President Trump’s approach to conflicts of interest has been underscored by the emergence of first-of-their-kind lawsuits accusing him of violating the constitution’s prohibition on public officials accepting gifts or “emoluments” from foreign states. The nation’s founders understood the corrosive threat of such corruption, and so have most presidents.
ATTACKING THE LEGITIMACY OF ELECTIONS
The importance of credible elections to the health of a democracy should be self-evident. If citizens believe that the polls are rigged, they will neither take part in the exercise nor accept the legitimacy of those elected.
Nevertheless, unsubstantiated accusations of voter fraud have been a staple of the president’s assault on political norms. During the 2018 midterm elections, he suggested without evidence that Democrats were stealing a Senate seat in Arizona and committing fraud in Florida’s senatorial and gubernatorial balloting. He complained that undocumented asylum seekers were invading the country so they could vote for Democrats. He suggested that Democratic voters were returning to the polls in disguise to vote more than once.
Months before his own election in 2016, candidate Trump began alleging voter fraud and warned that he might not accept the results if he lost. Even after winning, he insisted that millions of fraudulent votes had been cast against him. To substantiate his claims, he created a special commission to investigate the problem. It was quietly disbanded in early 2018 without producing any evidence.
At the same time, the administration has shown little interest in addressing genuine and documented threats to the integrity of US elections, including chronic problems like partisan gerrymandering and the fact that balloting is overseen by partisan officials in the states.
But the most glaring lapse is the president’s refusal to clearly acknowledge and comprehensively combat Russian and other foreign attempts to meddle in American elections since 2016. The Homeland Security Department provided some assistance to states in protecting their voting and counting systems from outside meddling in 2018, but recent reports commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee indicate that foreign influence operations are ongoing across multiple online platforms, and that such campaigns are likely to expand and multiply in the future.
THE THREAT TO AMERICAN IDEALS ABROAD
Our 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 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 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.”
Trump has refused to advocate for America’s democratic values, and he seems to encourage the forces that oppose them. His frequent, fulsome praise for some of the world’s worst dictators reinforces this perception. Particularly striking was his apparent willingness, at a summit in Helsinki, to accept the word of Vladimir Putin over his own intelligence agencies in assessing Russia’s actions in the 2016 elections.
The president’s rhetoric is echoed in countries with weaker defenses against attacks on their democratic institutions, where the violation of norms is often followed by systemic changes that intensify repression and entrench authoritarian governance.
For example, Cambodian strongman Hun Sen consolidated one-party rule in sham elections last summer after banning the main opposition party and shutting down independent media. He acknowledged that he and President Trump shared a point of view about journalists, saying, “Donald Trump understands that are an anarchic group.” Poland’s president, whose party has sought to annihilate judicial independence and assert control over the press, similarly thanked Trump for fighting “fake news.” Saudi Arabia’s crown prince almost certainly ordered the assassination of a leading journalistic critic, apparently believing that the action would not rupture relations with the president of the United States. It seems he was correct.
As the United States ceases its global advocacy of freedom and justice, and the president casts doubt on the importance of basic democratic values for our own society, more nations may turn to China, a rising alternative to US leadership. The Chinese Communist Party has welcomed this trend, offering its authoritarian system as a model for developing nations. The resulting damage to the liberal international order—a system of alliances, norms, and institutions built up under Trump’s predecessors to ensure peace and prosperity after World War II—will not be easily repaired after he leaves office.
NEITHER DESPAIR NOR COMPLACENCY
Ours is a well-established and resilient democracy, and we can see the effect of its antibodies on the viruses infecting it. The judiciary has repeatedly checked the power of the president, and the press has exposed his actions to public scrutiny. Protests and other forms of civic mobilization against administration policies are large and robust. More people turned out for the midterm elections than in previous years, and there is a growing awareness of the threat that authoritarian practices pose to Americans.
Yet the pressure on our system is as serious as any experienced in living memory. We cannot take for granted that institutional bulwarks against abuse of power will retain their strength, or that our democracy will endure perpetually. Rarely has the need to defend its rules and norms been more urgent. Congress must perform more scrupulous oversight of the administration than it has to date. The courts must continue to resist pressures on their independence. The media must maintain their vigorous reporting even as they defend their constitutional prerogatives. And 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.
Thanks to Freedom House and to their president, Mike Abramowitz. It’s reassuring to see that at least one qualified organization is freely and fairly monitoring the United States Government. It’s an invaluable service to the country.