Sunday, March 7, 2021

United States 'Less Free' Under Trump

             President Donald Trump ended his fourth year in the White House not by making America great but by leaving it less free, according to the respected human rights watchdog Freedom House. The group’s annual report on global democracy – titled this year “Democracy Under Siege” – lowers the United States’ score on political freedom and civil liberties by three points on a 100-point scale from 86 in 2019 to 83 in 2020, down from a B to a B-minus.

            The United States’ score fell in large part because of policies Trump carried out or supported while in office and in part because of his refusal to concede defeat in an election that Freedom House assessed as free, fair, and transparent. As in previous annual reports, dozens of countries — forty-nine by my count — surpassed the United States’ overall score, including all of Western Europe and such major U.S. allies as Australia, Canada, Japan, and Taiwan.

            The United States’ score dropped in three broad categories: functioning of government; freedom of expression and belief; and freedom of assembly. Freedom House attributed the downgrade in regard to governmental functioning to what it called “a pattern of politically motivated disinformation and attempts to control or manipulate official findings related to the COVID-19 pandemic” and “the president’s abrupt dismissal of several inspectors general who had documented or investigated malfeasance by administration officials . . . .”

            The decline in freedom of expression and belief was attributed to “a dramatic increase in arrests of and physical assaults on journalists across the country during the year, with most cases linked to coverage of protests.” Relatedly, Freedom House blamed the decline on freedom of assembly to “excessive police and federal agency responses to racial justice protests during the year, including thousands of arrests and numerous documented instances of police brutality . . . .”

            Freedom House opens its country report on the United States by citing its “vibrant political system, strong rule-of-law tradition, robust freedoms of expression and religious belief, and a wide array of other civil liberties.” Critically, however, the report notes that those democratic institutions “have suffered erosion” in recent years, “as reflected in partisan manipulation of the electoral process, bias and dysfunction in the criminal justice system, flawed new policies on immigration and asylum seekers, and growing disparities in wealth, economic opportunity, and political influence.”

            By ironic coincidence, Freedom House released its report last week [March 3] just after the Supreme Court, with three Trump-appointed justices, had heard arguments in an election law case that threatens to weaken federal protections against state laws that limit voting rights for minorities. The three Trump appointees—Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett—seemed unsympathetic along with other conservatives to the Democratic and minority groups challenging the Arizona laws at issue in the case.

            The group’s report also voices concern about what it calls “de facto disenfranchisement . . . among racial and ethnic minority communities, which are disproportionately affected by laws and policies that create obstacles to voting.” The report blames those obstacles on, among other factors, “various state election-management policies.”  The report also notes that state laws denying voting rights to citizens with felony convictions “disproportionately disenfranchise black Americans, who are incarcerated at significantly higher rates than other populations.”

            President Trump is faulted in the report for having presented “a number of challenges to existing norms of government ethics and probity.” As one example, the report noted criticism from anticorruption watchdogs of Trump’s decision to ”shift management of his real-estate development empire to his children rather than divesting himself or establishing a stronger structural barrier between himself and his businesses.”

            The report noted that the president, his staff, and special interest groups “frequently visited and held events at Trump-branded properties in the United States . . . .generating publicity and income.” It also noted the potential conflicts created by appointing daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner as presidential advisers, given their own business interests and relationships.

            Trump is also faulted in the report for  “frequently” making false or misleading statements and failing to correct them when challenged by the press or others. Overall, the Trump administration governed with “greater opacity than its immediate predecessors,” according to the report, “by making policy and other decisions without meaningful input from relevant agencies and their career civil servants.”

            Freedom House was downbeat not only about the United States but about the rise of anti-democratic trends worldwide. The report cited 2020 as the fifteenth consecutive year of global decline in freedom. The global map shows Russia, the Middle East, and most of Asia as “not free” and, discouragingly, India— the world’s most populous democracy­–as “partly free.” The African continent is mostly “not free,” with a dozen countries rated as “partly free,” and only four as “free” – Botswana, Ghana, Namibia, and South Africa.

            In the western hemisphere, most of Central and South America is rated as free, including three countries with higher scores than the United States: Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay. The only countries rated as “not free” are Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Mexico and the Andean countries from Colombia to Paraguay are rated as partly free.

            The Freedom House report notes that the global decline in freedom dates from the end  of George W. Bush’s presidency and continued through the Obama era, but it faults Trump for “four years of neglect, contradiction, or outright abandonment” of the U.S. tradition of global leadership on democracy. The report adds, encouragingly, that President Biden “has indicated that his administration will return to that tradition.”

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