Democracy and rights
In essence, the United States is a stable democratic rule of law with regular elections and strong protection of press and freedom of expression. However, confidence in the democratic institutions has eroded in recent years. For several reasons, there is increased party political clumsiness to influence electoral processes and the increasing influence that money has in politics. The attacks on the media have reached new levels under Donald Trump.
Abbreviated as USA by Abbreviationfinder, the United States has long been seen as a democratic example for many people around the world. The country’s leaders have been elected through elections since the end of the 18th century (although voting rights have long been limited) and individual freedoms and rights are central concepts.
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In international rankings of states by the strength of democracy and rights, however, the US generally falls a bit on the list compared to other Western countries. Criticism has been directed at unequal conditions due to ethnicity and prosperity, deficiencies in the electoral system and hidden monetary contributions in election campaigns. During George W Bush (2001–2009), surveillance of citizens increased, and the successor Barack Obama (2009–2017) was criticized, among other things, for overly hard grip on press leaks (see below under Civil and Human Rights).
The downward trend has been strengthened following Donald Trump’s accession in 2017. But already that year – which reflected developments during the 2016 election year – the United States in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s ranking fell for the first time into the “failing democracies” category. This was mainly due to increasing political polarization and citizens’ rapidly shrinking confidence in the public institutions. In the 2019 ranking, the United States is ranked 25 out of the 165 countries on the EIU’s list (only 22 countries count as full-fledged democracies).
With Trump in the White House, democratic core values appear to have fallen into the fray. He fails to respect the constitution and its principles of power sharing (see Political system) in a way that was previously unthinkable for a president. Trump questions election results and court decisions that oppose him, ignores mechanisms to protect against corruption and often goes to storms against the media (see below).
The US is ranked 23 out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s ranking of world countries by levels of corruption, or just under half among the 36 OECD countries (for TI’s ranking list see here). TI points to a number of disturbing trends, including the president’s lack of respect for basic democratic values and that he does not keep the rift between the political sphere and his own business interests. Other problems, according to TI, are that special interests are gaining a stronger influence over politics and that corrupt individuals, criminals and even terrorists use anonymous shell companies to hide their illegal acts.
Confidence in the state and federal institutions declines, with only 17 percent of residents saying they “basically always” or “mostly” do what’s right.
Freedom of expression and media
The Constitution guarantees freedom of the press and it has always been regarded as essential for a healthy balance of power in society. The media in the United States is often called “the fourth state power” whose task it is to examine the holders of power. There have been concrete expressions, such as when the Washington Post unveiled the Watergate scandal in 1974, which led to the fall of President Richard Nixon (see Modern History).
With regard to freedom of the press, the United States is ranked 45 in Reporters Without Borders (RUG) ranking of freedom of the press in 180 countries (for list, see here). RUG notes that the constitutionally protected freedom of the press and opinion is increasingly questioned and circumscribed.
During his election campaign, Donald Trump went hard on traditional media. He often calls media the “enemy of the people”, dismisses information he dislikes as “fake news” and goes against attacks both on individual journalists and large media houses. Everyone risks getting hurt: Trump has claimed that social media giants like Facebook and Twitter are politically biased and censoring conservative votes, and when Fox News gave room to Democratic presidential candidates, Trump accused the channel of moving on the “wrong side.” Fox News is otherwise regarded as a spokesman for Trump. The channel was founded by media mogul Rupert Murdoch as a conservative alternative in the media market and offers Republican-oriented opinion programs and news angles. It has been the largest single news channel in the US TV market since 2002.
Mostly, Trump criticizes “liberal” news sources such as the New York Times newspaper and CNN and MSNBC news channels. The violent rhetoric from the highest place has been followed by an increase in attacks locally against media representatives. Many were shocked by several incidents in which police shot or arrested journalists in connection with the extensive wave of protests that washed over the country beginning in late May 2020 (see Calendar).
The equivalent of European public service companies – National Public Radio (NPR) and Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) – has much less impact in the United States and is largely financed by private grants, in addition to federal grants. They must be in the public service with, among other things, educational programs. Conservative forces have often criticized NPR and PBS for being left-wing and Trump is trying to pull in all the federal funding, but has so far been blocked by Congress.
In the majority of the states there are laws on source protection, but there is no such legislation at the federal level. Federal courts appear to be prosecuting journalists for refusing to disclose secret sources, often in cases where controversial data leaked to the media. In some cases, journalists have been sentenced to prison sentences for their refusal. Prosecution can be brought against whistleblowers under a law of 1917 (Espionage Act).
Judicial system and legal security
The independence of the courts is seen as a cornerstone of democracy in the United States. Above all, the Supreme Court must counterbalance political power (see Political system).
The prison system is strained. The United States has counted most interns in the world both in absolute terms and as a proportion of the population. Not least, the “war on drugs” has contributed to a fourfold increase since 1980 by the number of people sentenced to prison. African Americans are heavily overrepresented in prisons and are convicted significantly more often for drug offenses, despite the fact that drug use does not differ significantly between black and white Americans (see also Social Conditions).
Shortcomings in legal security are also evident when you see how police brutality disproportionately harms African Americans and other minority groups. Several cases of deadly police violence against unarmed black people have contributed to the activist movement Black Lives Matter (BLM) and widespread protests against racism. Mobile phones and social media have helped to make police versions of fatal incidents more easily questionable.
The death penalty can be sentenced by federal courts and in 30 states. More than 2,700 people are in a death cell, but only a small proportion are executed by those sentenced to death. Since 1976, when the death penalty was resumed after a break, almost 1,500 people have been executed in the United States.
The executions, as well as the harsh conditions in the prisons, have long been criticized by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations. There is debate that mentally ill persons can be sentenced to death, and methods of execution. In 2008, the Supreme Court dismissed objections to the use of poison injections, which opponents believe violate the Constitution’s prohibition on cruel punishments. However, the Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that capital punishment should not be punished for crimes committed by minors.
The electoral process and democracy
One reason for the low turnout in the United States (see Political system) is that it is more difficult than in most countries to exercise their voting rights. The problem has increased since the Supreme Court in 2013 tore down central parts of a Voting Rights Act of 1965, which formed a central part of strengthened civil rights. This opened the door for states to reintroduce laws that make it difficult for citizens to vote – which mainly affects minorities, low-paid and young people. It is also common for power holders to try to redraw electoral districts to obtain a division that is maximally favorable to their own party (a phenomenon called gerrymandering). Such manipulation of electoral districts is becoming increasingly aggressive and in recent years has led to several legal cases. In June 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that politicians are free to do as they please with the electoral district (see Calendar).
The growing importance of money in the election campaigns has been called into question and Congress has tried to limit the private contributions by law. But two decisions of the Supreme Court in 2010 allowed companies and individuals to give unlimited sums to political campaign organizations, “super pacs” (Super Political Action Committees), that support a candidate or run a question. In addition, it became possible to make such donations anonymously. As a result, companies and wealthy individuals were given an increased opportunity to influence elections without being seen. Previously, there were restrictions on how much individual donors could provide. During the 2016 election campaign, more money was spent than ever before, close to $ 7 billion.
Human and civil rights
Following the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, US decision makers took vigorous measures to ensure American security and to wage a global war on terror. Restrictions on human rights and democratic principles were accepted to a greater extent than before.
In October 2001, Congress passed new anti-terrorism legislation (the Patriot Act), which, among other things, gave the authorities increased powers to interrogate suspected individuals and to hold terror suspected aliens imprisoned without specifying charges. Terrorism laws were extended in 2006, with some changes, and in 2011.
Human rights organizations and other critics have argued from the outset that the laws violate the rights guaranteed by the Constitution to an excessive degree. The criticism grew when a surveillance scandal was revealed in the summer of 2013. A former employee of the CIA intelligence service, Edward Snowden, leaked information to media that the National Security Agency (NSA) mass-monitored telecommunications and Internet communications worldwide. Within the US, the criticism was mainly about the monitoring of American citizens. In the outside world, the disclosure led to deteriorating relations with other countries, including Germany and Brazil who objected to their heads of government being intercepted.
The laws have been used extensively by authorities to request information from, for example, telephone companies, banks and Internet companies. According to a 2014 report, in the first twelve years, there were over 11,000 cases in which the authorities requested information about individuals. In only 51 cases did the suspicions concern terrorism.
Disputed elements of the Patriot Act, which mainly applied to mass interception of telecom traffic, expired in 2015 but immediately returned, albeit with some restrictions, in a new law (Freedom Act).
There has also been criticism of the military’s use of torture. A major torture scandal was unveiled in 2004 in the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, Iraq. Torture has also occurred in Afghanistan and in the Guantánamo camp in Cuba. During President George W Bush’s tenure in power came reports of secret air transportation by suspected terrorists, secret prisons in Eastern Europe, among others, and the use of abusive drinking and other brutal methods not approved by the US military.
President Obama, after taking office in 2009, closed the remaining secret prisons and ordered that the criticized interrogation methods be discontinued. He also tried to shut down Guantanámo, the notorious military base that the United States leases from Cuba and which since 2002 has been used as a prison for suspected foreign terrorists. Opposition in Congress made Obama unsuccessful. Around 200 prisoners were released under his rule, but 41 remained when Trump took over. Trump has decided to keep the camp and that new prisoners can be brought there. In total, about 780 prisoners have been detained in Guantánamo, most Afghans as well as Saudis, Yemenis and Pakistanis. Almost all have been released without being prosecuted and returned to their home country or sent to third countries.
Although Obama withdrew from Bush’s war on terror and the methods used continued much during his reign in the same vein. The security apparatus both inside and outside the United States continued to expand. The use of driverless aircraft, drones, in the search for suspected terrorists and enemies in conflict areas also increased sharply during Obama. The drone attacks, which also hit civilians, have continued to increase under President Trump.
In the battle for migration and security, the Trump administration has adopted methods that, according to critics, risk leading to human rights violations. Particularly harsh criticism has been directed at the separation of migrant children from parents at the border with Mexico (see Calendar).
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Battle for voting methods ahead of the autumn elections (2020-05-06)