Since the early 1970s, the pro-democracy non-profit Freedom House, founded in 1941 to mobilize American public opinion against Nazism, has published an annual survey evaluating political freedoms and civil liberties in countries around the world. Using 25 indicators, including electoral processes, individual rights and the rule of law, nations are scored on a 100-point scale. For decades, both Republican and Democratic leaders saw the values championed by Freedom House, which is partly funded by the United States government, as quintessentially American, and the United States has generally scored quite high on Freedom House’s index. Recently, however, that has begun to change.
The latest edition of “Freedom in the World,” Freedom House’s flagship report, has just been released. For the second year in a row, the United States had a score of 86, down from 94 in 2009. According to Michael Abramowitz, Freedom House’s president, it’s the lowest score for the United States since the survey began. Though still ranked as free, America now falls below not just Canada and the Nordic countries, but also Greece, Latvia and Mauritius. “The current overall U.S. score puts American democracy closer to struggling counterparts like Croatia than to traditional peers such as Germany or the United Kingdom,” the report said.
Two years into Donald Trump’s presidency, American democracy has in many ways proved fairly resilient. Several of the criminals who helped Trump get elected either have gone to prison or soon will. Democrats won control of the House in 2018 and have already started checking the president’s power. The courts have blocked some of Trump’s more egregious nativist policies, including his effort to rescind Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Trump’s attempts at racist demagogy often end up mobilizing public opinion against him. There’s been a revival of civic activism; according to Freedom House, the United States’ score for freedom of assembly has actually improved in the last year.
But the Freedom House report gives us at least two reasons for continuing alarm. The first is that it usually takes more than two years for a democracy to collapse. “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 anti-democratic leadership, often after a halting start,” the report said. Abramowitz told me that an increase in corruption and a decrease in transparency — both hallmarks of this administration — are “often early warning indicators of problems in a democracy,” undermining public faith in the legitimacy of the system. Second, if Americans increasingly ignore Trump’s words, foreign leaders don’t. Authoritarianism is on the rise all over the globe — according to the Freedom House report, this is the 13th consecutive year that global freedom has declined. Trump’s presidency is a consequence of this trend, but it’s also become an accelerant of it. There are plenty of reasons to be cynical about the idea — once a consensus view in American foreign policy — that it’s the sacred duty of the United States to promote democracy around the world. One of the pretexts for America’s war in Iraq, after all, was that it would spread democracy in the Middle East. Under Trump, however, we’re learning that an American approach to the world that is completely amoral and transactional creates its own dangers.
All over the globe, autocrats have learned that they will pay no serious diplomatic price for repressing or even killing reporters. In 2017, Cambodian strongman Hun Sen said of journalists, “Donald Trump understands that they are an anarchic group.” Later that year his government forced one of the country’s most prominent independent newspapers to close. The Trump administration remained loyal to Saudi Arabia’s crown prince despite the C.I.A.’s assessment that he ordered the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist. As Abramowitz pointed out, laws have been proposed or passed in at least 17 countries to censor the internet in the name of fighting “fake news.” “They didn’t come up with this on their own!” he said.
If a Democrat wins the presidency in 2020, there’s going to be a lot of pressure to move beyond this foul moment and forgive those who were complicit in it. We’re not good at holding elites to account in America; the architects of both the Iraq war and the 2008 financial crisis have gone largely unpunished. Still, I hope we can summon the political will for a reckoning with how thoroughly this administration has betrayed America’s highest ideals. We’ll need a full accounting of all the institutional corrosion the Trump presidency has caused, and all the money Trump and his associates have made off it. The world offers more lessons about how democracies grow weak and brittle than how they can be revived. America may never again be taken seriously as the global champion of liberal democracy. But perhaps it could at least figure out a systematic way to repudiate illiberalism. We’re not the only country that’s going to need it.
Credit: Michelle Goldberg for The New York Times, 4 February 2019. Michelle Goldberg has been an Opinion columnist since 2017. She is the author of several books about politics, religion and women’s rights, and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2018 for reporting on workplace sexual harassment issues.