Freedom House assessment puts U.S. in bottom half of free countries

Freedom declined in the U.S. and around the globe during the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in less than 20% of the world’s population living in a free country, according to Freedom House’s annual assessment of political rights and civil liberties released Wednesday.

The smallest share of the world’s population since 1995 is living in a free country, and three-quarters live in countries where freedom is falling, said Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, a nonprofit that advocates for democracy and human rights.

The U.S. scored an 83 on Freedom House’s 100-point system, which assesses countries on a 40-point scale for political rights and a 60-point scale for civil liberties. The U.S. fell three points from last year and dropped 11 points in the past decade.

“This decline, as you’ll see, began before President Trump took office, [and] it’s not going to be reversed anytime soon just because we have a new administration,” Mr. Abramowitz said. “The U.S. has very serious work to do as a country to strengthen democracy here at home and to really establish ourselves as a global champion of freedom.”

The report’s authors cited mass arrests and violence during last summer’s racial justice protests, lack of transparency about COVID-19 treatment and prevention, Mr. Trump’s voter fraud allegations in response to the November presidential election, and the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol as among the most concerning indicators of the health of U.S. democracy.

“The outburst of political violence at the symbolic heart of U.S. democracy, incited by the president himself, threw the country into even greater crisis,” the report stated. “Notwithstanding the inauguration of a new president in keeping with the law and the Constitution, the United States will need to work vigorously to strengthen its institutional safeguards, restore its civic norms, and uphold the promise of its core principles for all segments of society if it is to protect its venerable democracy and regain global credibility.” Asked how close the U.S. was to falling into the report’s “partly free” category, lead authors Sarah Repucci and Amy Slipowitz said the U.S. was in the bottom half of free countries and headed downward, but not in the bottom tier.

Ms. Repucci said America’s peers 10 years ago were Western democracies such as France and Germany. Now it counts Croatia, Ghana, Mongolia, Panama and Romania among its peers, Ms. Slipowitz said.

Mr. Abramowitz told reporters that the COVID-19 pandemic, the growing influence of the Chinese Communist Party and diminishing freedom in India marked some of the biggest changes in the past year. He said coronavirus restrictions emboldened dictators, who used the pandemic to seize and consolidate their power.

The group has issued its report annually since 1973.

As America’s standing faltered, the report found, the authoritarian China was exerting authority outside its borders.

“The malign influence of the regime in China, the world’s most populous dictatorship, was especially profound in 2020,” the report said. “Beijing ramped up its global disinformation and censorship campaign to counter the fallout from its cover-up of the initial coronavirus outbreak, which severely hampered a rapid global response in the pandemic’s early days.”

For democratic countries looking to counter China and other authoritarian countries on the rise, the report recommended that the democracies invest in alliances with other free countries, increase public support for democratic principles through civic education, and support free and independent media, among other moves.

China sanctioned Mr. Abramowitz in August for his work at Freedom House, along with 10 other U.S. nonprofit and political leaders. He said the communist country’s continued work to crush Hong Kong and intimidate dissidents worldwide is felt outside China’s borders.

India, the world’s most populous democracy, dropped from “free” to “partly free” in the report. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi cracked down on critics and used coronavirus lockdowns to displace migrant workers, according to Freedom House.

“The ruling Hindu nationalist movement also encouraged the scapegoating of Muslims, who were disproportionately blamed for the spread of the virus and faced attacks by vigilante mobs,” the report said. “Rather than serving as a champion of democratic practice and a counterweight to authoritarian influence from countries such as China, Modi and his party are tragically driving India itself toward authoritarianism.”

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