I’ve never known quite what to make of the haunting Kris Kristofferson lyric from “Me and Bobby McGee” asserting the “freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” (Kristofferson writes about it here.)
The concepts of “freedom” and its cousin “democracy” are hugely important not only to the world but to America’s sense of its historic mission. Those words, and the path we have followed both toward and sometimes away from them, has also been endlessly slippery.
But, if you care, in its latest annual ranking of freedom around the world, Freedom House, which has assigned itself the job of tracking its namesake abstraction in nations around the world, has lowered its rating of U.S. freedom. That rating was done while Donald Trump was still president.
I won’t presume, but will be surprised if our freedom rating doesn’t recover some ground under Joe Biden, if only as a relief rally as Biden reverses some of the Trump policies and practices at which Freedom House looked askance. Freedom House specified many undemocratic or anti-democratic features of the recent Trump years and titled its report “A Leaderless Struggle for Democracy,” an obvious reference to the idea that over the past four years, the leadership role of the United States in promoting and defending global democracy had ended.
The report highlighted the “pressure” Trump has exerted “on electoral integrity, judicial independence and safeguards against corruption” in the United States, as the Washington Post put it in its coverage of the Freedom House report.
Also noted by the report is “the decline in fair and equal treatment of refugees and asylum seekers” under Trump’s watch — something that Freedom House called “worrisome for a country that takes pride in its traditional role as a beacon for the oppressed.”
Overall, Freedom House found that “2019 was the 14th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.” So it’s not all the result of Trump. But Freedom House was explicit about Trump’s role in a section titled: “The eclipse of U.S. leadership,’ which specified that:
The final weeks of the Trump presidency featured unprecedented attacks on one of the world’s most visible and influential democracies. After four years of condoning and indeed pardoning official malfeasance, ducking accountability for his own transgressions, and encouraging racist and right-wing extremists, the outgoing president openly strove to illegally overturn his loss at the polls, culminating in his incitement of an armed mob to disrupt Congress’s certification of the results. Trump’s actions went unchecked by most lawmakers from his own party, with a stunning silence that undermined basic democratic tenets. Only a serious and sustained reform effort can repair the damage done during the Trump era to the perception and reality of basic rights and freedoms in the United States.
The year leading up to the assault on the Capitol was fraught with other episodes that threw the country into the global spotlight in a new way. The politically distorted health recommendations, partisan infighting, shockingly high and racially disparate coronavirus death rates, and police violence against protesters advocating for racial justice over the summer all underscored the United States’ systemic dysfunctions and made American democracy appear fundamentally unstable. Even before 2020, Trump had presided over an accelerating decline in US freedom scores, driven in part by corruption and conflicts of interest in the administration, resistance to transparency efforts, and harsh and haphazard policies on immigration and asylum that made the country an outlier among its Group of Seven peers.
But President Trump’s attempt to overturn the will of the American voters was arguably the most destructive act of his time in office. His drumbeat of claims—without evidence—that the electoral system was ridden by fraud sowed doubt among a significant portion of the population, despite what election security officials eventually praised as the most secure vote in US history. Nationally elected officials from his party backed these claims, striking at the foundations of democracy and threatening the orderly transfer of power.
To be fair to Trump, and honest and factual in way the Trump seldom is, the report noted that the U.S. aggregate “freedom” score had declined “every year during the past decade” which, it noted, made our dear nation “among the 25 biggest freedom decliners in the world.”
But, unsurprisingly, the years of decline continued and deepened under Trump.
I was born a few years after World War II. I’ve spent my whole life in a world in which democracy was advancing, new democracies were coming online, and it was hard not to assume that however long it took, democracy (and freedom) would keep spreading indefinitely. It was also hard not to assume, without being too naïve about it, that my country would be practicing democracy, preaching and promoting and defending democracy, and would be a or even “the” leader in that long, estimable project.
Of course, I’m quite relieved that Trump is no longer the chief executive officer of my country, and has been replaced by someone who believes in something closer to the script described in the paragraph above. But it’s hard to get back the old confidence in the assumption of a global future of ever more democracy.
The full Freedom House report on world democracy, and the new “leaderless struggle” to keep it thriving and spreading, is accessible here.