The Slatest

America Became a Little Less Free Last Year

The shape of things to come? 

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

The Land of the Free still deserves the nickname for now, according to Freedom House’s 2016 Freedom in the World Report, but it’s coming off a rough year. The widely cited report classifies every sovereign country in the world as well as a number of unrecognized territories as “free,” “partly free,” or “not free” based on scores for civil rights and civil liberties. And 2015 was the tenth consecutive year that overall freedom has declined in the world.

Three countries, the Dominican Republic, Lesotho, and Montenegro, dropped from free to partly free. One, Zimbabwe, improved from not free to partly free. Within the categories, just 43 countries saw gains in freedom, while a record 72, including the United States, saw declines. Rather than becoming fully democratic or completely autocratic, more countries seem to be moving from both sides toward the queasy middle.

To be clear, the U.S. is still one of the nearly 50 countries at Freedom House’s highest ranking level. We’re not on the path to being North Korea quite yet. But the U.S. did drop 2 points last year in the report’s more detailed aggregate score. Here’s why:

The United States did not face refugee flows or terrorist attacks on the same scale as Europe, but it too is experiencing a crisis of confidence in its democratic institutions and international role. While the American system remains dynamic and open to the participation of minorities and immigrants, its elections and legislative process have suffered from an increasingly intricate system of gerrymandering and undue interference by wealthy individuals and special interests. Racial and ethnic divisions have seemingly widened, and the past year brought greater attention to police violence and impunity, de facto residential and school segregation, and economic inequality, adding to fears that class mobility, a linchpin of America’s self-image and global reputation, is in jeopardy.

With these concerns as a backdrop, the political debate over immigration and national security—at least on the right—took on an angry, anti-Muslim tone, and Islamophobic hate crimes spiked, especially after 14 people were killed in a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California. Some elected officials on both sides of the political spectrum also cast doubt on America’s long-standing goal of supporting democracy overseas, arguing that U.S. involvement only causes instability.

While the numbers may not have shifted significantly, it’s notable that a U.S.-based organization that tends to put its focus on democracy promotion overseas chose to highlight these trends.

Elsewhere, the report focuses on worsening civil conflicts and retrenching authoritarian governments in the Middle East, escalating crime and political violence in Central America, the crackdown on dissent by Xi Jinping’s government on the Chinese mainland and in Hong Kong, and a rise in xenophobia in the democratic governments of Western Europe, fueled by the refugee crisis. There were some bright spots last year, including elections that tossed out entrenched incumbents in Myanmar, Venezuela, and Nigeria. But overall, it’s not a pretty picture.