While there are many measures of world freedom and democracy, Freedom House’s "Freedom in the World" study has long been the academic and media standard for rating world governments as "free," "partly free," or "not free."
The U.S. government even uses the ratings to determine whether countries should receive its Millennium Challenge democracy-promotion financial aid totaling $10 billion over the past decade — which is one reason so many these days pay attention.
Perhaps that new power explains the 2018 report, which will break the hearts of researchers everywhere as the venerable Freedom House wades into the political swamp this year allowing ideology to distort its ratings.
The new report begins by simply reporting the results, "political rights and civil liberties around the world deteriorated to their lowest point in more than a decade in 2017," but now assesses fault, blaming this on "emboldened autocrats" and "beleaguered democracies" —and then strangely also censuring — "the United States' withdrawal from its leadership role in the global struggle for human freedom."
Why does an objective measure of freedom need an editorial blaming someone and in what sense can global leadership measure a nation’s internal freedom?
Freedom House actually began in 1941 with a moral agenda, supporting entry into World War II and opposing Nazism. It continued an active liberal internationalist cast after the war, supporting the Marshall Plan, NATO, moderate anti-communism, civil liberties, and democratization as defenses against totalitarianism. It was not until 1972 that it began publishing an objective measure of freedom within world nation-states.
The ratings have been criticized in the past for a cultural bias toward European values and for high NATO-nation scores; but freedom did emerge first in the West after all. Its early analyst Raymond Gastil never claimed the measures were scientific but were based on his "hunches and intuitions" and "a loose, intuitive rating system for levels of freedom or democracy, as defined by the traditional political rights and civil liberties of the Western democracies."
The report’s early success was measured by the fact that Gastil meticulously kept his beliefs separate from his ratings and that credibility survived almost a half-century until very recently when foreign policy ideology began seeping into the reports.
The 2017 report complained that "After eight years as president, Barack Obama left office with America’s global presence reduced and its role as a beacon of world freedom less certain. Trump’s [election] positions during 2016 raised fears of a foreign policy divorced from America’s traditional strategic commitments to democracy, human rights, and the rules-based international order that it helped to construct beginning in 1945." Again, what do beacons and rising-fears have to do with whether a country is internally free or democratic?
It was not until this year under new Chairman Michael J. Abramowitz that the ratings themselves reflected the new ideological orientation of the report--when the U.S. internal freedom score was reduced from 94 under Obama to 86 under Trump, with this preface: "President Trump’s 'America First' slogan, originally coined by isolationists seeking to block U.S. involvement in the war against fascism, targeted traditional notions of collective global security and mutually beneficial trade.
"The administration’s hostility and skepticism toward binding international agreements on the environment, arms control, and other topics confirmed that a reorientation was taking shape.
"Even when he chose to acknowledge America’s treaty alliances with fellow democracies, the president spoke of cultural or civilizational ties rather than shared recognition of universal rights; his trips abroad rarely featured any mention of the word 'democracy.'"
Abramowitz claimed that this "marks a sharp break from other U.S. presidents in the postwar period who cooperated with certain authoritarian regimes for strategic reasons but never wavered from a commitment to democracy as the best form of government and the animating force behind American foreign policy."
When did skepticism and cultural ties become undemocratic?
The U.S. internal decline was attributed to "partisan manipulation of the electoral process, bias and dysfunction in the criminal justice system, and growing disparities in wealth, economic opportunity, and political influence;" to "growing evidence" of Russian election interference; mingling "his business empire with his role as president," appointing "family members to his senior staff, filled other high positions with lobbyists and representatives of special interests, and refused to abide by disclosure and transparency practices."
Now there may be good reasons to reduce the U.S. freedom score especially regarding the justice system but nebulous, leading and arguable phrases like partisan, manipulation, bias, mingling, empire, transparency, special interests and "growing evidence" suggest something more problematic.
These amorphous explanations suggest mere political disagreement masquerading as empirical analysis. Is it too much to ask Freedom House to forget ideology and stick to the facts?
Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, the author of "America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition and Constitution," and was Ronald Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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