As reviewed in a previous article, the standards of evaluation used by the freedom advocacy organization Freedom House in rating the freedom of the countries of the world now include criteria that incorporate the commitments of the sexual revolution into the assessment of freedom. Law and public policy which assumes traditional sexual morality now detracts from a country’s freedom rating. But in the most recent evaluation of the United States covering 2017, the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, the liberal/left orientation of the report is less reflected in judgments according to new standards than it is in the tendency to mistake political positions for the substance of freedom or lack thereof. Trump’s bellicose statements and his policy positions are taken as threats to freedom, when in fact they should not enter into evaluating freedom, simply being part of an American and free society. The President is entitled, as a matter of free speech and being an important political leader, to make highly polemical statements and criticize his political opponents when he is attacked, or when he believes that his opponents’ positions are wrong.
Freedom House’s narrative evaluation effectively implies that the President’s criticism of the mainstream news media is a threat to its freedom. Correcting his behavior would leave him unable to respond to their negative analyses. The political dynamic since the Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations (which began the era of video recording) is that the President can make statements about policy and politics via press conferences and press releases, while the mainstream media comments on them, and that effectively frames public perception. Only people who have firm opinions otherwise are immune from the news media’s framing. This was the case particularly with the Vietnam War, as was noted in an earlier article on the fate of South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem. The American press effectively framed Diem as a bad ruler. The Kennedy Administration then acted on that reality. With President Trump, social media is a way for Trump himself to advance his own narrative. His tweets go directly to the public, and this reduces the power of the press. The President no longer needs to communicate at press conferences or through a press secretary – he can make statements in a tweet anytime. His comments and criticisms of the press are no threat to the freedom of the press. They simply make political give and take possible, which was far less the case with late twentieth century presidents, and which is essential for a healthy democracy.
In general, the report proceeds from liberal/left assumptions about society – that homosexual behavior is deserving protected status whereas personal behavior cannot be protected generally, that imprisonment and capital punishment detract from freedom rather than being just punishment and protective of society, that restrictions on immigration represent prejudice rather than a nation’s efforts to protect its historic identity and the interests of the existing population, that Muslim immigration is being restricted in a discriminatory manner when in fact it could be a reasonable response to terrorism, that conservative efforts to effect a textualist judiciary threatens its independence rather than ensures the rule of law instead of judges, and that the right to abortion should be part of freedom even though it involves killing unborn children.
This tendency to favor leftist political positions, which is now inherent in the revised standards, is even more pronounced in the case of the United States under the Trump Administration, reviewed for the year 2017. America’s overall rating declined from “1” to “2” (1 is the best rating, 7 the worst), the first time the American rating has ever declined (although the finer detail aggregate score had previously declined). Throughout the narrative assessment, the evaluators confuse politics they don’t like with denials of freedom.
As a result, the narrative report offers descriptions of Trump’s political behavior which can be defended a factually accurate, but it is political events that are being described, not limitations placed on democracy or individual freedoms. Thus, the narrative speaks of “angry controversies” which pitted Trump against a variety of groups, including “the mainstream press” and “leaders of his own Republican Party.” But this is simply describing American politics in 2017, and has nothing to do with whether or not the United States is a free country. Reasonably the President will be involved in conflict with the press and Republican leaders. Vigorous politics seems to have been mistaken for an erosion of democracy, when in fact it is simply part of politics. As noted above, earlier presidents had to rely on press conferences, occasional radio broadcasts, and news releases to communicate with the public, while the news media provided instant commentary, flooding the airwaves with what news reporters considered be the correct narrative on what the President said. Freedom House apparently believes that this disadvantaged situation to the President is proper.
Similarly, the President and his supporters are criticized for maintaining that there was widespread vote fraud in 2016, noting that academic experts disagree with this claim, and also with the more general claim advanced by conservatives and Republicans that vote fraud is a significant problem. One may disagree with what the President says regarding the extent of fraud, but advancing his own viewpoint on this subject does not make America less free. Nor do measures to ensure that only registered voters vote. It is the civic responsibility of citizens to vote, and their responsibility if they do not vote. Ensuring that each vote comes only from a registered and eligible voter who voted one time does not harm democracy.
Restricting immigration from Muslim majority countries is another political issue that really doesn’t merit consideration in an assessment of freedom. It is a political question, not a question of fundamental rights. There is no duty, in terms of fundamental liberty, to allow any immigration or even asylum. And as noted above, the suspicion about the propriety of restricting Muslim immigration is political and unwarranted, given the threat of Islamic terrorism. Readers of the report would also never know of the Obama Administration effectively excluding Middle Eastern Christians from the country, although that, too, is a question of policy, not of the freedom enjoyed by Americans.
Borderline between being a matter of democratic government and simply politics is the criticism of Trump for appointing his daughter and son-in-law as Presidential advisors. This might be ethically questionable, but it remains basically a political issue, certainly no worse than President Kennedy nominating and seeing confirmed his brother as Attorney General. Perhaps more serious is the criticism of the President for declining divestment of his business, continuing to receive benefit from foreign business operations, and easing restrictions on lobbyists moving into the government, but these are not illegal actions in themselves, and hardly compare to corruption in non-Western countries.
The report’s review of the “Rule of Law” (criterion F) similarly shows a confusion of political positions with an assessment of independent courts and law enforcement impartially administering law. Judicial appointments have become highly contested because of the Left’s attempt to enact its agendas through judges who can impose them by appeal to ideals the Constitution supposedly indicates, regardless of the wishes of the body politic. While the report criticizes “the pace and quality of judicial appointments,” it is to be doubted that Trump’s judicial appointments are “extreme” in the sense of dissenting from constitutional liberalism; they are “extreme” (to use report’s term) only if one disagrees with textualism, that rulings should be based on the text of Constitution and law, not on what judges believe the law should say. Efforts by George W. Bush to appoint judges were stymied by the judicial filibuster, which Republicans were unsuccessful in ending. For lower court judges, the filibuster was ended by a Democratic Senate allowing approval of Obama’s appointments with a simple majority, while it was retained for Supreme Court appointments, likely to guard against appointments by a Republican President and Senate. None of this is mentioned by Freedom House’s narrative, although it does mention that ending the filibuster for Supreme Court appointment by the current Republican Senate allowed approval of Trump’s nominee Neil Gorsuch by a simple majority.
Similarly, in the area of law enforcement, the report questions the rate of incarceration and the disproportionate level of blacks and Hispanics among inmates. This ignores that longer sentences are really a matter of policy, not fundamental rights, and that the level of black and Hispanic incarceration might have something to do with the level of crime among these groups. It also argues that the legal possibilities of long sentences increases the likelihood of plea bargaining, thus reducing the role of the judiciary – this implies that it would benefit freedom if courts did more decision making in society, which is a debatable claim, and in any case a political one.
Under “Associational and Organization Rights,” criterion E3 seems to criticize right to work laws as allowing workers to benefit from the efforts of labor unions without paying dues. But this simply states, from the adversary side, the fact that right to work laws allow workers not to contribute to unions they disagree with. Perhaps right to work laws could be criticized on libertarian grounds, as interfering with the right of an employer and a labor union to form a contract on agreed terms, but they also protect workers from participating in associations they do not want to belong to. But Freedom House criticizes the laws inhibiting social progress (i.e., by weakening unions and thus allegedly harming the ultimate good of workers), not as an infringement of the right of contract.
It is noteworthy that on the side of law and policy that actually does negatively affect freedom, the assessment of religious freedom in the narrative involves no consideration of the threat to liberty of conscience occasioned by the sexual revolution. Specifically, this involves sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) laws, which are interpreted to require complicity in homosexual behavior, and the Obama Administration’s HHS mandate. These laws represent a major threat to the religious freedom of millions of religious Americans. This receives no consideration in calculating America’s aggregate score, just as the denials of religious freedom and free speech resulting from the sexual revolution received no consideration in calculating the higher scores of more socially liberal Western countries. Also, Trump’s action to end the HHS mandate’s conscience violating requirements was a major victory for religious freedom, and this receives no consideration as a positive gain for freedom. Instead, “hate crimes” against Muslims and Jews – two groups historically held to be disadvantaged – are mentioned.
In the same vein, the narrative report seems to criticize the absence of federal LGBT civil rights protection, although the very category is problematic because the categories protected are ill-defined, and it is usually interpreted to “protect” behavior rather than people. In the nature of the case, personal behavior cannot be free or equal. The effort to effect such “civil rights” in Europe and America immediately threatens freedom of religion and speech, which are fundamental rights. In saying LGBT civil rights is not “explicitly” in federal legislation, the report may suggest that it is present by implication – as the Obama Administration tried to argue that transgenderism was included in Title IX sex discrimination provisions. But again, “LGBT civil rights” is a political matter that cannot be decided on the basis of neutral principles of liberty and equality, yet Freedom House’s standards include it as a basis for assessment.
Also relating to the sexual revolution in the final analysis, the narrative report seems to refer negatively to laws “restricting access” to abortion. This is reasonable in terms of Freedom House’s revised standards, but they are corrupted standards, because in fact scientifically abortion is the killing of another human being. It is thus homicide – the most basic denial of individual liberty that there is. Additionally, although indeed a matter of individual rights, it is a hotly contested political issue, and one on which Freedom House takes a position in absolute contradiction of what a principled doctrine of freedom and equality would indicate should be taken.
Freedom House has performed a valuable service for two decades giving objective assessments of the state of liberty, classically understood, in all the countries of the world. Rather than mere exhortations to the classic freedoms of religion, speech, the press, association, democracy, equality before the law, and the rule of law, and rather than even offering policy proposals, it has taken a politically incorrect path of evaluating countries. It has particularly highlighted the general decline of freedom in the last decade, after a dramatic improvement following the Cold War.
But now it appears that it has allowed political correctness, which is to say the commitments of the cultural left, to infect its evaluations. This corruption is seen its negative assessment of Donald Trump’s performance as President, especially in its criticism of his rhetoric. This is a negative political evaluation of him, not relevant to classical Lockean or Jeffersonian liberalism. It is also seen in the incorporation of the goals of identity politics, particularly sexual identity politics, into Freedom House’s criteria of evaluation, which also causes Freedom House to ignore the threat such politics poses to the classic freedoms of religion and speech. Freedom House’s reports will still be worth consulting, because it does consider classical liberal freedoms in its assessment. But for conservatives, libertarians, and anyone else to whom freedom means classical liberalism, Freedom House’s evaluations will be heavily politically tinged in support of values with which we disagree, and it will be necessary to point out, as clearly as possible, that what is being evaluated is political and policy positions and group interests, not universal rights, or real freedom.