Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World Report is out and, as you must have suspected, the pandemic has taken a heavy toll on freedom around the globe, including in the U.S.
Freedom House’s 2021 report bears the ominous title “Democracy under Siege.” The report begins:
As a lethal pandemic, economic and physical insecurity, and violent conflict ravaged the world in 2020, democracy’s defenders sustained heavy new losses in their struggle against authoritarian foes, shifting the international balance in favor of tyranny.
The “withering blows” dealt us by the pandemic functioned as accelerants to what Freedom House sees as a 15-year-trend of declining democratic values and practices around the world. “The long democratic recession is deepening,” according to Freedom House.
The American media and corporations, many of which do lucrative business with China, have shied away from being too hard to the communist regime. Freedom House doesn’t:
The malign influence of the regime in China, the world’s most populous dictatorship, was especially profound in 2020. 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. Its efforts also featured increased meddling in the domestic political discourse of foreign democracies, transnational extensions of rights abuses common in mainland China, and the demolition of Hong Kong’s liberties and legal autonomy. Meanwhile, the Chinese regime has gained clout in multilateral institutions such as the UN Human Rights Council, which the United States abandoned in 2018, as Beijing pushed a vision of so-called noninterference that allows abuses of democratic principles and human rights standards to go unpunished while the formation of autocratic alliances is promoted.
Around the world, COVID-19 provided a rationale for the consolidation of authority in the hands of governments:
As COVID-19 spread during the year, governments across the democratic spectrum repeatedly resorted to excessive surveillance, discriminatory restrictions on freedoms like movement and assembly, and arbitrary or violent enforcement of such restrictions by police and nonstate actors. Waves of false and misleading information, generated deliberately by political leaders in some cases, flooded many countries’ communication systems, obscuring reliable data and jeopardizing lives. While most countries with stronger democratic institutions ensured that any restrictions on liberty were necessary and proportionate to the threat posed by the virus, a number of their peers pursued clumsy or ill-informed strategies, and dictators from Venezuela to Cambodia exploited the crisis to quash opposition and fortify their power.
Freedom House also finds the state of democracy in the U.S. “parlous” but focuses primarily on an “insurrectionist mob” storming the U.S. Capitol, which was indeed an outrage, and claims about alleged electoral irregularities as examples. There are plenty of other examples of lost freedom which probably would have hit home with ordinary citizens.
Ordinary citizens, who never in their wildest imaginations would have stormed the Capitol, still found it offensive for the government to lay down highly specific rules on how to celebrate holidays. You’d never know the strength of cancel culture or tech censorship in the U.S. from reading the Freedom House report.
The report states:
A diverse set of media outlets broadly confirmed the outcome of the election, and civil society groups investigated the fraud claims and provided evidence of a credible vote. Some Republicans spoke eloquently and forcefully in support of democratic principles, before and after the storming of the Capitol. Yet it may take years to appreciate and address the effects of the experience on Americans’ ability to come together and collectively uphold a common set of civic values.
I find this a bit alarming, especially in the light of tech censorship of news unfavorable to the Democratic candidate. I was distressed that the challenges to the 2020 election arguably went on too long, but isn’t part of freedom being able to say what we think about an election? After all, questioning election results is a good, old American tradition, according to an opinion piece by Ted Rall in today’s Wall Street Journal.
Reason’s J. D. Tuccile had a good piece on the Freedom House report, and, unlike Freedom House, doesn’t see the world through establishment spectacles:
“Authoritarianism and nationalism are on the rise around the world,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged this week in comments that cited Freedom House. “Governments are becoming less transparent and have lost the trust of the people. Elections are increasingly flashpoints for violence. Corruption is growing. And the pandemic has accelerated many of these trends.”
But Blinken spoke as an official in the cabinet of President Joe Biden, who started out with a record flurry of executive actions bypassing Congress. And Biden just accused states lifting pandemic restrictions of engaging in “neanderthal thinking.”
We can’t battle authoritarian systems by emulating their autocracy and their disrespect for personal freedom. Democracies are going to have to do better at exercising their core liberal values to prove their worth and win back support.
Still, despite its shortcomings, the Freedom House report has valuable information, though its perspective of events in the U.S. may be hampered by its establishment-tinged perspective.