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Balance of Power

Global watchdog blames Trump for declining U.S. democracy

American democratic norms are facing an attack unprecedented in modern times as a result of President Trump's actions, the global democracy watchdog Freedom House says in its annual assessment of freedom around the world.

The group's president, Michael Abramowitz, uses the report to accuse Trump of undermining such pillars of American democracy as the separation of powers, a free press, an independent judiciary and the legitimacy of elections.

While American democratic values were undermined by President Obama's prosecution of media leaks and President George W. Bush's warrantless collections of telephone records, "there remains little question that President Trump exerts an influence on American politics that is straining our core values and testing the stability of our constitutional system," he wrote. "No president in living memory has shown less respect for its tenets, norms and principles."

Freedom House gets most of its budget from the federal government and since 1973 has been issuing its widely respected ratings of countries as "free," "partly free" or "not free" – based on scores in two dozen categories ranging from press freedoms to fair elections, political pluralism to civil liberties. The new report, out Monday, ranks the United Sates No. 52 on the roster of 87 countries categorized as free. (At the end of the last decade it was No. 31.) The 2019 report says recent "decline in the rule of law" put American democracy "on a level with Greece, Croatia, and Mongolia," and well below such democracies as Germany and Britain.

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Last month another watchdog group, Transparency International, said that threats to the American system of checks and balances had dropped the United States out of the top 20 "cleanest" countries on its annual Corruption Perceptions Index.

"The reality is that other countries pay close attention to the conduct of the world's oldest functioning democracy. The continuing deterioration of U.S. norms will hasten the ongoing decline in global democracy. Indeed, it has already done so," Abramowitz wrote in a rare signed essay, included in the report, about the particular challenges to American democracy.

"We cannot take for granted that institutional bulwarks against abuse of power will retain their strength, or that our democracy will endure perpetually," he concluded. "Rarely has the need to defend its rules and norms been more urgent. Congress must perform more scrupulous oversight of the administration than it has to date. The courts must continue to resist pressures on their independence. The media must maintain their vigorous reporting even as they defend their constitutional prerogatives. And citizens, including Americans who are typically reluctant to engage in the public square, must be alert to new infringements on their rights and the rule of law."

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