The Politics of Rating Freedom: Ideological Affinity, Private Authority, and the Freedom in the World Ratings
by Sarah Sunn Bush, Temple University
The Freedom in the World (FITW) ratings of countries’ freedom, created by Freedom House in 1972, are widely used by many U.S. audiences, including journalists, policymakers, and scholars. Why and how did these ratings acquire private authority in the United States? Furthermore, why and to what extent have they retained private authority over time and across different audiences? Contrary to previous research on private authority, which emphasizes the role of raters’ expertise and independence, I advance an argument that emphasizes the role of ideological affinity between raters and users. Specifically, I argue that ratings are more likely to have authority among actors that share raters’ ideas about concept definition and coding. I also argue that ratings are more likely to have authority among weak actors that depend on powerful other users of the ratings. Diverse evidence and methods—including data on the ratings’ usage, an internal archive of Freedom House records, interviews with key informants, and a statistical analysis of bias—support the argument.