Americans Less Positive About Civil Liberties: AP-NORC Poll


Ten years after the 9/11 attacks, Americans were fairly positive about the state of their rights and freedoms. Today, after 20 years, not so much.

This is the result of a survey by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, which builds on work from 2011, a decade after the pivotal moment in US history. Some questions were also asked in surveys conducted in 2013 and 2015.

Americans relatively agreed that a decade after the terrorist attacks, the government did a good job protecting many fundamental rights. With these changes came a creeping concern about the overwhelming power of the government, though Americans overall remained pretty positive.

That stance has eroded in the years since then, and now far fewer people say the government is doing a good job protecting rights, including freedom of expression, the right to vote, the right to guns, and others.

For example, the poll found that 45% of Americans now say they think the U.S. government does a good job defending freedom of expression, compared with 32% who say it does a bad job and 23% % who do not say either. The proportion who say the government is doing a good job has decreased from 71% in 2011 and from 59% in 2015.

Dee Geddes, 73, a retiree in Chamberlain, South Dakota, said she was frustrated with the government’s apparent inability to protect the amount of private information available, especially online.

“It bothers me when I can find pretty much anything about anyone on the Internet. I feel kind of naked, ”said Geddes, who identifies as a Republican. “I bother how much the government knows about us, but that’s because there’s so much time out there. It’s daunting. “

About half now say the government is doing a good job protecting religious freedom, compared to three-quarters who said the same thing in 2011.

More Americans now think the government is doing no good or bad job protecting the right to equal protection by law, 49% to 27%. In 2011, opinions were reversed, with more people saying the government was doing a good job than a bad one, 48 to 37%.

The poll also found that 54% of Americans say that “it is sometimes necessary for the government to sacrifice some rights and freedoms to fight terrorism,” compared with 64% a decade ago. 44% say that this is never necessary at all.

A majority of Democrats say this is sometimes necessary, which is broadly in line with previous AP-NORC polls. But Republicans are now tightly divided: 46% say it is sometimes necessary and 53% say it is never necessary. In 2011, 69% of Republicans said it was sometimes necessary, and 62% said the same thing in 2015.

Brandon Wilson, 23, an economics and animation student at the College of DePage in Glen Ellyn, Ill. Who described himself as a conservative, said he understood that the post-11th felt that the actions were for the common good.

“I think it’s a good idea,” said Wilson of measures like increased passenger screening. “The government is helping the public and trying to improve people’s lives overall.”

By and large, however, Americans have become more cautious about government surveillance in the name of national security, the survey shows.

The survey asked about a wide variety of rights and freedoms, including many of those expressly listed in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights, as well as several that are protected by law and court judgments.

It found that 44% now say the government is doing a good job protecting freedom of the press, compared to 26% who think the government is doing a bad job. In both 2011 and 2015, around 6 in 10 said the government is doing a good job.

Americans are roughly equally divided about how the government protects freedom from improper searches and seizures. About a third say it does a good job and about a third say it does a bad job. In 2011 and 2015, views were a little more positive than negative, although less than half of Americans said the country is doing a good job.

Tony Gay, 60, a retiree who lives in Cincinnati, said he generally supports government moves to protect civil liberties. He said his 10 years of military service helped strengthen his view that sacrifice is sometimes necessary to protect freedoms.

“You cannot have your freedom around the clock if there is no one to protect you,” said Gay. “So if they put travel restrictions on, I’m for it because it’s about making sure I’m safe and that the person next to me is safe.”

Forty-three percent of Americans think the U.S. government does a good job protecting the right to vote, while 37 percent say it does a bad job. By comparison, 70% said they did a good job in 2015 and 84% said the same thing in 2011.

Americans are also now divided on whether the government is doing good or bad job protecting the right to own guns, 35% versus 36%, but in 2011 more said it did a good job than bad, 57% versus 27 %.

Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say that the government is doing a good job protecting several rights and freedoms, including freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and the right to keep and bear arms.

However, Democrats are slightly more likely than Republicans to say the government is doing a poor job in enforcing equal protection under the law, 54% to 46%. Views among Democrats and Republicans are broadly similar on how well the government protects the right to vote, and both views are significantly less positive than in previous polls.

While relatively comfortable with the government’s protection of basic civil liberties, Gay said he felt that regular reviews of the guidelines and those who make them should be necessary.

“It’s like having a free hand in politics,” said Gay. “It gives me mixed feelings about who is watching over us.”

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