National Survey Finds Bipartisan Support for Expansive View of Rights

Heading into the 2020 election, a national survey of American attitudes toward rights and freedoms in the United States finds surprising bipartisan support by substantial majorities of Americans for rights that are now frequently under political attack.  At the same time, the poll reveals that majorities of people feel that rights are facing “serious threat” and are not “secure” and that neither the US government nor US citizens are “doing a good job enforcing and respecting rights.”

The research was led by the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard Kennedy School, with support from the School’s Institute of Politics. The poll is part of a larger Carr Center initiative analyzing the condition of rights in the United States in 2020 and American attitudes toward rights and responsibilities. The project also includes focus groups in Phoenix, Arizona; Detroit, Michigan; and Atlanta, Georgia. The Reimagining Rights Project will publish conclusions and recommendations for policymakers in a major research report in October. 

The report is part of a Carr Center project on Reimagining Rights and Responsibilities in the United States, directed by John Shattuck, Carr Center Senior Fellow and former US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. The report and the project are overseen by a faculty committee chaired by Carr Center Faculty Director Mathias Risse, with the participation of Executive Director Sushma Raman, and the support of the Carr Center staff. The nationwide poll of 2,093 adults was conducted by NORC, an independent research institution at the University of Chicago, between July 6-28, 2020. The margin of error for this study is +/-2.76%.

Key Takeaways:

1. More than two-thirds of Americans agree that they “have more in common with each other than many people think.”

At a time of deep partisan and demographic divides related to the 2020 election, 74% of Democrats, 78% of Republicans and 66% of Independents agree that there are commonalities. 

Central to this perspective is a consensus of Americans across the political spectrum concerning the importance of rights and freedoms, even those that are under political attack.  More than 8 out of 10 (81%) Americans—including 77% of Democrats, 91% of Republicans, and 78% of Independents—believe that “without our freedoms America is nothing."

Bar chart showing percent of respondents that believe they have more in common with eachother: 77% of Democrats, 91% of Republicans, and 78% of Independents

2. Americans express surprisingly strong support for rights.

The strongest support is for rights that are most under threat, such as privacy of personal data (considered important by bipartisan 93% majority), voting (93%), racial equality (92%) and affordable health care (89%).

Bipartisan majorities support rights that are facing political opposition today.  For example, 57% agree that “racial diversity makes us stronger” (67% Dem, 52% Rep, 54% Ind).  66% believe that “new immigrants are good for the US” (74% Dem, 60% Rep, 64% Ind). 72% agree that “a woman’s ability to choose and make decisions affecting her body and personal life” should be protected (85% Dem, 55% Rep, 72% Ind). 86% believe that “social media companies should be regulated to protect the privacy of personal data” (87% Dem, 87% Rep, 86% Ind).

There is a partisan split in some areas of majority support for rights that are facing political opposition. For example, 66% believe that “before America can truly be united, we need to give equal opportunity to the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ ”, but there is a partisan split: 87% Dem, 49% Rep, 62% Ind.  While 61% believe that “Black people and some other racial minorities are the targets of racism in policing”, the partisan split is: 83% Dem, 32% Rep, 61% Ind. Where 58% agree that “immigrants facing persecution or violence in their home countries have a right to seek political asylum in the U.S.”, but there is a partisan split: 69% Dem, 41% Rep, 59% Ind. While only 38% believe that “secular America is a threat to religious liberty," there is a partisan split:  33% Dem, 56% Rep, 32% Ind.

Dot graph showing percents of rights that respondents deemed as “importance” that are also considered the least “secure.” With voting the most secure and racial equality the least secure.

3. Bipartisan majorities of Americans have an expansive view of their rights beyond those specified in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

More than 80% consider the following to be “essential rights important to being an American today”: 

  • right to clean air and water (93% total, 94% Dem, 95% Rep,  92% Ind)
  • a quality education (92% total, 94% Dem, 91% Rep, 91% Ind)
  • protection of personal data (93% total, 95% Dem, 94% Rep, 92% Ind)
  • affordable health care (89% total, 94% Dem, 84% Rep, 88% Ind) 
  • a job (85% total, 91% Dem, 77% Rep, 85% Ind)
Bar graph showing how bipartisan majorities have an expansive view of rights, believing “essential” rights to be clean air and water, quality education, protection of personal data, affordable healthcare, and a job.

4. Bipartisan super-majorities of 90% or more believe that the following are also “essential rights important to being an American today”:

  • Voting (93%) (94% Dem, 95% Rep, 90 Ind)
  • Equal protection (95%) (96% Dem, 95% Rep, 94% Ind)
  • Free speech (94%) (94% Dem, 97% Rep, 92% Ind)
  • Equal opportunity (93%) (94% Dem, 94% Rep, 91% Ind)
  • Privacy (94%) (95% Dem, 96% Rep, 91% Ind)
  • Racial equality (92%) (95% Dem, 91% Rep, 90% Ind)

5. Smaller bipartisan majorities believe that religious liberty, the right to bear arms, and LGBTQ+ rights are “essential rights.”

  • Religious liberty (90%) (90% Dem, 95% Rep, 88% Ind)
  • Right to bear arms (73%) (58% Dem, 89% Rep, 74% Ind)
  • LGBTQ rights (71%) (85% Dem, 53% Rep, 70% Ind)

6. More people believe that their rights are “not very secure” than are “very secure."

Only in the case of voting, religious liberty, and the right to bear arms do more people believe that rights are “very secure” than believe they are “not very secure”.  

In most cases, the government and politicians are considered the greatest threats to rights.  Among those who believe a specific right is not secure, there is bipartisan agreement on the top two or three threats to the rights which have super-majority bipartisan support (over 90%):

Voting – greatest threats are “government” and “politicians”

  • 84% Dem, 53% Rep, 77 Ind.

Equal protection – greatest threats “government” and “politicians”

  • 71% Dem, 64% Rep, 70% Ind.

Free Speech – greatest threats “politicians” and “government”

  • 68% Dem, 53% Rep, 60% Ind.

Equal opportunity – greatest threats “government” and “other Americans”

  • 59% Dem, 58% Rep, 60% Ind.

Privacy – greatest threats “government” and “corporations”

  • 66% Dem, 56% Rep, 69% Ind.

Racial equality – greatest threats “other Americans”, “government” and “politicians”

  • 91% Dem, 95% Rep, 92% Ind.
A bar graph that shows the percentage of respondents who believe the following causes pose the greatest threat to each right: voting, equal protection, free speech, equal opportunity, privacy, and racial equality.


7. Nearly 9-in-10 (87%) agree that “the government has a responsibility to protect the lives, livelihoods, and rights of all Americans."

But a majority (54%) believe the government is not doing a good job protecting the rights of Americans. 

Across partisan lines, 91% of Democrats, 91% of Republicans, and 82% of Independents agree that “the government has a responsibility to protect the lives, livelihoods, and rights of all Americans." In contrast, 66% of Democrats, 32% of Republicans, and 59% of Independents believe the government is not doing a good job of protecting rights of citizens and other persons lawfully in the US. 58% believe Americans are not doing a good job of “respecting the rights of other Americans.

A bar chart showing the percent of respondents who believe the government has a responsibility to protect Americans, with 91% of Democrats agreeing, 91% of Republicans agreeing, and 82% Independents.


8. Recent events (e.g. COVID pandemic) have made a bipartisan majority of Americans “think differently about the role and responsibility of government in protecting rights."

While 85% of respondents "think differently about the role and responsibility of government in protecting rights” (90% Dem, 84% Rep, 81% Ind), 83% think differently about the “the responsibility of citizens to fellow citizens” (90% Dem, 84% Rep, 78% Ind).

9. In the context of the COVID pandemic, 53% of Americans are willing to “sacrifice some of their personal freedoms to benefit public health.”

But 54% are not willing to “sacrifice privacy to benefit public health."

Across partisan lines, 61% of Democrats, 40% of Republicans, and 54% of Independents are willing to “sacrifice some of their personal freedoms to benefit public health.” Still, 41% of Democrats, 66% of Republicans, and 56% of Independents are not willing to “sacrifice privacy to benefit public health.”

10. The “events of recent months” have caused a majority of Americans (53%) (Dem 64%, Rep 41%, Ind 52%) to have “less respect” for the U.S. government.

It has caused them to have “more respect” for their family (54%) (55% Dem, 58% Rep, 51% Ind).

Additionally, 41% say they have more respect for the US military (10% less respect), 36% for African Americans (12% less), 35% for their local police (18% less), 32% for immigrants (10% less), and 29% for their neighbors (9% less).

A bar chart showing how Americans have gained and lost respect for the following since the onset of the pandemic and economic/racial crises: government, family, military, police, local neighbors, African Americans, and immigrants.