Americans are fed up with polarization.
The surprising results of a new national poll by the National Opinion Research Center for the Harvard Kennedy School Carr Center for Human Rights Policy reveal that 71 percent of Americans believe they “have more in common with each other than many people think,” including 78 percent of Republicans, 74 percent of Democrats, and 66 percent of Independents.
What Americans have in common are their rights and freedoms.
The coronavirus pandemic has strengthened the belief in this common enterprise. It has also brought out sharp differences over the meaning and importance of particular rights. Some Americans claim that requiring them to wear a mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is a denial of their freedom, but a majority of poll respondents (53 percent) are willing to “sacrifice some of their personal freedoms for public health.” Some Americans disparage voting by mail and demonstrations against racism in policing, but large bipartisan majorities of poll respondents support voting rights (93 percent) and racial equality (92 percent). Even in areas where controversies over rights are especially intense, 57 percent of respondents believe that “racial diversity makes the US stronger,” 66 percent believe “new immigrants are good for the US,” 72 percent believe “a woman’s ability to choose and make decisions affecting her body and personal life should be protected,” and 86 percent think “social media companies should be regulated to protect the privacy of personal data.”
Americans have an expansive view of their rights. Bipartisan majorities now consider the following to be “essential rights important to being an American today”: “clean air and water” (93 percent); “a quality education” (92 percent); “affordable health care” (89 percent); and the “right to a job” (85 percent). These high levels of demand for new rights are similar to the support for more traditional rights like rights of free speech (94 percent), privacy (94 percent), and equal opportunity (93 percent).
Rights and freedoms are the values Americans have in common, and most believe that rights today are threatened. Large majorities of poll respondents say the greatest threats come from politicians, the government, and “other Americans” — for example, threats to equal protection (92 percent), freedom of speech (90 percent), and voting rights (88 percent). The crises of recent months — the pandemic, the economy, and racial injustice — have caused most people (85 percent) to “think differently about the role and responsibility of government and citizens in protecting the lives, livelihoods, and rights of all Americans.” Majorities now believe neither the government nor citizens are “doing a good job respecting rights.”
Polarization is stimulated by attacks on rights. As we document in a forthcoming report, “Reimagining Rights and Responsibilities in the United States,” racial discrimination in policing is rampant; the rights of racial minorities, women, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities are under attack by the politics of exclusion; cruel treatment of immigrants is being carried out in violation of international and domestic law; and economic inequality is growing.
While people may have different priorities about what rights and freedoms matter most, our poll shows that these differences do not create a cancel culture. Claims of religious freedom do not cancel the rights of women to make decisions affecting their personal lives, nor do claims of gun rights cancel the right to personal safety. Each of these claims is supported by public opinion. It is the responsibility of voters, elected officials, and courts to balance the competing claims. Failure to find that balance not only exacerbates polarization but also endangers democratic governance.
Today voting rights are under assault. Judicial independence is facing intense political pressure. Patterns of authoritarian rule have emerged, characterized by the disregard of scientific evidence and the rule of law. New forms of digital surveillance and personal data collection are eroding the right to privacy.
Amid these threats, the public health crisis has put additional strain on rights and freedoms. The pandemic has laid bare the structural racism affecting Black and Latino Americans and other people of color whose health and livelihoods are at far greater risk than nonminorities because of the socioeconomic effects of deeply rooted racial discrimination. Rising COVID-19 cases have put pressure on the health care system. The downturn in the economy and increase in home evictions and unprecedented levels of unemployment have wreaked havoc on the rights and freedoms of all Americans.
Our poll affirms the common values that underlie the nation’s system of rights and freedoms. Rights define the relationship of people to each other and to the government. As citizens of a democratic nation built on unprecedented racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity, Americans are bound together not by common ancestry and blood ties but by rights and freedoms and a political system that negotiates and balances the guarantees of their protection. Without rights, there can be no pluralist democracy, only factions competing for dominance and groups struggling for survival. The upcoming election presents an opportunity to reimagine and renew the rights of all Americans and the responsibilities of government and citizens to protect them.
John Shattuck, a former US assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, directs the Project on Reimagining Rights and Responsibilities in the United States at the Harvard Kennedy School Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.