Civil Liberties

Government Is Lousy at Protecting Civil Liberties, Say Americans

People doubt the government's role as a protector but send mixed messages about their value of freedom.


Disappointment in government brings an otherwise divided country together once again, as Americans lose faith in the state's ability to protect civil liberties. Granted, people are often their own worst enemies, threatening the freedom of those they don't like. But there's a realistic and growing recognition of the danger posed by the powers-that-be, and loss of confidence in their supposed roles as protectors.

"In 2011, 10 years after the terrorist attack, nearly two-thirds were willing to sacrifice rights and freedoms to protect the country from terrorism" finds a recent Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research (AP-NORC) poll. More recently, "just over half were willing to surrender their civil rights and freedoms to combat terrorism."

More remarkably, when asked about specific rights, the percentage of the public saying the government does a good job protecting them has declined sharply in the past decade. In 2011, 84 percent of respondents said the U.S. government did a good job protecting the right to vote; that dropped to 43 percent in 2021. For peaceful assembly, the number dropped from 75 percent to 42 percent. For freedom of speech, it dropped from 71 percent to 45 percent. For freedom of religion, from 75 percent to 51 percent. For the right to trial by an impartial jury, from 67 percent to 44 percent. For the right to keep and bear arms, from 57 percent to 35 percent, and so on. In fact, for none of the rights about which people were polled have the numbers done anything but drop in terms of people's confidence about government protections.

Of course, given that everything is subject to partisan considerations, members of the political tribes don't necessarily see eye-to-eye on how well officials respect our rights.

"Democrats tend to see the government as doing a good job at protecting various rights and freedoms, while Republicans are more inclined to say the government is doing a poor job. However, there are no significant partisan differences regarding the right to vote, freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, freedom from punishment without trial, equal protection under the law, or freedom from unreasonable search and seizure," AP-NORC adds. Independents, for their part, either split the difference between Republicans and Democrats (such as on freedom of speech and of the press) or are especially dubious about government protections (such as for freedom from punishment without trial and the right to vote).

Of particular interest after the 9/11 attacks and since the 2013 revelations by Edward Snowden about the pervasive surveillance that followed is AP-NORC's separate report about plummeting support for such snooping. It seems that government eavesdropping has little in the way of a fan base.

"Twenty years after 9/11, less than 3 in 10 adults consider warrantless government analysis of internet activities and communications an acceptable means for monitoring threats against the U.S.," the poll finds.

Support for government monitoring of domestic phone calls was never high, but has fallen from 23 percent in 2011 to 14 percent in 2021. Support for monitoring phone calls outside the United States fell from 49 percent to 28 percent. Support for monitoring internet searches fell from 48 percent to 27 percent. And, for reading private emails, the numbers fell from 30 percent to 17 percent over those years. Some 60 percent of Americans do, however, continue to favor surveillance cameras in public places, though that's down by more than 10 percent.

It's as if years of intrusiveness, abusive politicians, and weaponization of the power of the state by officials against their political opponents have eroded the credibility of the U.S. government!

Unfortunately, officialdom's unreliability as a guardian of personal freedom doesn't come out of the blue—there's a constituency for that shakiness. For example, multiple polls in recent years have found that, while people voice support for free speech in the abstract, they're not so happy about protecting speech that upsets them.

"'The government should be able to take action against newspapers and TV stations that publish content that is biased, inflammatory, or false," agreed 57 percent of respondents to a 2019 Campaign for Free Speech poll. Never mind that "biased" and "inflammatory" are often in the eye of the beholder and core elements of expression, and "false" is a charge subject to new information and continued debate.

"College students broadly support free speech, yet increasingly favor restrictions on speech — particularly speech that targets minority groups," a 2020 Knight Foundation poll found. Forget that minorities are among those most likely to be on the receiving end of speech curbs allegedly crafted for their safety.

Notably, the American Civil Liberties Union has grown extremely ambivalent about defending liberties at odds with its staff's preferred outcomes on issues ranging from speech to medical coercion.

"To the ACLU's critics, its support of vaccine mandates is another sign that an organization that was often willing to take unpopular stances in the name of liberty has abandoned its roots to fall in line with progressivism," The Atlantic's Russell Berman commented last week.

Much of the public has simply lost patience with checks and balances that, by design, shield liberties by placing limits on the power of their preferred officials.

"While fewer than one in 10 Americans consistently supports an authoritarian option, a third of Americans 'dabble' in authoritarianism," the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group observed last year of popular support for "a strong leader who doesn't have to bother with Congress or elections."

Many people rightly doubt the credibility of government as a protector of civil liberties, but the public is sending very mixed messages about the value it places on freedom and on restrained power. To defend civil liberties only when you approve of their use, and if they don't get in the way of your favorite political leaders, is to not defend civil liberties at all.

But, whether or not they understand the implications, growing numbers of Americans are unimpressed by the protections the U.S. government offers for civil liberties across the board. They want government officials to back off their surveillance efforts, at home and abroad, and they're less willing than in the past to trade their freedom for empty promises.