Updated: Jan 4
What do ordinary Americans think about the state of human rights and civil rights in their country? How bad, or good, do they think things are, and why does it matter?
My colleague Howard Lavine and I surveyed US public opinion in fall 2018 with the help of YouGov, a leading survey firm. Through them, we recruited a nationally representative sample of 2,000 adults who had signed up with the survey group to answer online questions. YouGov’s team contacted each respondent twice, interviewing each in two waves of 22 and 24 minutes, on average. The median response rate was 86%. To achieve a nationally representative sample, YouGov weighted the 2,000 strong sample by gender, age, race, and education.
We split these 2,000 respondents into two equal parts and asked the first about their perception of respect for “human rights” in the U.S. and asked the second about their perception of respect for “civil rights.” We found no meaningful difference between the two, and thus report on both combined. For this question, the 0.95% confidence interval was +/- 1.4%.
As Table 1 indicates, most (61%) of the general population sample – represented by the green bars – told us that human/civil rights were reasonably well respected, as these respondents told You Gov that civil/human rights in the U.S. were either respected “some” (38%) or “a lot” (23%). The remainder – 39% – said that rights were respected either “a little” (27%) or “not at all” (12%).
We rescaled perceived level of respect for human rights to 0-1 for statistical purposes, in which 0 = “rights are not at all respected” and 1= “rights are respected a lot.” The average for the US population as a whole was 0.57, or just over the midpoint. In other words, our nationally representative sample indicated a slightly positive estimate of the state of human and civil rights in their country.
These numbers obscure important differences between Republicans and Democrats, however. As Table 1 indicates, 40% of self-identified Republicans said rights were respected “a lot” in the US, compared to only 12% of Democrats. And 17% of Democratic respondents said rights were respected “not at all,” compared to 6% of Republicans.
Put another way, 77% of Republicans believe that rights are reasonably well respected (“a lot” or “some”), compared to only 52% of Democrats. The average score for Republicans on the 0-1 scale was 0.70 (recall that 1= the assessment that rights are respected “a lot”) compared to 0.49 for Democrats, a 30% decrease.
Republicans are more bullish on the state of human and civil rights in today’s America than Democrats, likely due to different views on issues of race, gender, police behavior, treatment of immigrants and refugees, and attitudes towards basic economic, social and cultural rights.
Why Do Public Perceptions Matter?
Why does it matter what respondents think? Because perceptions of respect for human and civil rights are highly correlated with other important opinions. I ran a number of statistical models in which “perceived respect for human rights” was the causal factor of interest, while the thing I was seeking to explain (the “dependent variable,” in stats-speak) was an attitude towards an important policy, actor, or organization. As do most researchers, I controlled for respondents’ political affiliation, sex, age, education, the extent to which they felt financially secure, race, religion, place of residence (urban, suburb, town, or rural) and region of the country (South, Northeast, Midwest, and West). Controlling for these factors, respondents who thought human rights were respected “a lot” in the US held quite different attitudes than those who thought rights were respected “not at all.” For example, they were:
33% less supportive of aggressively prosecuting police suspected of using excessive force;
28% less opposed to torturing individuals suspected of committing an act of terrorism;
19% less favorable towards the provision of health insurance for all;
13% less favorable towards a woman’s right to choose;
9 % less favorable towards increased infrastructure spending;
5% less supportive of government efforts to promote criminal justice reforms.
Respondents who thought rights were respected “a lot” also had different ideas about American leaders, sectors, and organizations. For example, they:
Were 300% more trusting of Donald J. Trump;
Felt 55% more warmly towards the alt-Right
Felt 41% more warmly towards the National Rifle Association;
Felt 39% more warmly towards Fox News;
Felt 20% less warmly towards Black Lives Matter;
Felt 11% less warmly towards professors;
Felt 10% less warmly towards the NAACP
Were 7% less trusting of human or civil rights organizations;
Felt 6% less warmly towards Planned Parenthood;
Felt 6% less warmly towards the United Nations.
Once again, we see that respondents who believe rights in the US are indeed respected are located on the political right.
Who Thinks Human/Civil Rights Are Respected?
To explore the causes of these perceptions, I ran another model in which the level of perceived respect was the outcome of interest. The results indicate that:
Respondents who felt the most financially secure were 46% more willing to believe that human rights were respected than those who felt the least financially secure;
Respondents who scored at the top of a “white ethnocentrism” index, which averaged responses to four questions about race, thought rights in this country were 37% more respected than those who scored at index’s bottom;
Respondents who identified most strongly with the Republican Party believed rights were respected 27% more than those respondents who identified most strongly with the Democratic Party;
Male respondents thought rights were respected 11% more than women.
Importantly, a number of commonly cited factors such as education, race, and religious affiliation did not have a statistically significant impact on respondents’ estimates of the extent to which rights in this country are respected, once the other factors were taken into consideration. Instead, personal finances, views on race relations, political partisanship, and gender did most of the explanatory work.
Popular estimates of human and civil rights conditions are in the US vary by political partisanship, views on race relations, family finances, and gender. Americans are already voting for their next president, but underlying that choice, I believe, is an implicit sense of how well, or poorly, rights are respected in the US today.
James Ron, PhD, is co-founder and co-owner of Azimuth Social Research, a boutique research firm. He has led opinion surveys all over the world and is the author of several books, dozens of scholarly articles, and hundreds of op eds. For more information on his research and advisory work, please visit www.jamesron.com.