Who thinks human rights are respected in the United States, and why does it matter?

A voter pauses in front of the US national flag before casting a ballot at a polling location at the Old Stone School in Hillsboro, Virginia, 03 November 2020. EFE/EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS

The elections today in the United States are, in part, based on dueling visions of how bad, or good, human and civil rights are in the country. My colleagues and I polled a representative sample of 2,000 U.S. residents in fall 2018 and found that respondents’ assessment of current human and civil rights conditions was strongly correlated with their political preferences.

As the graph above indicates, most (61%) of the sample—represented by the green bars—told us that human/civil rights were reasonably well respected in the U.S. These respondents chose the top two response categories, telling the survey firm that human/civil 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 the perceived level of respect for human and civil rights on a 0 to1 scale, in which 0 equals “rights are respected not at all,” while 1 equals “rights are respected a lot.” The average for the U.S. population as a whole was 0.57, indicating that the general population’s assessment of current human and civil rights conditions was moderately positive.

These numbers obscure important differences between Republicans and Democrats, however, and this is where the link to today’s elections becomes clear. As the same graph indicates, 40% of Republican-leaning respondents said rights were respected “a lot” in the U.S., compared to only 12% of those leaning Democratic. And while 17% of Democrats said rights were respected “not at all,” only 6% of Republican-leaning respondents said the same.

Put another way, 77% of the Republican-leaning respondents in our sample believed that rights were respected “a lot” or “some”, compared to only 52% of Democratic-leaning respondents. The average score for Republicans on the 0 to1 scale was 0.70, while that for Democrats was only 0.49, a 30% decrease.

Republican are far more bullish on human and civil rights conditions in today’s United States than Democrats. This is likely due to different views on race, gender, police behavior, treatment of immigrants and refugees, and attitudes towards the importance of providing basic economic, social and cultural goods to the entire U.S. population.

Why do these different views matter?

Political identity, of course, is not the only issue correlated with respondents’ views of the state of human and civil rights in the U.S. In the country today, political preference is powerfully associated with citizens’ views towards all manner of other issues.

To learn more, I ran a number of statistical models in which “perceived respect for human rights” was the causal variable of interest. The factor I was seeking to explain was the public’s attitude towards a given policy, actor, or organization. My statistical models 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” held quite different policy 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 U.S. leaders, sectors, and organizations. For example, they were:

-       300% more trusting of Donald J. Trump;

-       55% more warmly disposed towards the “alt-Right”;

-       41% more warmly disposed the National Rifle Association;

-       39% more warmly disposed Fox News;

-       20% less warmly disposed towards Black Lives Matter;

-       11% less warmly disposed towards professors;

-       10% less warmly disposed towards the NAACP, an advocacy group for African Americans; 

-       7% less trusting of human or civil rights organizations;

-       6% less warmly disposed towards Planned Parenthood;

-       6% less warmly disposed towards the United Nations.

What determines the extent to which U.S. respondents think human and civil rights are respected?

To explore the causes of these perceptions, I ran another statistical 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 racial identity and policies, thought rights in this country were 37% more respected than those who scored at the bottom of the white ethnocentrism index;

-       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 respondent education, racial identity (as opposed views about race), and religious affiliation did not have a statistically significant impact on their assessment of the state of human and civil rights in the U.S. today. Instead, personal finances, views on race relations, political partisanship, and gender identity did most of the explanatory work.

This poll was conducted two years ago, prior to the George Floyd killing and the subsequent social mobilization. COVID-19 may well have impacted public opinion on this issue as well. In my view, both of these phenomena are likely to have sharpened distinctions between Republicans and Democrats on citizens' assessment of respect for rights in the U.S.. Police violence has become a major issue in this country, and those who thought it was a problem in fall of 2018 are  even more likely to be convinced now. And while a certain percentage of skeptics may have been convinced by Black Lives Matter, others will have been driven further in the other direction. If I could repeat the same poll today, I believe that the polarization of public opinion would be even greater.

U.S. citizens are voting today for their next president. Underlying this choice is an implicit sense of how well, or poorly, rights are respected in the country.


**This piece was originally published in https://ongloballeadership.com/f/human-rights-and-america. We reproduce a modified version here with permission.