Americans’ Wishy-Washy Civil Libertarianism

Faced with the threat of terrorism, many Americans have supported policies aimed at promoting security even when those policies possibly infringe upon civil liberties. To what extent does this policy support constitute a “terror exception” made by citizens who would otherwise seek the preservation of those liberties, and to what extent does it represent a more general rejection of constitutional principles?…We find that respondents are almost as willing to sacrifice civil liberties to fight crime as to fight terrorism, and that attitudes regarding terrorism and crime policy exhibit considerable structural similarity. These findings cast doubt on the civil libertarian convictions of Americans even outside of the realm of anti-terror policy.

From a 2012 article (gated) by political scientist Jeffery Mondak and Jon Hurwitz.  (Alas, I cannot find an ungated copy.)  To clarify, in their survey items, they do not find that large majorities of Americans are willing to infringe upon civil liberties.  To combat terrorism, an average of nearly 40% are willing to do such things as allow searches without a previous search warrant, compel testimony from suspects, and allow indefinite pre-trial detention of U.S. citizens.  (Though 40% may strike many readers as large!)

Instead, their point is that most people who will cede civil liberties are not making an exception because of terrorism.  They write:

For most respondents who will cede civil liberties, doing so does not reflect a situational response to terrorism but, rather, a more general willingness to disregard civil liberties, one that extends to issues related to serious crimes.

For civil libertarians dismayed at many (most?) Americans’ willingness to accept an expanded “national security state,” the problem may lie not so much with the threat of terrorism, but with a general failure to defend civil liberties.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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John Sides

John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.