Rights in Peril: Key Insights from Focus Groups in America

April 14, 2020
Rights and Responsibilities Study Group

The Carr Center's Renewing Rights and Responsibilities Project partnered with the Harvard Institute for Politics to gain insight on public opinions surrounding American rights and values. 

As part of the Renewing Rights and Responsibilities Project spearheaded by John Shattuck, the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy has partnered with John Della Volpe from the Harvard Institute of Politics to examine the contemporary state of public opinion surrounding American rights and values. Focus groups conducted in Phoenix, AZ, and Detroit, MI shed light on the perspectives of Americans from all walks of life. Both groups drawn were demographically diverse and balanced in terms of gender, age, race, and education level, but they diverged sharply in terms of political camps: participants drawn in Phoenix leaned Democratic and opposed Donald Trump, while participants drawn in Detroit leaned Republican and supported Trump. By contrasting those who look favorably upon the current presidential administration with those who do not, these focus groups illuminate remarkable consensus around what rights Americans believe they ought to have while highlighting deeper divisions about the role of government in securing them. Strikingly, they also reveal a more troubling conundrum about the perilous state of rights in America, and a universal concern about the erosion of basic liberties. 

Across the board, participants in both focus groups expressed a desire to feel good about being Americans—they shared in the sentiment that all Americans have unique and common values related to hard work, perseverance, and empathy for all. As a participant in Phoenix articulated, “I think that deep inside we [Americans] really care about each other, and want the best for each other.” Another in metro-Detroit spoke of “American generosity” and the willingness to “lend a helping hand” as a distinct characteristic. On what united Americans, both groups emphasized the presence of opportunity regardless of where one is in America, though they diverged on the equality of opportunity for all and the possibility of always rising to the challenge. When it boiled down to identifying fundamental American values, both groups also found consensus in family, freedom, individuality, and charity. There were disagreements, however, on pride and patriotism. While one participant in Phoenix said that “pride in our country, in our fellow Americans, and in our families” was a foundational American value, another in the same group responded that it was difficult to be proud of America because of her racial identity. “I don't feel like this country has been kind [to] African Americans,” she said. “When I go to sleep sometimes I’m worried about my black son and if he’s at home and if he’s safe at night.” 

"When asked who ought to be responsible for ensuring access to opportunity and addressing problems such as poverty, participants in Phoenix overwhelmingly referenced the federal government, while participants in Detroit emphasized the role of the individual."

Remarkably, there was near consensus between the two focus groups on what essential rights Americans ought to have. These included well-established constitutional rights—such as voting rights, the right to bear arms, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to a fair trial—but also extended to liberties such as the right to basic healthcare, quality K-12 education, and clean air and water. In metro-Detroit, it was also agreed that citizens also should have a right to privacy in this digital age. On the whole, there was widespread agreement over the necessity of these rights to a basic standard of life in America. The key difference, however, lay in how Phoenix and Detroit participants conceptualized the government’s role in securing these rights and liberties. The more liberal Phoenix group sought greater government intervention, while unsurprisingly, metro-Detroit voters believed that the government provides a legal framework but it hinges on individuals, businesses, and local institutions to enforce better standards. As an example, participants in Phoenix expressed that the federal government should be responsible for securing clean air and water and regulating business in this regard, participants in Detroit contended that “individuals have the responsibility to make sure that their environment is clean,” while “government has the duty to punish those [who pollute]...to make sure that we’re all doing our job to preserve the environment.” When asked who ought to be responsible for ensuring access to opportunity and addressing problems such as poverty, participants in Phoenix overwhelmingly referenced the federal government, while participants in Detroit emphasized the role of the individual. “It’s my responsibility to take care of myself,” one Detroit participant said. “Even if you were [born into] the worst situation, if you have a desire and a need to change, you can have incredible opportunity in this country.” However, both groups recognized that at a base level, they have a civic responsibility as voters to decide and change the state of governance.

Nearly all participants in both places believed their essential rights were being threatened. They converged on the erosion of rights to healthcare, education, and a clean climate, but diverged on others such as the freedom of religion, the right to bear arms, and bodily autonomy. “Everything is just being chiseled away,” a participant in Phoenix said, describing budget cuts to local public schools and the rising costs of healthcare. That sentiment was echoed in metro-Detroit, where participants said that public education and access to care for the uninsured were in peril. At many points in conversation, the conflict between freedom and equality became stark. In speaking about his ability to practice religion freely in the face of antidiscrimination laws, a participant said, “if I didn’t want to sell somebody something, because I didn’t want to live that lifestyle or I didn’t believe or condoning that lifestyle, I should have that right.” The tension between individual expression in a collective life was aptly captured by a participant in Phoenix, who said that American freedom means “nobody’s going to tell you what to do...but this can get in the way of what unites us.” In Phoenix, threats to bodily autonomy were more salient—this particular right encompassed access to abortion, but also extended to gender identity and the freedom of being recognized and accepted for one’s claimed identity. Ultimately, though there was disagreement over the sources of threats to rights, there was shared concern and anxiety over the security of rights in general. In both groups, there was even a sense in which the Constitution is no longer capable of ensuring all necessary rights in a contemporary context. As one participant in Phoenix articulated, “when the Constitution was written back in 1776, we had horses, we didn’t have television, we didn’t have mass media…[many parts of it] are now obsolete. [It was meant to] address the issues of its day.” 
    
Moving forward, the Renewing Rights and Responsibilities Project will conduct a third focus group on April 15 as a virtual session with participants in Atlanta, Georgia. The insights from public opinion will inform the end product of the project, which will be a set of policy recommendations on strengthening the state of civil and human rights in America for the next presidential administration.