Renewing Rights and Responsibilities in the United States

What are the rights and responsibilities that define the relationship of people to the government and to each other in the United States?  The US system of rights includes free and fair elections, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the rule of law, equal protection, minority rights, checks and balances, an independent judiciary and economic sustainability.  The government has a responsibility to protect these rights and institutions, and citizens have a responsibility to respect the rights of others and participate in the democratic process.

Two categories of rights, equality and liberty, are at the core of the US rights system.  In the famous opening sentence of the Declaration of Independence, equality and liberty are mutually reinforcing.  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

In a political context, however, equality and liberty have often been in competition, with issues of racial justice at the center of their debate.  Equality addresses the legacy of slavery, and seeks to unite a nation of unprecedented diversity.  Liberty addresses the legacy of tyranny, and seeks to limit the role of government.  Equality regards government as its protector, but liberty often regards government as its enemy. 

In the Emancipation Proclamation Abraham Lincoln asserted equality in seeking to end the racial and political division of the nation.  Equality achieved major advances in the New Deal and the Civil Rights Movements, enlisting the government in the promotion and enforcement of equal rights. 

In recent decades, political forces claiming to act on behalf of liberty have mounted an offensive against these achievements.  Today, this backlash has produced escalating inequality, exclusionary populism and polarizing leadership.  Racial, gender and religious discrimination, extremism and violence have been stimulated, perpetrated and condoned at the highest political level.

The Renewing Rights and Responsibilities Initiative at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy examines the current state of rights and responsibilities in the US, with the aim of:

  • Creating a nonpartisan, evidence-based rights agenda and associated research and policy products for the next U.S. administration in 2021.
  • Conducting outreach to political leaders, rights organizations, media, and other institutions of civil society in the United States to share research findings. 

The Renewing Rights and Responsibilities Project will focus on the following categories of rights and responsibilities:

  • Democratic process, including voting rights, electoral process, political funding
  • Equal protection, including race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, hate crimes and domestic terrorism
  • Freedom of speech, including conventional media, social media, communication, freedom of association
  • Privacy, including personal autonomy, personal data, surveillance
  • Due process of law, including criminal justice, refugees, immigration, right to bear and responsibility to regulate arms
  • Economic sustainability, including government responsibility to secure “unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” freedom from want, property ownership and regulation