Renewing Rights & Responsibilities

What are the rights and responsibilities that define the relationship of people to the government, and to each other?

In contrast to nations rooted in the blood ties of their people, the United States is built on a belief that the relationship of citizens to their government and to each other should be defined by rights and responsibilities. In the Gettysburg Address Abraham Lincoln expressed a vision of the United States as “a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all [people] are created equal.”  Lincoln understood the promise and the challenge of human rights in the U.S.  

Human Rights, to Lincoln, promised to bind together a nation of diverse racial, ethnic, religious, cultural and political identities. Intolerance and injustice would challenge this promise. Meeting this challenge has required the constant renewal of rights to confront the legacy of slavery, the racism of the post-reconstruction era, the injustice of the Great Depression and the rise of totalitarianism in the 20th century.  Today we again face the challenge.   

What are the rights and responsibilities that define the relationship of people to the government and to each other? The system of rights expressed by the U.S. Constitution, and later by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is facing severe threats today. The principle of free and fair elections is being subverted.  Racial, gender and religious discrimination, extremism and violence are being stimulated, condoned or ignored. Public discourse essential to democracy is being manipulated and degraded by new forms of digital communication, surveillance and personal data collection. Americans across the political spectrum are aware that their rights are under severe attack. This consensus creates a rare opportunity to reach people with different and competing conceptions of their rights and responsibilities as citizens, and to build support for reform and renewal of the entire system.


Explore the Project

Reimagining Rights and Responsibilities in the United States: Toward a More Equal Liberty

Americans today know they face threats to their rights, their democracy, their health and their economy. These threats are interrelated and demand a transformative response.

image of charts and graphs

National survey finds bipartisan support for expansive view of rights

At a time of deep partisan and demographic divides related to the 2020 election, 71% of Americans agree that they “have more in common with each other than many people think.”

Select Publications

Trump's First Year: How Resilient is Liberal Democracy?


John Shattuck. 2/15/2018. Trump's First Year: How Resilient is Liberal Democracy?. Carr Center Discussion Paper Series. 2018001st ed. Cambridge, MA: Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard Kennedy School. See full text.
Trump's First Year: How Resilient is Liberal Democracy?


In his recent discussion paper, Shattuck examines the Trump administration’s attacks on liberal democratic institutions during its first year, and assesses their institutional resilience.

In its 2016 “Democracy Index” report, the Economist Intelligence Unit downgraded the United States from a “full” to a “flawed democracy”. The report cited “an erosion of trust in political institutions” as the primary reason for the downgrade.1 In January 2018 Freedom House made a more dire assessment: “democratic institutions in the US have suffered erosion, as reflected in partisan manipulation of the electoral process, bias and dysfunction in the criminal justice system, and growing disparities in wealth, economic opportunity and political influence.”2

Declining levels of political participation and public confidence in government in the US are not new, but the populist forces that propelled the election of Donald Trump in 2016 signaled a new level of public disillusionment with democratic politics as usual. There has been a sharp increase in democratic discontent over the last fifteen years. An October 2017 Washington Post/University of Maryland poll found that 71% of Americans believe that political polarization and democratic dysfunction have reached “a dangerous low point”. Three years earlier, in 2014, a Gallup Poll showed that 65% of Americans were “dissatisfied with their system of government and how it works,” a dramatic reversal from 68% satisfaction twelve years earlier in 2002.

How resilient is liberal democracy, and how broad is its base of support? On a global level there is evidence of both erosion and resilience. A November 2017 report of the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, an intergovernmental organization that assesses the state of democracy worldwide, put it this way: “The current situation is more positive than suggested by an increasingly gloomy view that democracy has been in decline for the last ten years or more. This period appears to be one of trendless fluctuations in which gains and downturns in individual countries

tend to balance each other out at the global level.”3 From this vantage point, democracy in the US may be resilient when compared to some other democracies where neo-authoritarian leaders -- such as Orban in Hungary, Kaczyński in Poland, and Erdoğan in Turkey -- have recently undermined the independence and functioning of pluralist institutions.

But the health of American democracy has been called into question. Experts are divided on whether the illness reflects an ongoing struggle in the US by the proponents of liberal democracy to fend off anti-democratic tendencies ,4 or a long-term trend toward democratic deconsolidation.5 This paper considers a sampling of evidence about attacks on key institutions and elements of democracy in the US during the first year of the Trump administration, and potential sources of democratic resilience in the media, the judiciary, law enforcement, democratic norms and principles, the electoral process, civil society, state and local government, the federal civil service, and the Congress. The stakes are high. A central question, posed by a provocative new book, How Democracies Die, by Harvard scholars Stephen Levitsky and Daniel Zieblatt, is whether these institutions will withstand anti-democratic pressure, or “become political weapons, wielded forcefully by those who control them against those who do not?”6

Following is a summary of the Trump administration’s challenges to democratic institutions during its first year and an assessment of institutional resilience compiled in this report.

Full Text



: John Shattuck et al. | Feb 2018
: Shattuck examines the Trump administration’s attacks on liberal democratic institutions in its first year, and assesses their institutional resilience.
Last updated on 01/27/2020

Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century


Kathryn Sikkink. 9/8/2017. Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century, Pp. 336. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. See full text.
Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century


Kathryn Sikkink's new book documents the history of successes of the human rights movement, and makes a case for why human rights work.

Evidence for Hope makes the case that, yes, human rights work. Critics may counter that the movement is in serious jeopardy or even a questionable byproduct of Western imperialism. They point out that Guantánamo is still open, the Arab Spring protests have been crushed, and governments are cracking down on NGOs everywhere. But respected human rights expert Kathryn Sikkink draws on decades of research and fieldwork to provide a rigorous rebuttal to pessimistic doubts about human rights laws and institutions. She demonstrates that change comes slowly and as the result of struggle, but in the long term, human rights movements have been vastly effective.

Attacks on the human rights movement’s credibility are based on the faulty premise that human rights ideas emerged in North America and Europe and were imposed on developing southern nations. Starting in the 1940s, Latin American leaders and activists were actually early advocates for the international protection of human rights. Sikkink shows that activists and scholars disagree about the efficacy of human rights because they use different yardsticks to measure progress. Comparing the present to the past, she shows that genocide and violence against civilians have declined over time, while access to healthcare and education has increased dramatically. Cognitive and news biases contribute to pervasive cynicism, but Sikkink’s investigation into past and current trends indicates that human rights is not in its twilight. Instead, this is a period of vibrant activism that has made impressive improvements in human well-being.

Exploring the strategies that have led to real humanitarian gains since the middle of the twentieth century, Evidence for Hope looks at how these essential advances can be supported and sustained for decades to come.

Kathryn Sikkink is the Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and the Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Her books include The Justice Cascade (Norton) and Activists beyond Borders. She lives in Cambridge, MA.

: Kathryn Sikkink | 2017
: A history of the successes of the human rights movement and a case for why human rights work
Last updated on 02/11/2020

Hungary’s Attack on Academic Freedom

Hungary’s Attack on Academic Freedom


See the op-ed in The Boston Globe by Carr Senior Fellow John Shattuck.

An authoritarian nationalist regime in Hungary is threatening a renowned international university in Budapest. Legislation introduced last week by the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban would fundamentally alter the legal status of Central European University and could force it to shut down or leave the country.

What’s going on in Hungary is not a local political dispute, but a frontal assault on liberal values essential to democracy and academic freedom.

Full Op-Ed here.

: John Shattuck | Apr 3 2017
: See the op-ed in The Boston Globe by Carr Senior Fellow John Shattuck
Last updated on 01/23/2020
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In contrast to nations rooted in the blood ties of their people, the U.S. is rooted in the belief that the relationship of citizens to their government and to each other is defined by a system of rights that expresses the core values of American democracy.

- John Shattuck