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New survey: Yes, Americans will give up liberties to fight the coronavirus

Americans are more willing to trade off rights

Americans are more willing to trade off rights and freedoms to protect public health than the protests might suggest. Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/nadia_bormotova

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Since the coronavirus pandemic began expanding in March, Americans have been battling over government measures to slow the virus's spread, including business and school closures, limits on public gatherings and mask requirements. Opponents of these efforts have aggressively confronted lawmakers, harassed public health officials, flouted public health orders and litigated to reverse policies they claim restrict constitutional rights and freedoms.

President Donald Trump has endorsed their calls for reopening, accusing Democrats, the news media and state officials of exaggerating the coronavirus's risks. Recently, Attorney General William P. Barr echoed shutdown protesters by comparing stay-at-home orders to slavery, calling them the "greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history."

The loudest voices always draw attention. But do shutdown protests represent the beliefs of the American people? To answer this question, we surveyed more than 12,000 Americans, asking whether the government should have the power to enact policies that restrict rights and freedoms to protect public health during the coronavirus pandemic.

— Here's how we did our research

Our Web-based survey was distributed by Qualtrics nationwide from Aug. 7 to Sept. 7. Quotas based on race, gender, age and census statistical division, matched to 2018 Census estimates, were put in place to ensure a demographically and geographically representative sample. Respondents were presented with either/or policy choices that explicitly emphasized public health and civil rights trade-offs, giving us a window into public opinion about what sacrifices are appropriate.

Specifically, we asked whether the government should be able to:

  • Require people to wear masks in public — or not, out of respect for personal freedom
  • Close nonessential businesses — or not, out of respect for economic freedom
  • Require people to cooperate with contact tracers — or not, out of respect for the right to privacy
  • Require people to stay at home — or not, out of respect for freedom of movement
  • Restrict religious gatherings — or not, because of religious freedom
  • Restrict public demonstrations — or not, because of freedom of speech and assembly
  • Suspend asylum and refugee admissions — or not, protecting human rights
  • Use cellphone data to track the movement of people who test positive for the coronavirus — or not, given a right to privacy.

Respondents overwhelmingly and consistently agreed the government should be able to place restrictions and requirements on businesses and people to protect public health.

— The overwhelming majority of Americans support restrictions

As you can see in the figure below, 69.4% to 78.3% of our respondents support the government's right to implement six of the eight proposed policies. Only 60% support policies designed to restrict asylum and refugee programs. The majority (58.3%) rejected only one proposed policy: using cellphone data to track infected people, a method primarily deployed in other countries.

— What kind of people support these public health policies?

We used our survey data to disentangle the individual characteristics associated with policy support. Although there are probably a multitude of factors, our preliminary analyses found three key factors. Support comes from people who perceive the virus is a significant threat, who believe it will continue to be so and who are Democrats rather than Republicans.

People who say the virus doesn't pose much of a threat during their daily lives and those who strongly believe the United States has "seen the worst of the virus" are only lukewarm supporters of the policies. On average, these two groups support roughly 41.8% and 53.2% of the policies, respectively. But for those who think the virus is a big threat and for those who think the worst is yet to come, those figures are 80.3% and 77.2%, respectively.

Not surprisingly, individuals' party affiliations affect which policies they support. On average, Democrats support 74.2% of the listed policies; Republicans support 61.5%; Libertarians support 52.1%; independents, 68%; and those affiliated with other parties, 61.3%. However, whether respondents approve of President Trump's job performance moderates the effect of party affiliation for Republicans, Democrats, independents and libertarians. Across party lines, those critical of the president are more likely to favor limits on rights and freedoms to protect public health. Accordingly, Republicans critical of Trump are more supportive of restrictive policies than Democrats who approve of his performance. In other words, Trump support trumps partisanship.

—What are the ramifications?

All this suggests Americans are more willing to trade off rights and freedoms to protect public health than the protests might suggest. The public, on aggregate, is highly concerned about the pandemic and willing to sacrifice to contain it. By 4 to 1, Americans believe mask mandates are legitimate. Officials grappling with when and how to reopen may face vocal constituencies that loudly criticize government overreach. But our survey suggests the quiet majority supports the government in imposing public health requirements during the pandemic, even if it curtails some of their liberties.

Sanders is an associate professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati. Mewhirter is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati. This piece was written for The Washington Post.

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