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Poll: Partisan Politics Sway Americans’ Support for Constitutional Rights

National Survey Finds Commitment to Key Freedoms Wavers When Opposition Is Involved

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07/27/2017

Media contacts:  Christine Gillette, 978-934-2209 or Christine_Gillette@uml.edu and Nancy Cicco, 978-934-4944 or Nancy_Cicco@uml.edu

LOWELL, Mass. – Americans are willing to sacrifice their support for basic Constitutional rights – including freedoms of speech, assembly and the press – when such beliefs are tested by people with opposing political views, according to a new national poll from the UMass Lowell Center for Public Opinion.

“No aspect of our democracy has not been touched by motivated partisan reasoning. We live in a world where even adherence to basic democratic principles is seen by the public through partisan frames. These are challenging times we live in,” said Joshua Dyck, co-director of the Center for Public Opinion and political science faculty member, who oversaw the poll and analyzed the results.  

The survey of 1,000 American adults found broad support for core values of democracy. For example, 78 percent of respondents said they believe in free speech, 75 percent said the media should be able to report the news without government censorship and 89 percent agreed that no matter what a person’s political views are, they are entitled to legal protection. The poll also found that support for American democratic principles such as these is strongest among those with a college education. 

But when the poll tested support using examples involving opposing viewpoints, respondents demonstrated that their conviction to those values could be swayed. Poll participants were asked about situations involving four key components of democracy: freedom of speech, assembly and the press, and the independent judicial branch portion of the balance of powers. Respondents were presented with liberal and conservative scenarios for each of the four. Similar but nonpartisan situations were presented to a control group for their responses. 

Freedom of speech

The control group was asked, “Do you think that controversial figures should be allowed to speak on college campuses or are there legitimate reasons why they might be prohibited from speaking?” Fifty-three percent of Republicans and 49 percent of Democrats in the control group supported allowing the controversial speaker. 

• When the actual survey group was asked the same question with the example of liberal activist Michael Moore as the controversial figure, Democratic support for free speech increased 10 percent to 59 percent and Republican support dropped to 50 percent.

• When conservative activist Ann Coulter was used as the controversial figure, Republican support for free speech increased by 19 points to 72 percent and Democratic support dropped to 44 percent.

Right to free assembly 

The control group was asked if members of a group hold a rally to protest and some participants chant derogatory terms, whether they think the group has forfeited its right to hold future rallies. Seventy-three percent of Democrats and 54 percent of the Republicans in the control group supported the group’s right to free assembly.

• When the survey group was asked about the same type of situation, but with the Black Lives Matter movement protesting violence involving police and chanting of derogatory terms for law enforcement, Democratic support increased to 83 percent and Republicans’ support declined to 49 percent. 

• When the survey group was asked about the same scenario involving Alt-Right demonstrators chanting derogatory terms for minorities, Republican support increased to 65 percent and Democratic support dropped to 66 percent.

Freedom of the press 

The control group was asked if a journalist runs a story with unnamed sources criticizing a well-known elected official, whether the official be able to force the journalist to name the sources or if their identities be protected. Seventy-one percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans supported freedom of the press.

• When the survey group was asked about a story with unnamed sources stating that the Trump administration colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 election, Democratic support increased to 87 percent and Republican support decreased to 48 percent.

• When asked the same question about a story with unnamed sources stating that the Obama administration ordered intelligence gathered on U.S. citizens, Republican support increased to 81 percent and Democratic support was nearly flat at 70 percent.

Independent judiciary 

The control group was asked whether it is appropriate or inappropriate for a sitting president to openly criticize members of the judicial branch of government. Seventy-eight percent of Democrats and 38 percent of Republicans said it is not appropriate, supporting an independent judiciary.

• When the question was asked using President Donald Trump’s criticism of a federal judge for blocking his executive order on immigration, Democrats in the survey group increased their support for an independent judiciary to 88 percent and Republicans increased their support by 15 percent, one of the surprises of the survey. 

• When former president Barack Obama’s criticism of the Supreme Court decision on campaign-finance reform was used as an example, Democratic support dropped to 26 percent and Republican support increased to 70 percent.

“While it is no secret that there is a deep divide among Democrats and Republicans, the results seem to indicate that people see their political counterparts as threats to our democracy,” said Patrick Martin of Lowell, who, along with fellow political science majors Hannah Daly of Franklin and Jasmine Polanco of Lawrence, wrote the questionnaire that was used for the poll through UMass Lowell’s Survey Research course, which annually presents undergraduates with the opportunity to develop the questions for a national poll.

“The results support the idea that partisanship often decides issue preferences rather than issue preferences deciding partisanship. It points to a weakness in our democracy where party preference almost always decides how one feels on an issue and it creates a blindness through which people support their party on issues that they might not otherwise,” said Daly, adding that the poll also offers a powerful illustration of the climate for lawmakers who want to work across the aisle with members of the other party.

Survey: Opposition will not defend key freedoms

The poll found that Democrats and Republicans do not believe members of the opposite party will defend democratic values if they counter their own interests. When asked if the other party would support such values no matter what, the results were:

• 44 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats believe the other would not support freedom of assembly;

• 41 percent of Democrats and 37 percent of Republicans believe the other party would not defend freedom of speech;

• 39 percent of Republicans and 31 percent of Democrats said they believed the other party would not support freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures.

The poll was independently conducted by the University of Massachusetts Lowell, designed and analyzed by the UMass Lowell Center for Public Opinion and fielded by YouGov. Data was collected online from June 27 through July 6; YouGov interviewed 1,057 respondents who were then matched down to a sample of 1,000 to produce the final data set. The sample is representative of the U.S. population with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percent when adjusted for weighting. Full survey methodology is available at www.uml.edu/polls.

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