Americans' Support for Government Plunges

09/17/21 08:52AM EDT

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Americans’ support for government surveillance has fallen sharply since 2011. Support for monitoring phone calls made outside the U.S. for national security purposes has dropped from 49% to just 28%. (Associated Press)

NH: For the 20th anniversary of 9/11, AP-NORC conducted several polls following up on questions originally asked a decade ago.

How are Americans feeling today about government surveillance in the name of national security and the government’s ability to protect our civil liberties?

The answer: not great. On both of these issues, Americans are warier and more critical than they were in 2011.

A decade ago, most Americans said that the government was doing a good job protecting many basic rights. That attitude has eroded in the years since.

The share who believe the government is doing a good job protecting the right to vote, for instance, has tumbled from 84% to 43%.

The same goes for freedom of religion (down from 75% to 51%), freedom of speech (81% to 45%), the right to bear arms (57% to 35%), and others.

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Americans are also less comfortable with government surveillance.

Support for monitoring phone calls, e-mails, and internet searches domestically or abroad without a warrant has fallen across the board.  

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Why have these numbers fallen so drastically?

Generally speaking, it’s Democrats who tend to be more critical of how well the government is upholding basic rights. But now they’ve been joined by Republicans, who are now even more negative about issues like the right to bear arms and freedom of speech and religion.

Republicans have also become a lot warier about government overreach: When asked if it’s “sometimes necessary for the government to sacrifice some rights and freedoms to fight terrorism,” Democrats are just as likely as they were a decade ago to say it is, but Republicans are a lot less likely to agree.

Given that Democrats now run the show in Washington, this could simply reflect Americans' increasingly partisan reaction to anything that "government" does. But in 2011, Democrats also held the presidency and the Senate. Clearly, polarization has gotten worse--and with it, the sense that policy is always a zero-sum game.

Protecting or increasing rights for one group is seen as decreasing rights for another.

That leaves the government with, at best, a bare majority supporting any action and an energized minority opposed. The only partial exception would be a policy that rains freebies on everyone at (seemingly) no cost to anyone, like pandemic benefits.

The unified support that Americans showed in the decade after 9/11 has morphed into unified distrust.

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ABOUT NEIL HOWE

Neil Howe is a renowned authority on generations and social change in America. An acclaimed bestselling author and speaker, he is the nation's leading thinker on today's generations—who they are, what motivates them, and how they will shape America's future.

A historian, economist, and demographer, Howe is also a recognized authority on global aging, long-term fiscal policy, and migration. He is a senior associate to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., where he helps direct the CSIS Global Aging Initiative.

Howe has written over a dozen books on generations, demographic change, and fiscal policy, many of them with William Strauss. Howe and Strauss' first book, Generations is a history of America told as a sequence of generational biographies. Vice President Al Gore called it "the most stimulating book on American history that I have ever read" and sent a copy to every member of Congress. Newt Gingrich called it "an intellectual tour de force." Of their book, The Fourth Turning, The Boston Globe wrote, "If Howe and Strauss are right, they will take their place among the great American prophets."

Howe and Strauss originally coined the term "Millennial Generation" in 1991, and wrote the pioneering book on this generation, Millennials Rising. His work has been featured frequently in the media, including USA Today, CNN, the New York Times, and CBS' 60 Minutes.

Previously, with Peter G. Peterson, Howe co-authored On Borrowed Time, a pioneering call for budgetary reform and The Graying of the Great Powers with Richard Jackson.

Howe received his B.A. at U.C. Berkeley and later earned graduate degrees in economics and history from Yale University.

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