Poll: Most Americans think liberty has waned, rights will further diminish

A group of people at an abortion rights rally
Abortion rights activists protested in Minneapolis on June 24.
Tim Evans for MPR News

Just last week, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, undoing constitutional protections on abortion and leaving the decision up to states. This individual right is one of many others that remain enshrined in federal law including the right to own a gun, same-sex marriage, religious freedom and the rights of those with disabilities to be provided with reasonable accommodations in order to work.

New poll results, from a survey conducted just days after the initial leak of the Supreme Court’s intention to overturn Roe, show that a majority of Americans believe they have lost more personal freedoms in the past 10 years than they have gained, and will continue to lose more personal freedom in the next decade.

Generation Z is most optimistic about the expansion of liberty, but half still expect a decline

When we asked Americans about the future of their individual right to self-determination, two-thirds believe they will lose more than they have right now over the next 10 years. This is true regardless of whether that personal sovereignty is framed as “liberties,” “freedom” or “rights.”

About one in 10 people said they will gain more liberties, freedom or rights than lose over the next 10 years, while one in five said there will be no change.

Across most groups, at least 60 percent indicate that there will be a net loss of liberties, freedom and rights over the next decade. The only exceptions are Generation Z, Black Americans and Latinx Americans. Even among these groups, however, about half believe that the nation will lose more liberties than it will gain.

Particularly large proportions of baby boomers (76 percent), white Americans (75 percent) and Republicans (77 percent) indicate that Americans are likely to lose more individual self-determination than they will gain.

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The two groups with the largest proportions believing that rights will, on net, expand over the next decade: Black Americans at 27 percent and Generation Z at 23 percent.

Only 15 percent of Democrats believe that individual liberties, freedom or rights will be expanded, but this is twice the proportion of Republicans (seven percent).

More Black Americans perceive an expansion of rights over the past ten years

At least half of Americans—including both men and women, four out of the five adult generations, and all educational and income groups—believe that the nation has lost ground on individual self-determination over the past decade.

Four exceptions, all with less than half believing the nation has lost ground in terms of liberties: Generation Z (42 percent), Black Americans (46 percent), Latinx Americans (37 percent) and Democrats (38 percent).

About one-quarter of Black Americans, Democrats and those in Generation Z (age 18-25) think that the nation now has more freedom than was the case ten years ago. Only seven percent of Republicans believe this to be the case.

Top-mentioned examples of rights, freedom, or liberty: Speech and abortion

When asked what they are thinking about when asked about rights, freedom, or liberties, nearly one-third of respondents mentioned something relating to freedom of speech.

For example, a 75-year-old white male from Ohio who indicated that freedom will be eroded stated that he had in mind “[the] limiting of free speech. The ability to think differently than the crowd on social media. The coming of group think. Only one way is acceptable.”

Another fifth of respondents mentioned abortion or reproductive rights, including a 63-year-old Hispanic man from Texas who stated, “A woman should be able to decide if she wants an abortion not some political parties dictate what she can do.”

Results from this survey also show that 29 percent of Americans believe that abortion should always be legal, 23 percent believe it should be legal most of the time, 36 percent indicate abortion should be illegal “except in cases of rape, incest and to save the mother’s life” and 12 percent would like abortion to be illegal without any exceptions.

The third most common responses to the question of what freedom, liberty and rights mean in the minds of Americans focused equally on Civil Rights and property, the economy or jobs. The Civil Rights responses were very direct, naming rights for people of color, racism and police. The economy-related responses focused on owning property, living wherever one wants, minimum wage and job security.

About one in 10 respondents mentioned something about guns, citing the right to bear arms or the Second Amendment. Several mentioned increasing government control of guns or Democrats taking away guns.

Why do so many focus on the loss of liberties?

Setting aside the recent abortion decision poll director Eric Plutzer, Ph.D., suggests Americans’ perceived loss of freedom may a bit counter-intuitive in light of other recent gains, but may be at least partially explained by the nation’s political divides:

“The last ten years have seen expansions of rights in marriage equality, private use of recreational marijuana, an overall reduction in taxes and an extended series of court and legislative victories for religious freedom. That both liberals and conservatives feel that fundamental rights are at risk illustrates the zero-sum nature of today’s politics. Both side’s belief that their rights will erode is bound to animate politics in the coming years.”

The May 11-19 “Mood of the Nation Poll” was conducted by YouGov on behalf of Penn State’s McCourtney Institute for Democracy. The online survey included a representative sample of 1,000 adults, and the survey’s overall margin of error is ±3.6 percentage points, and is larger for subgroups. Additional details about the survey methodology are available here: https://www.apmresearchlab.org/surveys.