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Nearly three out of four Americans are worried about a loss of civil liberties as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic, according to an April poll of 1,000 registered voters from Hill-HarrisX.
Two important pieces of context are key to understanding this figure. First, the poll was conducted from April 6 to 7, just as governors around the country were implementing social distancing policies and stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Second, out of all the concerns respondents were asked about in the poll, the only one to top worries about a loss of freedoms was exposure to the virus, suggesting that many are (or at least were) open to a temporary suspension of civil liberties for the sake of public health and safety.
The results, polling officials say, suggest that the pandemic is going to raise serious questions about civil liberties amid government interventions.
“I think that’s going to be one of the really important crossovers in the post-COVID era, between civil rights and public health,” Mohamed Younis, Editor-in-chief at Gallup, told Hill.TV in April shortly after the poll was released.
“Hopefully those concerns will be alleviated when there is a vaccine and people are able to move more freely, but in the short term, I think every major democracy is going to be grappling with the fact of how do you find a balance between having people tracked on their cell phones in order to control the virus and who turns that off?” he added.
Cell phone tracking is just one of many questions at hand that legal experts and leaders are grappling with. Concerns about present and future infringement of civil liberties due to the pandemic have been raised by organizations and publications across the political spectrum, from the historically liberal American Civil Liberties Union, to mainstream news outlets like The New York Times editorial board, to the editor of Reason, America’s premier libertarian magazine.
In The Atlantic last month, staff writer Conor Fridersdorf noted that the temporary stay-at-home orders actually seem to be among the least of civil liberty advocates’ worries. Most Americans willingly accepted drastic restrictions of their freedoms of assembly, commerce, and movement, understanding them to be urgent – and temporary.
The more important question, Fridersdorf said, is what happens after the crisis has begun to wane. Here are a few of the civil liberties concerns that he said could possibly confront Americans over the next several years:
“Six months from now, access to the ballot will matter more for democracy than the precise length of today’s shutdowns. A year from now, different statuses for people with different antibodies in their blood may pose thornier questions than any we’ve yet confronted. Two years from now, the endurance of liberty will hinge more on, say, how much we allow COVID-19 to permanently increase the degree of surveillance in society than whether one’s local beach or hiking trail stays closed – even needlessly and frustratingly – for a month or two too long.”
Recalling the expansive and invasive government surveillance powers introduced by the Patriot Act in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, The New York Times editorial board warned that “while unprecedented emergencies may demand unprecedented responses, those responses can easily tip into misuse and abuse, or can become part of our daily lives even after the immediate threat has passed.” The board called for a more honest conversation about what restrictions the government should be allowed to place on its citizens in the ongoing fight to prevent the spread of the virus that otherwise should not be tolerated under normal conditions.
Judging by the Hill-HarrisX poll, a lot of Americans are interested in having that conversation too.
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