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Negative Liberty

Public Opinion and the Terrorist Attacks on America

Darren W. Davis

Publication Year: 2007

Did America’s democratic convictions “change forever” after the terrorist attacks of September 11? In the wake of 9/11, many pundits predicted that Americans’ new and profound anxiety would usher in an era of political acquiescence. Fear, it was claimed, would drive the public to rally around the president and tolerate diminished civil liberties in exchange for security. Political scientist Darren Davis challenges this conventional wisdom in Negative Liberty, revealing a surprising story of how September 11 affected Americans’ views on civil liberties and security. Drawing on a unique series of original public opinion surveys conducted in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and over the subsequent three years, Negative Liberty documents the rapid shifts in Americans’ opinions regarding the tradeoff between liberty and security, at a time when the threat of terrorism made the conflict between these values particularly stark. Theories on the psychology of threat predicted that people would cope with threats by focusing on survival and reaffirming their loyalty to their communities, and indeed, Davis found that Americans were initially supportive of government efforts to prevent terrorist attacks by rolling back certain civil liberties. Democrats and independents under a heightened sense of threat became more conservative after 9/11, and trust in government reached its highest level since the Kennedy administration. But while ideological divisions were initially muted, this silence did not represent capitulation on the part of civil libertarians. Subsequent surveys in the years after the attacks revealed that, while citizens’ perceptions of threat remained acute, trust in the government declined dramatically in response to the perceived failures of the administration’s foreign and domestic security policies. Indeed, those Americans who reported the greatest anxiety about terrorism were the most likely to lose confidence in the government in the years after 2001. As a result, ideological unity proved short lived, and support for civil liberties revived among the public. Negative Liberty demonstrates that, in the absence of faith in government, even extreme threats to national security are not enough to persuade Americans to concede their civil liberties permanently. The September 11 attacks created an unprecedented conflict between liberty and security, testing Americans’ devotion to democratic norms. Through lucid analysis of concrete survey data, Negative Liberty sheds light on how citizens of a democracy balance these competing values in a time of crisis.

Published by: Russell Sage Foundation

Title Page

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About the Author

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiv

American citizens are likely to remember where they were and what they were doing when they first learned that America was under attack on the morning of September 11, 2001. I was in my office when a colleague, who had been listening to the radio, mentioned that the first airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center. By the...

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pp. xv-xvi

Many people have contributed to this research project. Without the generous support of the Russell Sage Foundation and an initial grant from the Law and Society Program of the National Science Foundation this research would not have been possible. I feel especially indebted to Paul Wahlbeck, program officer at the time, and Frank Scioli, political science program director, for their enthusiastic...

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Chapter 1: Introduction: A Climate of Threat and Vulnerability

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pp. 1-15

The September 11 attacks transformed a nation that had been absorbed in the contentious 2000 presidential election, Republicanproposed tax cuts, shark attacks off the California coast, and Barry Bonds’s pace to break Mark McGwire’s single-season home run record into a nation contemplating its own mortality and the threat of terrorism...

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Chapter 2: Context: The Promise of 72 Virgins

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pp. 16-30

Contextualizing the value trade-offs citizens faced after September 11 and taking a hard look at the major events following the attacks, I hope to give some insight into individual perceptions during the period. My primary goal is to define the social and political context, how it may have shifted over time, and the events that impinge...

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Chapter 3: Value Conflict: Civil Liberties Versus National Security

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pp. 31-58

In situations where liberty and security collide, and enjoying one means sacrificing the other, political and social life are likely to be unpleasant. Individuals face the dilemma of tolerating a sense of threat and vulnerability to both an external enemy and the government. Both types of threat, I will argue later, can be equally menacing and indistinguishable...

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Chapter 4: Explaining the Support for Civil Liberties

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pp. 59-86

American citizens drew on a variety of values, beliefs, and emotions to make sense of the unfamiliar compromise between protecting civil liberties and enjoying greater security after September 11. Individual decisions were likely made through a variety of perceptual screens, such as sense of threat and vulnerability, trust in government...

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Chapter 5: Acceptable Consequences

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pp. 87-112

In the last chapter, I showed that America citizens conformed to theoretical expectations, drawing on normal value preferences and contextually driven perceptions to make sense of the choice between liberty and security. Under a heightened sense of threat and vulnerability...

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Chapter 6: Civil Liberties in an Evolving Context

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pp. 113-137

The sober second thought approach I used in the last chapter captured an important aspect of attitude stability: the extent to which individual citizens were willing to defend their security or civil liberties positions when confronted with the consequences of their initial preferences. In response to information challenging their...

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Chapter 7: Spiral of Silence: Partisan Orientations in a Climate of Threat

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pp. 138-163

In the discussion so far, ideology has been an important consideration in understanding how individuals responded to the terrorist attacks of September 11. For the most part, political conservatives were more willing than moderates and liberals to concede freedom for greater security. But chapter 4 suggested that when exposed to a heightened...

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Chapter 8: Racial Reactions

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pp. 164-191

Race and ethnicity have rivaled other factors, such as political trust and perceptions of sociotropic threat, in comprehending the effects of the September 11 attacks on individual attitudes. Although American citizens and political institutions appeared to acquiesce to political authorities to make the country safe and secure, they did not share...

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Chapter 9: Social Group Affect, Intolerance, and Threat

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pp. 192-217

Inow explore the extent to which the threat from the attacks of September 11 influenced affective perceptions toward various groups in American society, including Islamic fundamentalists, Arab Americans, Jews, African Americans, Latinos, whites, and Christian fundamentalists. Following the attacks, the deep political and social antagonisms...

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pp. 218-224

My intent in this final chapter is to step back from the data to offer a broader picture of the findings and how they inform both the theoretical literature and individual reactions to the terrorist attacks of September 11. As tragic and horrifying as the attacks were, they created a unique context to study the compromise between liberty...

Appendix A: Terror Event Timeline

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pp. 225-227

Appendix B: Data and Research Design

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pp. 228-230

Appendix C: Survey Questions

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pp. 231-244


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pp. 245-252


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pp. 253-266


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pp. 267-276

E-ISBN-13: 9781610441513
Print-ISBN-13: 9780871543226
Print-ISBN-10: 0871543222

Page Count: 296
Publication Year: 2007