Exclusive Habeas Corpus Polling

by: Chris Bowers

Mon Sep 17, 2007 at 16:15

A while back, dating to our time at MyDD, Matt and I asked everyone for input on a poll on Habeas Corpus. At long last, I am happy to show you the memo that came from the poll:

Habeas Corpus Polling Memo

Some key graphs:

A solid 63% majority of American voters say they favor passage of legislation that would "give Guantánamo detainees the legal right to have their detention reviewed in federal court, and require the government to demonstrate that it has a lawful reason to imprison them." Only one-third (32%) of voters express opposition. This level of support for habeas is more impressive still when one considers that survey participants had been informed that the detainees are "accused terrorists."

Support for the habeas legislation is broad, extending across many demographic lines (see table). For example, we find majority support among both men and women; among whites, African Americans, and Hispanics; and in all regions of the country. Crucial swing political constituencies also voice solid approval, including 66% of independents, 69% of presidential swing voters, and 71% of moderates. Although Republicans are opposed by 58% to 39%, strong opposition is limited to a narrow political base of conservative Republicans (66% opposed) and GOP men (69% opposed). By contrast, a majority of GOP women (53%) and a plurality of moderate-to-liberal Republicans (50%) favor the habeas legislation.

No real surprise there: Republicans are generally opposed to where the rest of the country stands on an issue. Of course, for a long time we have known that the public is on our side when it comes to most issues, but that isn't always enough. As such, of particular interest is how the poll tested the effectiveness of various messaging on Habeas Corpus, providing progressives with insights on how to proceed:

Americans respond strongly to the message that current policy is un-American and contradicts basic American values, especially freedom. Two of the three most convincing pro-habeas messages tested make the case that the Bush policy violates core American values. By appealing to voters' pride in America as a beacon of freedom, these messages resonate even with many who would not instinctively oppose the administration.
  • The current policy is un-American and contradicts basic American values. We are people who believe in freedom and human rights. We need to defend ourselves against terrorism, but to do that we don't have to give up the values that make America great. (60% very convincing)
  • Countries such as Cuba, China, and North Korea deny the right of judicial review to those imprisoned by the government. That is not the kind of company the United States of America wants to keep. (60% very convincing)

Voters are more concerned about America-our values and our security- than about those being detained. Independents, moderates, and presidential swing voters believe that upholding American values and keeping America safe are more important than protecting the rights of accused terrorists. Habeas opponents will try to make this a debate about the detainees and what level of legal rights they are (or are not) entitled to; habeas supporters should want a debate over whether the Bush policy violates our national principles and puts Americans at risk.

Expressing this idea in legal or constitutional terms is less effective. Voters respond more favorably when the case for habeas is stated in terms of core values and fundamental principles, rather than legal or constitutional rights. Even many Americans who oppose the current detainee policy are not easily persuaded that their own civil liberties are in jeopardy. Furthermore, arguments about constitutional rights are easily undercut by a conservative response informing voters that only non-citizens, not U.S. citizens, are denied habeas.

Expressing their positions in terms of values is something that Democrats and progressives have often failed to do. It is much easier to organize a broad coalition for any goal when it is based in values and visions of how the government should operate, or what the country should look like, than it is around specific, wonkier tasks. In other words, you are not going to be as successful building a broad coalition around reducing carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 as you are around making sure that a healthy environment is a positive value unto itself and as such preserved for future generations instead of exploited by wealthy interests. This is also, I think, one of the reasons why impeachment campaigns have struggled, since they are not connected to a broader movement based on how government should operate, but are instead a specific campaign centered around Bush and Cheney. A more successful impeachment campaign would have grown out of a coalition that supports a broad vision of government, of which Bush and Cheney are simply two negative examples rather than the whole problem.

Anyway, check out the whole memo. You input helped form it, and as such will hopefully help put Democrats down a more successful road in terms of strategy on civil liberties.

Chris Bowers :: Exclusive Habeas Corpus Polling

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heart versus head (0.00 / 0)
The memo shows something I think a lot of us need to wrap our heads around: while one might think the "intellectual" argument -- favoring talk of the constitution -- would carry more weight, it's the heart that works.

I've given money to the ACLU in the past, and if you've done this yourself you know you sign up for a lifetime of weekly spam in your (physical) mailbox. They've been pushing the "are YOU next?" side of things -- appealing to the idea that the government will spy/imprison/detain you next.

What this memo shows is that this kind of argument-from-self-interest isn't working. (I am happy to see this, because I found it rather patronizing, and it always seemed to me to promote the image of the ACLU as a bunch of paranoids.) Appealing to national pride is far more effective -- and I find that cheering as well.


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