by Darren W. Davis. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2007. 288pp. Hardback. $35.00. ISBN: 9780871543226.

Reviewed by Roger Handberg, Department of Political Science, University of Central Florida, Orlando, Florida, USA. Email: handberg [at]


Opening this book is an interesting trip (not at all nostalgic however) back into recent American political history in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks and their political and economic fallout. The attacks on the twin Trade Center Towers were an absolute shock to the American public whose immediate emotional response was to rally behind the George W. Bush administration. Presidential popularity soared in a blaze of national unity – a unity that quickly frayed under the weight of the administration’s agenda for securing a permanent national Republican political majority. Whether that national political majority was truly possible or not will never be known since the Bush administration push for extreme conservative policies alienated many potential recruits. This reminds one that President Bush’s policy preferences were not generally supported by the US population prior to September 11th. In fact, in this book, one can track the return to more normal domestic politics after 9/11, the resurgence of party identification and policy views dissimilar from those advanced by the president. Also, appeals to fear over time declined in political effectiveness although anxieties could still be aroused at least until the completion of the 2004 election cycle (which generally lies beyond the bounds of this book).

One of the consequences of the 9/11 spawned crisis however was to raise again the perennial question of how to balance civil rights and liberties in the context of national crisis, including a war of retribution in Afghanistan and a war of choice in Iraq, played out against the background of a global war on terror. Darren Davis provides an important look into this question, providing real time data tailored to explore critical questions of changing public attitudes toward government policies regarding political rights and liberties in time of permanent crisis. The “long war” suggested by the Bush administration envisions a long term curtailment of civil rights and liberties, an indefinite state of siege for all, not just the military. The operative assumption becomes that individuals must conform to government policy choices because the terrorist threat remained so dire. With the passage of the Patriot Act in the immediate aftermath of September 11th after minimal congressional consideration, the stage was set for aggressive government encroachment into regions citizens typically think of as private. Citizen reactions to those efforts become the essence of the book – specifically how various groups respond to an event and its aftermath.

Davis’ analysis is framed in terms of “negative liberty” – that is “the idea that there should be a minimum area of [*31] personal freedom or a set of rights that are free from external interference or coercion by others and the government.” This concept involves balancing competing goals – for example, national security and free speech – with a compromise sought (p.5). Such appeals for individual liberty are particularly powerful in terms of public peace but become more problematic in times of national peril. The Japanese Exclusion Cases during World War II are one example of such dilemmas. The US Supreme Court has long taken a more nuanced approach to liberty in times of war – the twilight situation posed by the global war on terror will possibly be more comparable to the Cold War where judicial deference recedes as time passed.

In this volume, the basis for the empirical analysis is a combination of national telephone surveys, starting first in November 2001 to January 2002 (fairly immediate aftermath to 9/11), two resurveys occurred at one year intervals ending in 2004 in the run up to the 2004 presidential election. Concurrently with the second-wave panel interviews, a new 2003 national cross section sample was drawn with oversampling of African-American and Latino respondents. When the third-wave interviews were conducted, an additional new 2004 national cross section sample was drawn (oversampling African Americans and Latinos as in wave two) along with re-interviewing of the new second-wave respondents. What results is a sample rich in complexity and depth, tracking Americans’ responses to threat and civil liberties and the tradeoffs that would entail. In effect, one is measuring their commitment to civil liberties in a changing threat environment. Davis originally planned a resurvey after a subsequent major terrorist event in the U.S.; when no such event quickly occurred, the design was altered to survey at yearly intervals to track change in the aftermath of the original event. One issue with the analysis is that its focus was totally domestic with little attention to terrorist events outside the United States except the two wars’ initiation. If one assumes the respondents were now sensitized to terrorist attacks, such incidents as the Madrid bombings on March 11, 2004 just as the last interviews began and the earlier Bali attack in October 2002 should have been considered in the threat environment within which the respondents lived. These events added weight to administration and others’ warnings about the continuing terrorist threat. Davis argues that context matters but then ignores an important part of that context – the international arena with its unknown threats and actors.

However, the strengths of the book come in its systematic and thorough analysis of how the American public responded to a new context (terrorism as a domestic threat) and the political demands (deference to government dictates) that followed. Initially, as one might expect, the American public generally assumed a deferential position relative to federal government demands for restrictions on civil liberties in order to wage war against the international terrorist threat. What occurred was more complex than the surface numbers would suggest; specific groups including especially African Americans remained more critical and skeptical of such claims. Davis argues with some evidence that this reflects their collective and individual experience with government [*32] being unresponsive to their liberties. This learned behavior to some extent inoculated these Americans against the more extravagant claims for government control, their awareness of the potential for abuse of government police powers lent support to this collective skepticism. Over time, liberals and Democratic Party adherents became more skeptical, if not hostile, to overreaching claims for government authority. As the interval since the events of 9/11 increased, traditional American views regarding the rights of individuals versus state authority began to assert themselves, especially with regard to the question of criminal rights. For most Americans, first amendment rights remained somewhat more fungible than fourth amendment rights regarding one’s day in court and how a case should be processed. The Bush administration argued that these were frills easily discarded in the “global war on terror.” Initially, this view drew support, but over time the hard core supporters were among the conservative and more nationalistic elements within the population – the ones already predisposed to agree with a conservative Republican administration – while others grew less supportive.

Davis spends a great deal of effort exploring the shifting views of distinct groups over time. But, at times, his analysis is buried in detail, losing the thread of the discussion. Better organization and more summary tables and figures to explicate analytic points would have moved some of the detailed tables to appendices. The analysis examined several variables thought to be critical in explaining attitudes: perceptions of threat and personal vulnerability, political trust, liberal and conservative political ideology, national pride and patriotism, dogmatism, race and ethnicity, and standard demographics including formal levels of education, gender and age. Threat and personal vulnerability were found to be unrelated – most individuals had low perceptions of their personal vulnerability to terrorism, as the threat was to the nation. Dogmatic individuals were more likely to accept government restrictions, with conservatives more restrictive than liberals, although liberals were equally supportive of government when the perceived threat level was high. However, patriotism proved a particularly strong predictor of willingness to accept limitations (p.79). Trust in government strongly predicted adherence to government views (the more trust, the more accepting). Davis concludes: “American citizens were indeed willing to concede their support for civil liberties in exchange for greater security” (p.84). This willingness, however, was not unlimited or unresponsive to the situation.

Davis also created a quasi-experimental design in order “to assess the extent to which respondents modify their initial answers about civil liberties” (p.94). The three situations proposed involve the crime of belonging to a terrorist organization, the issue of indefinite detentions, and racial profiling. All were particularly relevant as the government expanded its policing efforts to combat domestic terrorists, although the Guantanamo prison situation obviously contaminated one experiment regarding indefinite detentions, thus overshadowing the domestic cases of indefinite detention. The one issue most consistently rejected was racial profiling, described as a product of the civil rights [*33] movement. In subsequent chapters, the analysis focuses on change in support, in the absence of a major domestic terrorist event despite repeated heightened terrorism alerts. The two panel waves in 2003 and 2004 provide a longitudinal look at how Americans have adapted to the “new normal,” where security precautions in terms of bag and body searches at public venues occur routinely. The effort was to examine change in the absence of dramatic domestic terrorist events but continued heightened security. Davis’ theme was “that people support and defend democratic values most strongly when it is easy and convenient, but less when costs are tangible, such as tolerating a certain amount of vulnerability and uncertainty” (p.116). Unexamined was the continuing example of terrorist attacks in Iraq as background noise supporting the Bush administration’s perspective on what happens in terms of the security threat. Davis explains this as a result of resurgence in partisan support and not for President Bush by the end of the study (p.151). Discerning the long-term effect of the 9/11 attack will probably require more time to become clear, since President Bush has become by his policies and rhetoric the surrogate for the security state. His successor, regardless of party, will allow a more nuanced view of how permanent the changes in views really are. What is interesting is a side effect identified by the author regarding debate over immigration. In the run up to the 2008 presidential election, immigration has quickly risen to great public prominence, especially among Republican voters who tend to be a whiter group than Democratic voters. Under situations of heightened threat, whites were found to become more negative toward Latinos, who are more likely as a group to be immigrants. “Latinos may not pose a direct threat in the context of terrorism, but the issue of their immigration status may resonate with whites concerned about future terrorist attacks” (p.208). This may provide some insight into the quick rise of immigration to major-issue status, especially in the Republican party, and explain the depth of the hostility expressed by many seeking to restrict immigration, whether legal or illegal (especially the latter).

Davis has written a book that I highly recommend, especially for his thorough explanation of his methodology and the theoretical reasoning that led to his choices of how to proceed. His analysis is not a typical cookbook approach to the problem but rather is innovative and thoughtful. Substantively, the analysis ties together several diverse strands of research drawn from psychology, public opinion and the literature on civil rights and liberties. He portrays the interplay of formal rights and public perceptions of a threat situation and how those rights should or not be supported. This analysis, in a sense, mirrors some of the earlier work suggested during World War II regarding the fragile nature of civil rights and liberties during time of war, or at least the exertion of the war powers as occurred in the aftermath of 9/11. Probably the overriding message is that a free press (if allowed) in time undermines government claims of omnipotence, although how a free press will endure in an increasingly corporate environment remains an empirical question. The book also provides evidence as to how the Bush administration lost its ability to lead public opinion – reality bites. But, as Davis states, the public needs [*34] information outside official reports in order to clarify its views. What was unexplored, but would provide an interesting question, is the role of the internet in making alternative perspectives available and their impact upon the public.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, Roger Handberg.