As the controversy surrounding NSA surveillance unfolded in recent days, there’s been a lingering question about public attitudes. Understandably, there’s widespread outrage among civil libertarians, privacy advocates, and proponents of limited government, but has the American mainstream recoiled in response to reports?
Apparently not. A new Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll found that 56% of Americans consider the NSA’s accessing of telephone call records of millions of Americans through secret court orders “acceptable.” A 62% majority believe it’s more important for the government to investigate terrorist threats, even if those investigations intrude on personal privacy. Support drops when it comes to government monitoring of emails, but even here, the public is evenly split.
But it’s the partisan trends over time that seemed especially noteworthy.
I put together this chart to highlight the shift among partisans over the last seven years. In 2006, the Pew Research Center asked the public about attitudes towards the Bush/Cheney warrantless-wiretap program through the NSA, and found that 75% of self-identified Republicans supported the program, while only 37% of self-identified Democrats agreed.
In 2013, those numbers have largely flipped – support for the surveillance is down sharply among Republicans, from 75% to 52%, while support among Democrats has soared, from 37% to 64%.
So, much of the country is guilty of shameless hypocrisy? There’s certainly something to this, though there’s one caveat to keep in mind.
Clearly, Democrats are more comfortable with NSA surveillance under a Democratic administration, and Republicans are more comfortable with NSA surveillance under a Republican administration. There is, however, one small catch – it’s not an apples to apples comparison.
In 2006, the poll question dealt with a warrantless surveillance program in which the Bush administration exceeded its legal authority with no judicial check or congressional approval. In 2013, the Obama administration, at least given what we know now, appears to be acting within its legal authority, relying in part on the courts, and acting within a law approved by bipartisan majorities.
For critics of government snooping, that’s cold comfort, but when it comes to gauging public attitudes, the bipartisan hypocrisy comes with an asterisk.
Nevertheless, the larger point is that the American mainstream is far less concerned with federal surveillance programs than civil libertarians had hoped. Indeed, the Post/Pew poll found that 45% of the public – very nearly half – believe the government should be able to go even further than it currently does when it comes to spying on Americans, so long as the goal is to prevent terrorism.
And with results like these, the political appetite for changing the law will likely be non-existent.