Opinions on Government Surveillance: It’s Not Only About Partisan Hypocrisy

“It’s not enough for me as President to have confidence in these programs. The American people need to have confidence in them, as well.”

In this statement, President Obama identified an important driver of people’s opinion of government surveillance programs: trust. During a press conference last Friday, the President announced new measures to reform NSA surveillance. His aim is to increase transparency in order to build up trust in the program.

Recent polls have shown a shift over time in partisan support for government surveillance. Many interpreted it as partisan hypocrisy and blind following of a leader’s opinion without real knowledge of the issues at stake. As it turns out, attitudes are more complicated, and many factors are at play.

Both Republicans and Democrats have been criticized for flip flopping on surveillance. Americans seem to be okay with government tracking their communications only when a President from their party is in the White House.

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In 2006, when the news of Bush’s surveillance program broke, 75% Republicans said they were fine with government listening to phone calls and reading emails without court approval. At the time, only 37% Democrats supported it. Today, opinions have completely swapped with 64% Democrats approving of surveillance, versus only 52% of Republicans.

Is this pure partisanship? Do people just follow their leader’s opinion without even thinking of the issues at stake? No, attitudes are more complex. Accepting surveillance programs requires a certain level of trust, and the belief that they will not be used abusively. A July Pew research poll on government anti-terrorist policies showed that 47% of respondents believe the government to have gone too far in restricting civil liberties. Most Americans are more likely to trust a program overseen by a President of their party, who usually has a similar conception of where to draw the line between national security interests and restriction of civil liberties.

Timing matters as well. In 2006, surveillance could pass as an emergency measure. Twelve years after 9/11, it is more difficult to justify surveillance, as many Americans see it as a violation of privacy.

In addition, part of the issue in 2006 was that the Bush administration did not ask for court approval prior to tracking calls. Judiciary involvement in the current program could be one other reason for the evolution of some Democrats’ opinion.

Another driver of people’s views of NSA programs is ideology. Whether they are Republicans or Democrats, some people fundamentally oppose or support surveillance as a way to fight terrorism. A majority of 52% Republicans still think surveillance is acceptable under Obama, and some of the most vocal defenders of the President’s program were found among the most radical Republicans, like Michele Bachman. On July 24th, the Amash/Conyers amendment to defund NSA’s collection of phone records lost by only 12 votes. More important than the closeness of the vote was its breakdown: a majority of Democrats supported it, while a majority of Republicans voted against it.

Partisan shifts on surveillance do not only reflect party hypocrisy, but rather, a combination of different factors. It will be interesting to continue tracking support for government surveillance now that Obama has put the issue on the table.

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