It would take all day to list the many reasons why Washington doesn’t ever seem able to settle its big policy questions. But a new survey from Pew that’s tied to the news of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden does an excellent job of highlighting one of the biggest: While Washington politicians take most of the blame for dysfunction, voters make their job infinitely harder by routinely abandoning their stated policy preferences out of fickle partisanship.
The Pew poll measures Americans’ views of the surveillance state and how they’ve changed since the George W. Bush administration. On the broadest level, there doesn’t appear to have been much change. Today, 62 percent of Americans say investigating terrorism is more important than maintaining personal privacy; 34 percent disagree. In January 2006, just after news broke of the Bush administration’s NSA surveillance program, 65 percent of Americans said that terrorism justified the intrusion into privacy, and just 32 percent disagreed. Not much difference, right?
In fact, there’s been a dramatic change—you just have to look beyond the headline numbers to see it. What’s shifted are the political affiliations of who supports and opposes the surveillance program. When Bush was president, Republicans supported the program by a three-to-one margin (75 percent) and Democrats were nearly as strong in their opposition (61 percent). A similar partisan breakdown existed on the question of e-mail monitoring: Most Republicans (53 to 38 percent) thought it should be allowed; most Democrats (51 to 41 percent) thought it should be forbidden.
Flash forward to today and a Democratic president. Now Republicans are essentially split on the acceptability of NSA surveillance (52 percent favor it; 47 percent oppose it), while a strong majority of Democrats (64 percent) supports the program. The two parties—but Democrats especially—have changed position. On the issue of e-mail monitoring, the partisan flip-flop is clearer still: Republicans favored it under Bush, but oppose it under Obama; Democrats opposed it under Bush, but favor it under Obama.
Political analysis, including by lawmakers, tends to treat the results of surveys like Pew’s as revealing a fixed truth: This is what Democrats think about Policy X, and this is what Republicans think. The solution lies somewhere in between. Ordinary political dysfunction (partisanship, filibuster abuse, and so forth) will make settling thorny issues of civil liberties plenty hard as it is. But it will be harder still because voters routinely change their policy preferences out of partisan allegiance—or, I suspect, contempt.