A new Gallup poll finds that a majority of Americans disapprove of government surveillance programs. However the poll also finds that a majority of Democrats still say they approve of the programs.
Overall, 53% of Americans disapprove of the programs while 37% approve. These figures are roughly in line with a CBS poll published earlier this week. That poll found 58% of Americans disapproved of the programs.
What is striking about the Gallup findings is that Democrats approve of the programs by a margin of 49-40, with 11% expressing no opinion. Meanwhile, both Republicans and Independents disapproved strongly by margins of 31 and 22 points respectively.
These results are almost a mirror image of what pollsters found after a very similar story broke in 2006. Back then a USA Today/Gallup poll found 71% approval among Republicans and 73% disapproval among Democrats (with leaners included in both categories).
What are we to make of Democrats new found appreciation for government surveillance? During the Bush years section 215 of the Patriot Act came to be known as the “library records” act because the potential for snooping on people’s reading lists was considered so outlandish. Numerous elected Democrats, including Senator Obama, expressed concern about government abuse of civil rights. Yet today, even after the revelation that the NSA is collecting phone data on every American, Democrats don’t see a problem.
To be sure, Republicans are also flip-flopping. They were generally not worried about the NSA in 2006 by a wide margin, but now seem to see a greater cause for concern. So what is really going on here?
The results seem to suggest that popular opinion on surveillance programs has always been seen in the context of the people in power. Put another way, when you ask people whether they trust the government not to abuse its power, they tend to look at the people in charge. That might not be the deep debate over principle some believe we should have, but it does make a certain amount of sense.
If abuse of government power is going to happen it’s safe to assume the opposition party is more likely to be on the receiving end. Hence, Democrats are concerned about what Bush might do with this power and Republicans are more concerned about what Obama might do with it. Given the recent IRS scandal, there is a certain wisdom to this thinking.
If we read the Gallup figures as a proxy vote on the trustworthiness of the administration not to abuse its power, Democrats still trust Obama by a relatively narrow margin (9 pts) but the rest of the country, by wide margins, does not.