It’s not about Obama or party loyalty. It’s about the reality that public opinion on privacy versus security can change quickly
Why hasn’t the left been able to rally support around opposition to domestic spying?
Tea Party candidates on the right have been able to generate excitement among GOP base voters with their calls to end the National Security Agency’s domestic spying program. Senator Rand Paul appears to have staked his entire potential presidential campaign on a brash defense of personal privacy (except when it comes to abortion). Libertarian-leaning Republicans in the House have been unapologetic in their criticism of the program, their own energy magnified by near-unanimous support from conservative talk radio and bloggers.
Those advocates of civil liberties (some of them quite new to the cause) have a convenient explanation for why Democrats have been less vocal and slower to criticize the collection of metadata from everyday American citizens: slavish devotion to President Obama, whatever policies he might champion.
This is an easy argument to make – and it goes both ways. Polling among Democratic and Republican voters shows a mirror-image of approval for Obama’s use of the tactic to Bush’s use of it. Since 2002, the number of Democrats who approved monitoring online activities has increased 12 points; among Republicans it has decreased 13 points. Since 2006, the number of Republicans who say the government should prioritize privacy over hunting terrorists has risen 22 points; Democrats who say the government should prioritize preventing terrorism over privacy has gone up 18 points.
The neatness of these changes in position is almost disturbing. It suggests that advocacy for civil liberties is a zero-sum game: there’s only so much libertarianism to be had at any given historical moment, there’s a ceiling on Americans’ ability to believe that the right to privacy is paramount. Indeed, as you might suspect from the numbers above, polling among all Americans on the balance of national security to privacy has neatly flipped as well. The percentage of voters that worry that the US will go “too far” in violating privacy rights in pursuit of terrorists versus “not going far enough” is now 56% percent versus 36%. In 2001, after the 9/11 attacks, it was 31% versus 55%.
It’s these numbers, rather than the occupant of the White House, that explains Democrats’ reluctance to move very aggressively in championing personal privacy – or, at least, it explains the difficulty in creating a lasting coalition around it. If at best, you will only get half the country to agree with you – and what’s more, different phrasing of the question or current events context shows inherent wobbliness on the issue – what politician will stick out his (or her) neck over it?