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Ambivalence Structures Gridlock on NSA Surveillance

It's not surprising that the political class hasn't rallied to one side or the other on the debate over NSA surveillance; the public is sending oblique messages to its elected officials.

Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s revelation that the department has been collecting massive amounts of telephone records and other communications data generated by American citizens has fueled one of the major news stories of the summer. Yet even as the revelations come one after another (and promise to continue), the debate over whether Snowden is a liberty-loving whistleblower or self-serving traitor continue. There has been much discussion in Congress, but the only effort to take affirmative legislative action failed in a vote that scrambled the polarized partisan alliances that have paralyzed Congress in most other areas — how often do U.S. Reps. Lloyd Doggett and Louie Gohmert find themselves on the same side of a vote?

Given the issue's importance and attention — along with the apparent breakdown of partisanship — why was Congress unable to act? The answer lies in the countervailing influences of ideology and partisanship.

In the context of public opinion, ambivalence refers to the state of having mixed and often countervailing attitudes about something or someone. In the case of government surveillance, this ambivalence manifests itself through the competition between ideological viewpoints and the overwhelming pull of partisanship — that is, one’s identification as a Democrat or a Republican.

Ideologically, Democrats are predisposed to protect civil liberties from government overreach, whereas Republicans have historically been more inclined to place security at a higher premium. But a Democratic president in the White House shakes up the attitudinal status quo, making partisans on either side particularly uncomfortable with their ideological predispositions.

These more familiar partisan positions were in evidence in 2006, when the Bush administration found itself in a predicament similar to the Obama administration’s current one. The public had been made aware of the existence of a similar, though less extensive, NSA program, and in May of that year, a Newsweek poll found that the gap between Republicans who thought the program had gone too far and those who thought that it hadn’t was 49 points in the program's favor. In that same poll, the gap between Democrats on the same question was 66 points in the opposite direction. Additionally, 69 percent of Republicans said that the program was necessary to combat terrorism, while 73 percent of Democrats said that the program went too far in invading people's privacy.

Seven years later and with a Democrat in the White House, both parties are struggling to manage the competing interests of their partisanship and their ideologies. Now the Democrats find themselves in favor of such programs with the Republicans in opposition. But the magnitude of those sentiments is nowhere near 2006 levels and is better characterized by the overall ambivalence apparent in both parties. According to a July 2013 Pew Research Center poll, Democratic approval of the program was +11 (approval minus disapproval) while Republican approval was -6. The gap between Democrats who think the program has moved too far in restricting civil liberties and those who think it hasn't gone far enough is +4 toward the civil liberties side of the argument. Among Republicans, the gap is essentially identical, +5. So it's not surprising that the political class hasn't rallied to one side or the other given a public that is sending oblique messages to their elected officials.

The expected — that is, ideologically consistent — reactions can be found where one might expect them to be: at the fringes of both parties. Looking again to the question comparing whether respondents think that the program has gone too far vis-a-vis civil liberties or not far enough vis-a-vis security/protection, Democrats who identify themselves as liberals are +23 in favor of the civil liberties position. And while conservatives are only +8, the range of conservatism in the Republican Party is wider than it used to be. Tea Party Republicans, with their underlying strain of libertarian conservatism are +24 in favor of the civil liberties position, indistinguishable from the liberal Democrats.

The ambivalence in attitudes about government surveillance and national security came to a head when the measure in Congress that would have outlawed domestic surveillance of Americans not accused of any crimes was only narrowly defeated — making strange bedfellows of Gohmert and Doggett (and lots of other odd couples). A coalition in the U.S. House was unable to curtail surveillance powers defended by the Obama White House – this in a chamber that has made its primary goal curtailing the will of the White House whenever possible (and, in the case of the numerous votes to defund "Obamacare," even when it is purely symbolic). Support for reining in these surveillance programs came from a de facto coalition of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and the Tea Party members of the GOP. They were defeated, albeit in a close 217-205 vote, by “moderate” Democrats and Republicans. The center, such as it was, held — with moderates of both parties looking at President Obama and each other, and perhaps thinking of the old pop song by one-hit wonder Stealers Wheel: “Stuck in the Middle with You.”

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