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Thursday, June 13, 2013

How the NSA Controversy Could Make Partisanship Even Worse

Gnus fighting
At first, the story about the NSA's massive domestic surveillance program was actually working in President Obama's favor. A Pew poll showed that most Americans approved of the program, yet it continued to be the big Washington story -- meaning half-baked White House nontroversies like Benghazi or the IRS scandal had been knocked off the front page. The President was able make what would normally have been some controversial moves, mostly under the radar, as the media's attention was fixed on one shiny bauble. For the most part, Republicans -- who would normally have dived on any whiff of scandal -- took the administration's side on the issue. Despite the landmark nature of the revelations, it looked like it was going to be clear sailing.

But then a second poll came out -- this one showing Americans not supportive of PRISM. Then Gallup had similar findings. Now Reuters/Ipsos has a different take, nearly as problematic for the administration:


↓ CONTINUED AFTER THE JUMP ↓


Roughly one in three Americans say the former security contractor who leaked details of top-secret U.S. surveillance activity is a patriot and should not be prosecuted, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Wednesday.

Some 23 percent of those surveyed said former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden is a traitor while 31 percent said he is a patriot. Another 46 percent said they did not know.

[...]

Roughly one in three Americans say the former security contractor who leaked details of top-secret U.S. surveillance activity is a patriot and should not be prosecuted, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Wednesday.

Some 23 percent of those surveyed said former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden is a traitor while 31 percent said he is a patriot. Another 46 percent said they did not know.
The large "don't know" percentages here are good news for the White House, since these probably represent persuadable people -- although persuadables are a double-edged sword, since they can be persuaded either way.. But the initial numbers aren't good and if you read down further, they get terrible. 45% of respondents said a surveillance program was OK in some circumstances, 37% said it was completely unacceptable and, "only 6 percent say they have no objections to the program."

Let me repeat that last very important statistic: only 6 percent say they have no objections to the program. That's a nightmare number for the White House and NSA supporters in Congress. According to Reuters/Ipsos, PRISM -- as it exists right now -- has nearly zero public support. Some people may find it acceptable with some more restrictions, some won't find it acceptable no matter what changes are made, but almost no one thinks the status quo is fine with them.



I can't help but think back to a column by Nate Silver, written when only the Pew poll was out. In it, he argued that domestic surveillance could become a wedge issue in the upcoming elections. Not an inter-party wedge, but an intra-party one, dividing the electorate in the party primaries. Silver took a look at support for the Patriot ACT and found that this sort of security overreach was least supported by candidates at the far ends of the political spectrum -- although that lack of support fell more heavily on the liberal left than on the more authoritarian right. Still, if there's a domestic surveillance split in a party primary, it'll be between establishment types and insurgents.

Which means these poll numbers could turn out to be bad news for the nation. If these poll numbers continue to hold true, then candidates on the far ends of the political spectrum will have the edge in that debate. When the 2016 smoke clears (or even sooner), we could wind up with an even more polarized Washington, as ideological bookends take more of the seats. They agree on domestic surveillance -- but that's pretty much the extent of the common ground. Otherwise, it's the Tea Party vs. the Occupy movement. Personally, I'd like to see fewer moderate dems -- but if the price is more 'baggers at the same time, then it's too expensive.

I suppose it's the law of unintended consequences coming into play here, but if this turns out the way it looks like it might, Washington has only itself to blame for the ensuing political disaster. By mindlessly supporting a "security at any cost" mindset, they may have dealt the country a staggering blow.

-Wisco

[photo via Wikimedia Commons]


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