“Virtually Unyielding Preference for Partisanship Over Principle”?

A Reason article argues:

In the first flush of stories about how the National Security Agency is surveilling American citizens, one stomach-turning revelation hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves: we get the surveillance state we deserve because rank political partisanship trumps bedrock principle every goddamn time on just about every goddamn issue….

The same predictable, partisan-fueled march of the lemmings shows up in questions about monitoring email. In 2002, when wisps of smoke still rose silently from the World Trade Center’s wreckage like lost souls in search of some beggared form of heaven and Attorney General John Ashcroft still attacked anyone who “would scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty,” Pew asked, “Should the government be able to monitor everyone’s email and other online activities if officials say this might prevent future terrorist attacks?” To our credit as the Land of the Free, more Americans said no (47 percent) than yes (45 percent). In the latest tally, the nos have increased by 5 points, to 52 percent while the yeses have stayed at the same level.

Among Republicans and Democrats, however, situational ethics runs the show. Fifty-three percent of Republicans said yes and 38 percent said no. Now, 45 percent say yes and 51 percent say no. Democrats present a mirror image. Back in 2002, just 41 percent said yes and 51 percent said no. Now, the corresponding figures are 53 percent and 43 percent.

Such inarguably party-fueled reversals are nothing new ….

[T]he virtually unyielding preference for partisanship over principle explains why regardless of which party controls the government, the surveillance state continues to grow….

Now I agree entirely that people’s views of policy are sometimes driven by whether they like the party that’s implementing the policy. But the numbers given in this article are consistent with 5/6 of Democrats and Republicans taking the same view in 2002 and today.

If the 38% of Republicans who said no still say no today, and the 45% who say yes new said yes in 2002, that amounts to 83% (out of the average of 93.5% responding) whose answers were the same. Likewise, if the 41% of Democrats who said yes still say yes today, and the 43% who say no now said no in 2002, that amounts to 84% (out of the average of 94% responding) whose answers were the same. (I oversimplify here by assuming that the same people were surveyed today as before, despite the changing composition of the public overtime; but if you relax that assumption, then the consistency rate might be even higher.)

And if this so, then it’s more accurate to say “Among about 10% of Republicans and Democrats, however, situational ethics runs the show,” “such inarguably party-fueled reversals among a small fraction of the population are nothing new,” “the same predictable, partisan-fueled march of a small minority (though perhaps it’s an influential swing vote) shows up,” and “the virtually unyielding preference for partisanship over principle among 10% of the partisan public.”

Now of course it’s possible that more voters changed their minds because of partisanship — at one extreme, for instance, perhaps all 51% of the Republicans who disapprove of monitoring under President Obama fell within the 53% who approved of it under President Bush. But then most of the 45% of Republicans who approve of monitoring under President Obama must have approved of it under President Bush, which is an odd result if one is attributing the changes to partisanship. And in any event, the article introduces no evidence of these partisan shifts. Perhaps the only-partisanship-can-explain-it swing is bigger than the roughly 10% I identify above; but the data the article points to can’t establish that. (The article also points to another study that shows a slightly largely swing from 2006 to 2013, though with slightly differently worded questions; but that study, too, shows that as many as 77% of Republicans and as many as 81% of Democrats could have had the same view from 2006 to 2013.)

And of course there are also other possible explanations that might further decrease our estimate of people who changed their views just because of partisanship. As the Reason article notes, some people might have changed their minds. Some people might have generally the same view of the big picture, but see it playing out differently shortly after 9/11 than it does now, many years later. Plus the composition of the respondents changes over a decade — some people die, others come of age, and others shift among the Republican/Independent/Democrat pigeonholes. l

So I’m happy to stipulate, just based on my understanding of human nature, that some people will answer exactly the same policy question differently depending on who’s in the White House. But it may well be that, at least on these issues, those people make up a small minority of the population (albeit one that, as I noted, might be an important swing vote). And while it’s possible that those people may actually be a large minority or even a majority, I don’t think the data offered by the Reason article shows that.