Why the Public Doesn't Care about Surveillance

If there’s a major political problem faced by civil libertarians—on both sides of the aisle—it’s that there isn’t a large constituency for civil libertarian ideas. It’s not hard to see why. We have concrete examples of what happens when the federal government doesn’t make anti-terrorism a priority. The United States isn’t a stranger to civil liberties violations, but overwhelmingly, they’ve targeted the more marginal members of our society: Political dissidents, and racial and religious minorities. For the large majority of Americans, the surveillance state is an abstraction, and insofar that it would lead to abuses, they don’t perceive themselves as a target. And, in general, it’s hard to get people motivated when there isn’t a threat.

Which is why it’s not a surprise to find that most Americans support the National Security Agency’s program of mass data collection. According to the latest survey from the Pew Research Center, a majority (56 percent to 41 percent) say it’s acceptable that the NSA is getting secret court orders to track the phone calls of millions of Americans. Americans are less supportive of email monitoring to prevent terrorism, but not by much—45 percent support the practice, which is unchanged from eleven years ago, when Pew last asked this question.

There’s more. Sixty-two percent of Americans say it’s more important for the government to investigate terrorism than to not intrude on privacy:

Again, this speaks to abstraction of “privacy” versus the concrete threat of terrorism. There is no one on the other line, listening to your phone calls. Instead, your information has been swept up in an indiscriminate dragnet. Civil libertarians rightly argue that this opens the door to a huge amount of abuse. But if most people will never experience that abuse—and if the targets are marginalized people—it’s hard to inspire concern in ordinary people.

There’s also partisanship to deal with. Trust is a big issue in whether people are appalled with the actions of the NSA, and that trust is mediated through partisan affiliations. In other words, if you’re a Democrat, you were uncomfortable with surveillance under Bush, and fine with it under Obama. And the opposite is true if you are a Republican. Here’s more:

For civil libertarians to make surveillance into a political issue that will move votes, they’ll have to turn the abstract issue into something more concrete, cut through partisanship, and grab the attention of ordinary voters. It’s a tough challenge, which is why—in the short-term at least—I don’t expect much in the way of substantive change.