Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Are Partisans Hypocrites?


The above Pew poll, noting that Democrats are basically okay with NSA domestic surveillance under President Obama but were outraged by it under President Bush (and vice versa for Republicans), is getting a lot of attention lately. (See, for example, here and here.) The general interpretation is that partisans are basically hypocrites. Like studies showing that people's evaluation of the economy tends to improve when their party controls the White House, we can see that people basically view the world through partisan glasses. What seem like iron-clad views on civil liberties are nothing more than political postures.

But is that the only way to interpret this? In my view, it's hard for poll respondents to evaluate NSA surveillance, or any powerful government tool, without considering who's in charge of it. When people are asked what they think about the government having this power, they're implicitly being asked what they think about President Obama having this power. Is it really hackish for people to be more comfortable with a governmental power if they know someone they more or less trust is going to be in charge of it? Is it hypocritical to think that police state tactics are necessary when someone who shares your values is deploying them but excessive when someone hostile to your values is deploying them? Democrats are basically saying, "Yes, this is potentially problematic, but we trust Obama to do it right," and Republicans said the same thing about Bush.

It never really came to a vote, but when Batman developed the technology to use all of Gotham's residents' cell phones as a giant crime detection device, I'm sure residents as a whole would have preferred Lucius Fox running that device than, say, the Joker doing so, even if they saw the device itself as morally questionable.

I don't know that partisans are being douchey here. It may just be that they're casting judgment on the people running the show.

6 comments:

  1. Then there's the fact that when Bush was doing it, it was warrantless and illegal. Whatever you think about the merits of the policy, Obama appears to have been following duly passed laws.

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    1. Sure, but it's not obvious voters care much about that distinction -- 75% of Republicans supported the Bush-era wiretapping despite its illegality. Still the Obama administration's compliance with the law may help explain why that program's overall support is 5 points higher than the earlier one.

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  2. Andrew Gelman at The Monkey Cage states the following:
    "I don’t know how important the question wording is; maybe people are just giving their gut reactions to recent headlines. On a substantive level, though, there’s a difference between tapping millions of phones vs. monitoring terrorist suspects, and there’s a difference between court order and no court order. I don’t know how I would respond to the poll now, and I don’t know how I’d have responded in 2006."
    I think that question wording is important and that's another factor to consider in why opinions seem to change.

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    1. Question wording may help explain shifts in overall levels of support, but it doesn't really explain shifts among partisan subgroups.

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    2. I may be naive, and I would not argue that question wording had much to do with Republican shifts on the issue, but what about independents and some Democrats? My point is simply that although partisanship is important in explaining a person's position on an issue, there are other factors, and when the question wording is changed substantially--court order vs. no court order; tapping millions of phones vs. monitoring terrorist suspects--I think that the it can have an effect of responses and needs to be acknowledged. I know that it would affect my response although it may not be the most important factor.

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  3. I have no problem believing that most partisans are hypocrites and that people who have principled and informed positions on these issues that are a small and exceptionally well informed group. And, not many people have a world view that sees the two major political parties as separate from "the People" whom the people must mutually fear.

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