Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Who do we thank for surveillance reform?

Before this conventional wisdom that we have Snowden, Libertarians, and an activist press to thank for surveillance reform becomes too entrenched, it's worth taking a step back and reviewing what's actually happened here.

The Patriot Act was initially passed in a borderline fascist political climate with almost unanimous support from both parties. Of the 67 Congressmen and Senators who voted against it, 64 were Democrats. The only three Republicans to oppose the bill - Ron Paul, Butch Otter, and Bob Ney - represented districts with only nominal opposition.

In the years that followed, Democrats and the American left led the opposition to the Patriot Act. In fact, it became central to their politics - the LA Times noted that criticism of "the Patriot Act was easily the biggest applause-getter at Democratic rallies." But the same article notes that opposition had become a political liability for Democrats, and 2004's exit polls bear that out: when asked who they trusted to handle terrorism, voters preferred Bush over Kerry by a crushing 18 points. Meanwhile, the 2004 Libertarian Platform did not even mention the Patriot Act.

Despite political setbacks, Democrats have remained the face of opposition to surveillance. At least 35% of House and Senate Democrats have opposed every major Patriot Act reauthorization and extension, compared with at most 15% of the Republican caucus. On average the difference is even more stark - 59% of Democrats versus 8% of Republicans.


Can media activists like Glenn Greenwald, who have relentlessly hyped surveillance issues since the Snowden leaks, take credit for this? Seems dubious! About 87% of Americans say that they've at least heard something about government surveillance. But since Snowden's leaks, fewer Americans have voiced concerns over civil liberties -- 37% in January, versus 47% right after the leak. Over that same period of time (1,2), the NSA's favorability rating dropped 3 points - but its unfavorability rating also dropped, and dropped 10 points, from 47% to 37%. Meanwhile, Snowden himself remains significantly unpopular: 64% of Americans view him negatively.

If anything, popular outrage seems to have significantly subsided since Snowden's leaks. It's easy to understand why. When the story first broke, it was a revelation for many Americans. Since then, Americans have lost interest in the program. Glenn Greenwald is clearly aware of the public's short attention span, and has attempted to time his exposes to counter this; but the strategy has mostly failed.

So - who do we have to thank for surveillance reform? A tremendous amount of credit must go to a sizeable faction of Democrats who fought the Patriot Act from the very beginning -- even when it was an extraordinary liability. It is their persistence that cleared a political space for officeholders to oppose the Act without being destroyed by "weak on terror" attacks. And while Rand Paul has repeatedly claimed credit for derailing the Act, the record tells a different story. McConnell just didn't have the votes on a clean extension. 54 Senators vote nay on the bill - 44 Democrats, joined by 10 Republicans.

A prevailing media narrative on surveillance credits a growing grassroots faction of Libertarians, sparked by Edward Snowden and relentlessly inflamed by media activists, for pressuring a recalcitrant political establishment on civil liberties. The numbers, however, suggest just the opposite: House and Senate Democrats have always led the way, once in the face of massive public opposition, and today in the face of growing public apathy.