ON PRINCIPLE

Posted in Quick Hits on July 3rd, 2013 by Ed

There is a great phrase in the textbook I currently assign for Public Opinion that captures one of the most vexing problems with the American electorate – Americans "endorse, but do not demonstrate, democratic basics." That's an elegant way of saying that nearly every piece of evidence we have based on previous research suggests that Americans don't have principles, politically speaking, but tend to think they do. For example, they will state in interviews and on surveys that they are strong supporters of the 1st Amendment. And then they start listing off the exceptions – the people who should not have free speech, freedom of religion, etc. The idea of a principle as an abstract idea that we consider integral to our belief systems and guides our attitudes toward new information…that just doesn't exist. We trust the institutions of government (and believe they should be strengthened) based on which ones are controlled by our preferred faction. We oppose the Senate using the filibuster, until they do it to block something we don't like. We are staunch believers in free speech, except you shouldn't be able to criticize the government during wartime.

This phrase keeps coming to mind when I look at the puzzling public response to Edward Snowden, to re-hash yesterday's topic. Is he a hero? Is he a traitor? Should he be punished or feted? The pioneering work of Zaller and Feldman in public opinion stresses that reasonable people hold "competing considerations" on most subjects – in other words, depending on the context and how I phrase the question, you might reasonably tell me that he's a hero today and a traitor tomorrow. Part of our intense confusion with this NSA scandal – Who are we supposed to be mad at? Whose fault is it? When George W. Bush and Barack Obama agree, won't our heads explode? He did a good thing but he also broke the law! – is that we don't really believe in an underlying principle here. We're not mad that the government is spying; we're mad that the government is spying on us. We've recently all but begged the government to wipe its ass with the 4th Amendment…but to spy on them, not on us.

In short, violating other people's rights is totally cool with most Americans, pending the conditioning effect of which party controls the process at a given moment. We appear to be angry because the government has violated the implicit agreement we made in the wake of 9/11 – do whatever possible to make us feel safe, but do it to The Terrorists. Brown ones, especially. Nothing about the reaction to Snowden suggests that we think the government shouldn't be listening to phone calls or recording data about emails and internet usage. We're just outraged that it's happening to us. Conducting surveillance in a manner that ignores all basic constitutional rights is fine, as long as it isn't done to Hard Working Americans or whatever euphemism you prefer for old white people who vote.

Basically, SnowdenGate is the "Don't Touch My Junk!" guy writ large. How dare the government treat me, a good, loyal white person, the way I encourage it to treat others?