A new Pew/Washington Post poll shows that public approval of government surveillance is pretty much what it was in the Bush years -- but members of the two major parties have switched places to some extent:
... The survey finds that while there are apparent differences between the NSA surveillance programs under the Bush and Obama administrations, overall public reactions to both incidents are similar. Currently, 56% say it is acceptable that the NSA "has been getting secret court orders to track telephone calls of millions of Americans in an effort to investigate terrorism."So an awful lot of people are answering this question out of tribal loyalty -- Democrats opposed NSA surveillance under Bush and approve under Obama; Republican support has dropped quite a bit from a very high level of approval under Bush. (Republicans' opinion of current NSA surveillance isn't a mirror image of their opinion in the Bush years because quite a few Republicans are still loyal to the security structures put in place by Bush. They're approving what Obama is doing because they approve of Bush, not Obama.)
In January 2006, a few weeks after initial new reports of the Bush administration's surveillance program, 51% said it was acceptable for the NSA to investigate "people suspected of involvement with terrorism by secretly listening in on telephone calls and reading e-mails between some people in the United States and other countries, without first getting court approval to do so."
However, Republicans and Democrats have had very different views of the two operations. Today, only about half of Republicans (52%) say it is acceptable for the NSA to obtain court orders to track phone call records of millions of Americans to investigate terrorism. In January 2006, fully 75% of Republicans said it was acceptable for the NSA to investigate suspected terrorists by listing in on phone calls and reading emails without court approval.
Democrats now view the NSA's phone surveillance as acceptable by 64% to 34%. In January 2006, by a similar margin (61% to 36%), Democrats said it was unacceptable for the NSA to scrutinize phone calls and emails of suspected terrorists....
These poll results are tribal, I think, because respondents simply don't see this as something that affects them viscerally -- they don't think the government is likely to do anything sinister to them as a result of the surveillance data it's collected about them. So they don't feel they have a dog in the hunt. Therefore, their response is, more or less, to stick with the tribe.
Now compare the Terri Schiavo polls. Back in 2005, Republicans generally favored intervening to keep Schiavo alive -- and yet pollsters found that support for letting her be removed from life support crossed party lines. I think that's because ordinary Americans generally have to deal with end-of-life issues within their own families, or at least know they'll have to think about these issues soon. The Schiavo poll numbers were about a problem most Americans could imagine affecting them directly, and they wanted control, regardless of party.
Surveillance is remote. It's happening, but it seems to have no effect on most people's lives. People who are steeped in politics care a lot, but the rest of America doesn't. So, when asked about the issue, a lot of voters revert to group loyalty.