How Do We Define the Political Center on Privacy?

While the U.S. political scene is often described as polarized, many members within the major political parties can agree on one issue: privacy and surveillance. From Democrats like Dianne Feinstein and Dick Durbin to Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, support for the current system of NSA surveillance and data collection is one of the clearest examples of what bipartisanship looks like in Washington.

Generally speaking, centrism indicates a reluctance to make significant changes to the status quo. So, in determining the center on privacy, at least two centers must be identified: among the political class and among the American public.

As Sen. Rand Paul’s 2013 filibuster demonstrated, privacy and other topics related to foreign policy are not clear-cut along party lines. Paul received support from some Republican allies, but one of the first to support him on the Senate floor was Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon.

However, another Republican, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, often considered one of the more conservative members of his caucus, has been slow to seek reform to the NSA. Following Paul’s filibuster, Cruz only said that the revelations of surveillance are a “cause for concern.” His reluctance indicates a desire for sticking closer to the status quo and the center, not a move to the right.

Defining the political center on privacy is difficult because of the ways the spectrum is seen and how political philosophies are defined. For instance, Michigan U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, alternately described as libertarian and conservative, and a critic of the surveillance state, was named the fourth most liberal Republican by the National Journal.

The criteria used was the frequency with which a member votes against the majority of his or her party. Ultimately, grading along this rubric often leaves little room for nuance and renders all issues to party loyalty, not ideas and interpretations.

Yet it is fairly clear that the traditional left-right paradigm offers relatively little utility in the debate over privacy.

Rand Paul, Ron Wyden, and Bernie Sanders all want to reduce the scope of surveillance and reduce the powers of government. Does that mean a Republican, Democrat, and an independent socialist all want a more conservative privacy policy?

Another issue in determining the center on privacy is the gulf between Washington, D.C. and the American people. While a majority of Congress still support broad surveillance powers, the American public generally does not.

One poll conducted in January showed that 70 percent of Americans believe the invasion of privacy was not a suitable price to pay for safety. Yet, there is very little discussion of privacy and the NSA in the context of the 2014 midterm elections. Not very many incumbents are in danger of losing their seats because of the surveillance policies they support.

However, some polls do show that respondents do not object very stringently to surveillance when it is purportedly for fighting terrorism, but are still concerned about their privacy. Such contradictory results may indicate that while skeptical, the center of the public is in flux. Such ambiguity works to protect incumbent politicians who otherwise might have incentive to bridge their separation from the public in the matter.

Reform typically comes slowly in Washington. The revelations of Edward Snowden have done much to alter attitudes about surveillance, but so far has not grown into anything more than a smattering of bills and rhetoric from President Obama calling for a reduction in surveillance. Barring an extraordinary event that exposes more of the scope of surveillance, the status quo may very likely remain in place.