Shock poll: NSA gets highest favorable rating from ... young adults?

Harry Enten of Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight thinks this is an outlier. I’m inclined to agree, as it defies all expectations after a year and a half of post-Snowden NSA polling. Gotta flag it for you, though, as a possible early sign of a trend, in case these results start being reproduced elsewhere. If accurate, it’s a big deal, not just as evidence that Rand Paul has badly misjudged the mood among the younger voters whom he’s pitching to but as a sign that NSA reform won’t be any more likely in the years ahead than it is now.


W-w-w-what? The first Pew poll taken after Snowden started leaking in June 2013 showed the 18-29 group much more closely divided on the “privacy versus security” question than older voters. A month later, 60 percent of the same group said they were more concerned the feds would go too far in restricting civil liberties versus 29 percent who said they feared they wouldn’t go far enough in the name of security. No other demographic topped 51 percent support for civil liberties. Months later, in January 2014, 57 percent of young adults said they thought Snowden had served the public interest by leaking. No other age group saw a clear majority in support.

Here’s how consistently the 18-29 demographic opposed the NSA circa June 2013:


Lotta thinkpieces were written about that at the time. The young are more libertarian by nature! The young don’t remember 9/11! The young are immersed in technology and grasp the risks of surveillance better! Some or all of that is probably true. In which case, how do you explain the result up top? Is there any reason not to believe it’s an outlier? If so, what explains the sudden change from a pro-Snowden to a pro-NSA stance among young adults in the intervening year and a half? We could float a few half-baked theories: E.g., as the Snowden revelations have faded, young adults’ concerns about surveillance have faded with them. Or, as ISIS has gained ground in Mesopotamia and jihadis have targeted western defenders of free speech, the young have gradually shifted towards a pro-security view. Or, as the young see more and more of their data mined by tech companies, they’ve become sanguine about Uncle Sam mining it too. None of that explains, though, why they would have shifted so sharply so soon, and more than other older demographics — with senior citizens now the most likely(!) to view the NSA unfavorably. The best I can do to explain it is to guess that there’s some sort of partisan effect at work: The young lean Democratic while the old lean Republican, and so as time has passed and Obama has weighed in to defend the NSA, both groups have realigned with their parties. When the Snowden leaks first started coming, it was more of a security/privacy issue than an “Obama issue.” As the debate turned towards how aggressive Obama should be in reforming the agency, it became more of a traditional left/right dispute. It may be that both age groups now view the agency less as “the NSA” than “Obama’s NSA” with the new numbers reflecting their relative sympathies for The One.

Nah, probably just an outlier. Oh, by the way, in this same poll, Democrats give the tea-party-harassin’ IRS a solid 62 percent favorable rating, just in case you naively thought that scandal would transcend partisan lines too.

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David Strom 5:21 PM on March 31, 2023