Monmouth: Think you know who's concerned about the "deep state"? Think again

Concern over the so-called “deep state” isn’t just confined to the demographics that Hillary Clinton most laments. In fact, it’s not even confined to Trump country, or Republicans either. A new poll from Monmouth University shows large majorities of all political persuasions worried about an unaccountable cabal that controls the federal government, especially when it comes to surveillance:

A majority of the American public believe that the U.S. government engages in widespread monitoring of its own citizens and worry that the U.S. government could be invading their own privacy. The Monmouth University Poll also finds a large bipartisan majority who feel that national policy is being manipulated or directed by a “Deep State” of unelected government officials. Americans of color on the center and left and NRA members on the right are among those most worried about the reach of government prying into average citizens’ lives.

Just over half of the public is either very worried (23%) or somewhat worried (30%) about the U.S. government monitoring their activities and invading their privacy. There are no significant partisan differences – 57% of independents, 51% of Republicans, and 50% of Democrats are at least somewhat worried the federal government is monitoring their activities. Another 24% of the American public are not too worried and 22% are not at all worried.

Fully 8-in-10 believe that the U.S. government currently monitors or spies on the activities of American citizens, including a majority (53%) who say this activity is widespread and another 29% who say such monitoring happens but is not widespread. Just 14% say this monitoring does not happen at all. There are no substantial partisan differences in these results.

Even without the term “deep state,” majorities in all three political categories agree that unelected officials hold too much power in Washington: 59% of both Democrats and Republicans, and 62% of independents. When Monmouth provides a definition that tends toward the conspiratorial, it has a surprising impact on those levels of agreement. They go up, also across the board:

Few Americans (13%) are very familiar with the term “Deep State;” another 24% are somewhat familiar, while 63% say they are not familiar with this term. However, when the term is described as a group of unelected government and military officials who secretly manipulate or direct national policy, nearly 3-in-4 (74%) say they believe this type of apparatus exists in Washington. This includes 27% who say it definitely exists and 47% who say it probably exists. Only 1-in-5 say it does not exist (16% probably not and 5% definitely not). Belief in the probable existence of a Deep State comes from more than 7-in-10 Americans in each partisan group, although Republicans (31%) and independents (33%) are somewhat more likely than Democrats (19%) to say that the Deep State definitely exists.

For the record, the partisan breakdown among those who believe a “deep state” definitely or probably exists as a secret apparatus within government is: 72% of Republicans, 72% of Democrats, and 79% of independents. There is no gender gap on this question either, with 71% of men and 77% of women buying into a secret deep state. Even ideologically, it’s a consensus position: 72% of self-identified liberals, 70% of moderates, and 79% of conservatives. Seventy-six percent of voters in Trump-plus-10 counties believe in a secret deep state, but 71% of voters in Hillary-plus-10 counties do too.

That’s fascinating — and appalling, if understandable. It’s not just the revelation of the Section 215 program by Edward Snowden that has eroded public confidence in self-governance, either. When James Clapper lies to Congress in public testimony about a secret surveillance program’s reach and then remains in control of it, what are people to think? Before then, conservatives continually warned about an unaccountable bureaucracy that had undermined accountability and personal liberties, although it was mostly just conservatives and the complaints didn’t involve secrecy. Now everyone appears to have grasped the dangers of unaccountable bureaucracies, even if they’re taking different lessons from the revelation.

This is one reason why Trump keeps harping on this topic, especially in relation to Robert Mueller and the Russia-collusion probe. It resonates with voters who feel disconnected from their government. It explains — or at least gives one explanation — why a generally unpopular candidate won a surprise victory over an establishment figure in the last presidential election, a lesson that Democrats might want to mull before deciding to leap on the Joe Biden bandwagon for 2020. Perceptions with this level of bipartisan consensus are rare in American public life, and it might end up being the most predictive strain of political thought for the next few electoral cycles.