Americans do not want a new Patriot Act, but opinions differ by party

by Lucas Pyle (Class of 2021)

On January 6th, right-wing extremists stormed the Capitol building to stop the democratic process of certifying President Biden’s victory and overturn the November election results. In the aftermath of the violence seen in D.C., different institutions enacted measures to prevent further acts and incitement of violence. Public security was bolstered for the inauguration of President Biden. Twitter banned President Trump from posting on their service and Google removed Parler, a conservative social network platform, from their app store. While no attacks on the Capitol have occurred since the insurrection, the question remains whether the United States should pass new legislation to prevent further domestic terror attacks.

Since the attack, there has been public debate over this issue. Some, like political scientist Norman Ornstein, believe that the government should pass new measures to prevent further large-scale acts of violence from right-wing groups. Democrats and Republicans on the House Homeland Security Committee support passing new domestic-terrorism legislation. Others disagree, with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez objecting to the idea of new legislation on counter-terrorism.

Some have brought up concerns that new domestic-terrorism legislation could have the same effect as the USA PATRIOT Act did in 2001. Passed with bi-partisan support after the September 11th terrorist attack, this legislation allowed the United States government to surveil people’s phone records, bank records, emails, and internet activity without the approval of a judge. The ACLU has argued that it violated the Constitution and stripped civil liberties from Americans.

The American people did not seem to share this concern. Public opinion on the Patriot Act during the early 2000’s was constant, with most Americans feeling comfortable with the legislation. Opinion on the Patriot Act has changed on party lines, with Democrats becoming more supportive of the bill over time.

In the wake of the January 6th attack on the Capitol and the ongoing debate over whether the US should pass new anti-terrorism legislation, does the American public want a new Patriot Act? The data suggests that Americans do not want a new Patriot Act. In a poll fielded by Tufts Public Opinion lab in February of this year, respondents were asked if they would support a new Patriot Act that “expands law enforcement abilities to surveil American citizen’s phone calls, text messages, and web searches to prevent further incitements and acts of violence on the US Capitol”. The poll used 1,408 adult respondents recruited by Lucid. About 54% of Americans oppose the United States government passing a new Patriot Act (21% somewhat and 33% strongly), with 13% of people unsure. Only 33% of Americans support a second Patriot Act (19% somewhat and 14% strongly). These results are weighted to be nationally representative.

Support for a new Patriot Act does change based on one’s political party. Independents and Republicans oppose a new Patriot Act, with 52% of Independents (18% somewhat and 34% strongly) and 68% of Republicans (22% somewhat and 46% strongly) not in favor of this idea. Only 21% of Independents (13% somewhat and 8% strongly) and 26% of Republicans (16% somewhat and 10% strongly) support passing this bill. Democrats, on the other hand, are equally divided on this issue. 44% of Democrats (24% somewhat and 20% strongly) support a new Patriot Act, while 44% of Democrats (22% somewhat and 22% strongly) oppose it.

The results from the multinomial regression and predicted probabilities further show that Democrats are more likely to support a new Patriot Act. The predicted probability of a Democratc supporting the Patriot Act is 53%. This drops to 41% for Independents and 30% for Republicans. For opposing the legislation, the predicted probability for a Democrat is 40%. This increases to 52% for Independents and 63% for Republicans.

Other factors apart from party identification determine one’s support for a new Patriot Act. The linear regression below controlled for political party, age, gender, education, race, if someone had watched CNN in the past week, and if someone had watched Fox News in the past week. The results show that one’s political party, gender, race, and if they watch CNN predicts their opinion on this issue. This linear regression excludes those who responded “Not Sure”. Independents are 9 points less likely to support a new Patriot Act while Republicans are 13 points less likely. Women are 8 points less likely than men to want this legislation renewed. For someone whose race is not White, Black, or Hispanic, they are 15 points less likely to support this proposal. CNN viewers had the highest support for a new Patriot Act. Someone who has watched CNN in the past week are 27 points more likely to be in favor of the Patriot Act. Being White, Black, or Latino is not statistically determinative in predicting one’s approval of a new Patriot Act. Age, education, and whether someone has watched Fox News in the past week are other factors that do not determine one’s response to this question.

These results show that while the American public does not want a new Patriot Act, one’s political party does impact how someone views this question. Democrats have become more comfortable with this legislation, continuing the trend seen in the Pew Research Center poll. It is possible that the framing of the question plays an important role in determining who supports this bill. Since the question referenced an attack organized by right-wing groups, it makes sense that more Democrats support increased security measures to prevent further violence from the right. Had the framing of the question included left-wing groups like ANTIFA, it is possible that more Republicans would have supported renewing the Patriot Act.

Whether or not a new Patriot Act will be passed is another story. While President Biden has considered proposing new domestic terrorism legislation, nothing has been formally drafted. Yet the order to keep National Guard troops in D.C. until May shows that the Biden administration is concerned about violence at the Capitol. The debate on the constitutionality of anti-terrorism laws and increased surveilance will grow if this matter is brought to a vote. It is uncertain whether domestic-terrorism legislation would pass. Public opinion on this issue, however, is clear: Americans do not want a new Patriot Act.

The Tufts Public Opinion Lab (TPOL) is dedicated to studying contemporary controversies in American public opinion using quantitative data analysis.

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