According to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center, the political divide has become far more polarized since 1994. While there used to be a greater share of “split-ticket voters” who voted for both Democrats and Republicans, Americans have started to show more consistent ideological thinking. They are also showing more animosity toward the opposition: 27% of Democrats and 36% of Republicans believe that the other party is a “threat to the nation’s wellbeing.” And this survey was taken two years before the 2016 election!
Party affiliation has become a quick label used to define a person’s entire belief system, from economics to morality. It seems reasonable to infer that this is why more people are getting passionate about politics, even if they do not necessarily care about the electoral or legislative processes. Although many—Pew suggests most—people do care about the implications of their vote on American society, an increasing number care only that their side wins. This isn’t just manifesting in who gets elected, it’s also leading to more ideological behavior in government departments and agencies, including intelligence. Let’s look at how political divisions affect the intelligence community via the president and via the public.
The leaders of most government-affiliated intelligence agencies are nominated by the president and confirmed to their appointments by the Senate. The president is not going to (intentionally) nominate people who will interfere with policy goals, so they usually choose nominees with similar ideological beliefs (checks and balances are important here, as Congress can block a nominee from being appointed). There is an incentive for the appointee to do as they are told: intelligence leaders can be dismissed from their position if they do not comply with the president’s orders, as in the case of former FBI Director James Comey.
Comey was appointed by President Barack Obama, a Democrat, even though Comey is a Republican. This choice was likely made as a symbol of bipartisanship, and because it would be easier to get him confirmed. It’s worth noting that Comey was preceded as FBI Director by Robert Mueller. Mueller, also a Republican, was chosen as independent counsel to investigate allegations of Russian interference during the 2016 election. Although he shares the president’s party affiliation, Democrats have supported him because they value his record of integrity. It also helps that Mueller is considered to be ideologically incompatible with Republican President Donald Trump, another effect of polarization.
The political divide does not just affect the intelligence community by means of the president, however. Americans who identify more closely and consistently with a political party tend not to trust the opposition’s “fake news.” Hard-right leaning Republicans are less likely to accept the facts as presented by a Democrat-appointed CIA Director, and vice versa. It used to be assumed that appointees would naturally lean liberal or conservative, but that they would not undermine their office with inappropriately partisan intentions. The increasing ideological divide has led to an erosion of this trust. If trust is not rebuilt, what is now a fog of suspicion could become an impasse where the intelligence of one party is viewed as nothing more than propaganda by the other.
Shared trauma has a tendency to unite people, and nationalism usually surges in the aftermath of attacks against fellow Americans. This is especially true of terrorism. Following 9/11, the intelligence community’s ability to collect information on citizens and foreign nationals was expanded. The public, especially Republicans, generally supported this as being in the national interest; however, they did not know how much intelligence was being gathered until a former NSA and CIA employee, Edward Snowden, leaked classified material that he felt was in the public interest. The response to the Snowden files, as well as other leaked documents, has largely fallen along party lines: conservatives tend to believe the leaks are treasonous, while liberals tend to believe the intelligence community has been operating a “surveillance-industrial complex” that violates personal freedoms. Because the intelligence community relies on congressional approval for how and what they collect, voter ideology and divisiveness will affect future intelligence operations.