“The sleep of reason breeds monsters.”
The Gallup organization has released yet another dog-bites-man opinion poll which found that Americans’ confidence in Congress has fallen to a record low of 10 percent. This result is a continuation of a decades-long trend of declining approval ratings for Congress, and is justifiable based on that institution’s shabby behavior. Wall Street’s seizure of our national legislature in the 1990s and the consolidation of its control during the 2000s was at bottom a conspiracy of both parties to surrender popular self-government to the forces of plutocracy. Congress has reduced itself to diversionary behavior and the news media dutifully play along: abortion bills, Benghazi scandals, and similar emotional fodder crafted to stir up the animal juices get maximum press attention. Meanwhile, a bill that would effectively deregulate American financial institutions’ overseas derivatives trades – remember the London Whale? – passed the House of Representatives by a 301-124 margin amid a near-blackout by the media.
While Congress’s dismal approval rating was the lede in virtually all reporting on the Gallup poll, there are several other findings in that poll that establish a pattern. Labor unions? They are near the bottom, at 20 percent. The print and televised media? They clock in at 23 percent, deservedly so, for reasons explained in the paragraph above. Public Schools? They do better, but only relatively, at 32 percent.
What do those institutions have in common? They are all bodies necessary for enlightened self-government and the self-improvement of citizens. And they are all perceived to be failing in their roles, such that most poll respondents lack confidence in them. There is a good deal of justification in the public’s view, but it cannot be healthy for a democracy if its instrument of representational government, its free press, its common provision of education, and the main organizational means by which working people improve their lives, are all held in such low regard.
What else was striking about the poll? The military, predictably, was once again at the top, with 76 percent of respondents expressing “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in it. This is an institution whose budget (exclusive of war funding) nearly doubled in the 2000s and which spends almost as much money as the rest of the world combined, yet has had a curious incapacity to win wars, as opposed to keeping them lucratively protracted. The scandals involving Halliburton, endemic sexual abuse and miscarriages of justice, the abrupt fall from near-deity status by General David Petraeus – all these things seem to have bounced off the consciousness of the public like pebbles against steel plate. So much for our revered founders’ distrust of standing armies.
It is also worth noting that the military, police and religion constitute three of the top four categories in public esteem. And what do these institutions have in common? They are all presumably necessary as long as societies feel the need for national defense and public order, and as long as individuals seek spiritual solace, but they are all undeniably authoritarian. The military possesses its own legal system whose principal tenet, “different spanks for different ranks,” is no less powerful for being unwritten. As H.L. Mencken observed in his recollections as a Baltimore city reporter, cops tend to harbor the assumption that a suspect is ipso facto guilty, and that evidence just might need to be planted to sway a jury. As for religion, papal infallibility and justification by faith alone may be sound doctrine, but they do not lead to conclusions drawn from facts, reason and evidence. In a self-governing society, these institutions’ claims need to be treated with judicious skepticism. The American public’s derision of the institutions of self-government is understandable, if troubling; its relative approval (amounting, in the case of the military, to adulation) of authoritarian bodies is less forgivable.
While it may be an exaggeration to see the beginnings of an authoritarian mass psychology based just on one opinion poll, there is some supporting evidence. Whether the initial high popular support for the invasion of Iraq, the increasing public approval of government surveillance, or the strong support – almost unique among advanced democracies – for draconian incarceration and the death penalty, the authoritarian temptation lies just beneath the surface of Americans’ compensatory boastfulness about freedom and liberty, usually reduced to kitsch demonstrations involving rattlesnake flags and Lee Greenwood lyrics.
It is a psychology at once absolutist and schizophrenic.