Wednesday, October 3, 2012


Don’t expect to hear much about this.

We Americans have a short attention span, focusing on today while avoiding any consideration of the long term.  So our presidential elections, the few timely issues raised notwithstanding, are more about the horse race than anything else.  Yes jobs, taxes, the deficit and our place in the world are important.  Certain religious groups still lobby against abortion, contraception and same-sex marriage but probably with less electoral traction than four years ago.  To be sure you have your own view of what will move you to the polls in November, but I would guess none of us will be thinking very much about the larger picture and the long term.  That’s a mistake.

As the Supreme Court began its new session earlier this week, NY Times reporters Adam Liptak and Allison Kopicki noted that its approval rating had fallen to 44%.  It had been as high as 66% in the 1980s.  However low the current number may seem, this past June The Gallup Organization, which regularly tracks our confidence in institutions, reported an even lower one: 37%.  Confidence may be more telling than approval.

The Court’s particular fall from approval grace may be attributed to a number of factors.  Most immediate, suggest the Times writers is their 5-4 Affordable Healthcare Act decision taken in the midst of an election season where the legislation is at some issue.  More generally, especially since its 2000 Gore v. Bush ruling, the Justices seem to have lost some of their non-partisan sheen, if they ever had it in the first place.  Consequently, despite our dedication to the rule of law as something bordering on the sacred, our view of the Court and its decisions depends greatly on our own political views.  That purely partisan take may have reached a higher level than in the past, but it’s not necessarily new.  Over the years polled by Gallup (1973-2012) the Justices only topped 50% confidence a few times, the high mark of 56% having been reached in 1988.

Gallup Organization proprietary research.
How we view the High Court is important, but I’d suggest more so is seeing its confidence deficit in a larger and far more disturbing context.  The Gallup study measures the public’s confidence — Great deal/Quite a lot — in sixteen institutions.  On those measures only three had greater than a 50% combined vote of confidence topped by the military at 75%.  Even organized religion, to which we pay such lip service, mustered only 44%.  As has been widely and repeatedly reported elsewhere, Congress stood dead last at only 13%.  Nine of the sixteen institutions score less than a combined 30% and the presidency being contested by Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, like the Court, garners only 37%. 

The high regard we have for the military may in some measure reflect their continued engagement in active combat and an appropriate show of support for those who stand in harm’s way on our behalf.  Viet Nam resentments projected on our service personnel are a thing of the past.  We also give a majority nod to small business (66%) and to the police (56%).  The first may reflect its rhetorical portrayal as the good guys of business and the second because we still admire the cop “on the corner” protecting us from the bad guys.  We have less faith in our criminal justice system (29%), in those charged with keeping us healthy (41%) or educating our children (29%).  Banks and organized labor do equally badly ( also 29%).  And Congress’s appalling basement rating clearly reflects the alarmingly and highly publicized dysfunctional gridlock of the recent years.

Why does all of this matter?  America has long prided itself on rugged individualism, the spirit that helped us conquer inhospitable territory and turn it into productive farmland; that unleashed invention and entrepreneurs.  It is an idea that has lent some (I think misguided) romantic fervor to libertarians past and present and that can-do spirit that makes us potent competitors.  But individualism can go only so far.  A society requires strong and effective institutions, the “us” not just the “me”.  Ultimately those institutions can only work if we have confidence in them, something that has been lost.  The numbers that Gallup and others report point to a society that seems to be breaking down or at the least faces great risk.  It bespeaks a loss of community — implying everyone for her/himself in the singular rather than for each other in the plural.

It’s fascinating to me that Americans seem to have higher regard for ex-presidents than presidents — Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.  Once these figures are separated from their institution they seem to gain in stature, respect and support.  For a somewhat different reason, incumbent Senators and Congress people continue to do relatively better in elections than challengers.  We don’t admire Congress but do like our own representative.  We separate the individual from the institution and seemingly all is forgiven.  Of course, much of that is in our mind.  Being one of 100 or worse 432 means that individuals can do almost nothing of substance on their own.  They need the institution to address large issues and to accomplish anything of import.

The often-repeated statement that we are a country evenly divided — split in half — is often accompanied by the modifier polarized.  I don’t know that divided quite describes our situation as reflected in these no-confidence numbers.  Torn asunder, fragmented, might be more accurate.  With no majority consensus regarding most of our institutions, one might rightly assume that we lack confidence for a wide variety of reasons — we’re not necessarily together in this.  Equally so, with results like these, it’s clear that dissatisfaction crosses party lines or individual ideologies.

There are two ways of looking at the confidence numbers and neither is good.  The first is most obvious.  Institutions across the board have underperformed and disappointed.  For example, in the wake of the financial crisis we’ve lost trust in the banks seeing them more as our adversaries, and selfish ones at that, rather than as our allies.  We idealize the middle class but no longer look up to two of its most iconic representative institutions: unions (21%) and public schools (29%).  That explains, in part, the backlash against public employees, which in many cases evidences a resentment of their perceived protected status.  But of course, whether it’s fair to blame them or not, unions have not been able to insure either basic benefits or job security.  Our schools have fallen far short in educating our young to meet the challenges of the times and not only in math and science. Institutions, regardless of who they are, hold out a promise of performance.  Few seem to deliver on it.

The other side, and in the end perhaps more critical, is that we have withdrawn our support from institutions and thus weakened them.  Something essential has been lost in citizenship.  After all, while we may deride the recently articulated notion that businesses are people, the truth is that institutions are a reflection of us.   When we withhold our trust and our support we undermine them and the resultant lack of confidence bespeaks what amounts to a self-fulfilling prophecy.  We despair about the state of our institutions, but don’t seem willing to do anything about righting them.  In fact, we have detached and deactivated ourselves.  In doing so, we are contributing to exactly the weakness that we so deplore.

They say this election is about our fundamental values, how we see the role of government in our society and lives.  Maybe so, but I don’t think its all about government, the scope and extent of our safety net or the balance of our budget.  What really is in front of us is setting a course in rebuilding the basic institutional fabric that holds us together, or should.  That issue won’t get much airtime as we move toward November 6th.  For sure, it won’t be a topic of debate and that’s’ the problem.  Tin cans can be kicked down the road for only so long and this  — the state of our institutions — is one of them.  A two-ton can that may well out-weigh the deficit that gets so much attention.

I call them Transcenders.  To brand them nonbelievers is to assume religion and its particular belief system the human default.  Worse it suggests that those who have left religion behind lack beliefs.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  For more read my book.

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