“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. That is why health insurance and restrictions on carrying loaded weapons in public are intolerable tyrannies, while all-encompassing surveillance, life in prison for growing marijuana, or assassination without judicial process are praiseworthy. Paradoxically, the authoritarian personality embodies anarchic rebellion and craven submission at the same time. It is, as Richard Hofstadter said, a disordered relationship to authority, “characterized by an inability to find other modes for human relationship than those of more or less complete domination or submission.”
While the United States has deeper democratic roots than many other countries, those roots are not immune to atrophy – or deliberate poisoning. The political and social drift since the twin shocks of 9/11 and the financial meltdown should be cautionary, as should the history of other societies. The German Weimar Republic and the French Third Republic, for all their differences from each other and from the United States, both suffered from terminal political polarization, endless culture wars and the nagging suspicion that their best days were behind them. The gridlocked parliamentary institutions were in disrepute, and enemies – foreign and domestic – were imagined to be everywhere. Only the army, it seemed, was a “national” institution that upheld the country’s honor. In Germany’s case, the army got everything it demanded during the First World War, including a virtual dictatorship over the country, yet it botched the war and then washed its hands, passing off the mess to politicians while claiming it had been “stabbed in the back.” The German people, buffeted by economic and social crisis and succumbing to the authoritarian temptation, blamed not the army but the politicians who had to clean up the consequences of the army’s decisions.
The French Third Republic was wracked for a dozen years by the Dreyfus Affair. When the evidence became overwhelming that Dreyfus was wrongly accused and may have been framed by the army, half of France still clung passionately to the belief that he must be guilty: the honor of the French Army dare not be impugned, and if an innocent man had to be sent to Devil’s Island, so be it. The poison released by the Dreyfus Affair festered for decades; many officers, along with their sympathizers in the business class and in Catholic circles, became hostile to the Republic and its democratic institutions. It is a mistake to say that the nature of the Vichy regime that followed the Republic was imposed purely by military defeat; the seeds of authoritarianism and the flight from reason had been planted long before.
The seductive power of authoritarianism is particularly strong during times of economic and social stress. Seemingly, the reptilian brain becomes dominant in a crisis; for every government that instituted a New Deal or something like it in the wake of the Great Depression, a half dozen fell into fascism, military rule or some other authoritarian form of “national unity.”
The situation in the United States is not as extreme as in the two historical examples outlined above. But how many Americans, 40 years on, still believe the military could have won in Vietnam if the politicians had let them? Or that William L. Calley was an American hero rather than a murderer? The virus of authoritarianism is a flight from reason, a goose-stepping reflex and a search for simplistic, usually conspiratorial, explanations for complex events. It is no wonder this mindset esteems institutions that are based on hierarchy and various forms of coercion, regardless of those institutions’ success or failure. That this mindset derides institutions of self-government and enlightenment and fails to see its own responsibility for those institutions’ serious shortcomings is equally significant and bears watching.