… 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… . 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.” [++]