In today’s America, I know one has to be careful when one says that our political situation now is worse now than it’s ever been — because some historian will drag out analogies with the founding fathers or how nasty our politics were right before the Civil War, or during the Great Depression — and I’m not prepared to argue that case. But in recent memory, the state of our political discourse is certainly worse than it’s ever been.
It’s not just politics; it’s well known that confidence in major institutions in the United States is at an all-time low. So, for example, consider the following polls from Gallup, which show that people who register as having a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in major institutions includes the following numbers:
- The Church and Organized Religion: 36%
- US Congress: 11%
- The Presidency: 38%
- The Supreme Court: 38%
- Big business: 23%
- Small Business: 68%
- Public schools: 29%
- Newspapers: 23%
- Television News: 18%
- The Military: 73%
- Banks and Financial System: 30%
- The Criminal Justice System: 24%
- The Medical System: 36%
The lowest numbers here belong to the US Congress, which for quite some time has polled lower than probably any other major institution in the United States.1 In fact, only 4% of Americans have a “great deal” of confidence in Congress as an institution.2
On the other end of the spectrum, the military — which probably hit highs in unpopularity back during the Vietnam War era — is now consistently the most popular major institution, with a 73% positive rating. The military’s rating surely wouldn’t be so high if the draft still existed, and middle and upper class kids had to contribute a couple of years of their lives to military service. It’s easy to love the military if you don’t actually have to be involved with them. Just saying.
Another institution that scores in positive territory is small business, clocking in at 68%. Not so good for big business, however, which only gets 23% support, even though a lot more people work for big businesses than small businesses. Maybe that’s why.
The Presidency and the Supreme Court clock in at an equal 38%. Those aren’t good numbers for the Supreme Court; I’m surprised that the numbers are still that good for the Presidency.
When did the downturn in confidence in our political institutions, and especially Congress occur? That is, of course, open to debate. I personally think that a seminal event in the current trajectory was Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America.”
If you don’t remember the Contract with America, let’s take a short stroll down memory lane. The year is 1994, two years into Bill Clinton’s first term, and Newt Gingrich, the House Minority Leader, sees the possibility of recapturing the House for the Republicans after forty years of Democratic rule. Democratic support has eroded substantially in the South, and mid-term elections for a first term President are usually an opportune time for the opposing party. The Contract — which included eight reforms the Republicans promised to enact, and ten bills they promised to bring to floor debate and votes — was originally hatched in the conservative Heritage Foundation.
The Contract was a platter of red meat designed to appeal as viscerally as possible not to voters intellect, but to their emotions: it included a balanced budget amendment, a “truth-in-sentencing” anti-crime package along with restoration of the death penalty; slashing welfare benefits; limits on punitive damages and a “loser pays” provision for unsuccessful litigation; a prohibition from allowing U.S. troops to serve under United Nations command; capital gains cuts and unfunded mandate reform; and an amendment to the Constitution that would impose a 12 year limit on all members of Congress (six terms for Congressmen, two terms for Senators). The Contract was spectacularly successful, swinging 54 seats from the Democrats to the Republicans, thereby giving the Grand Old Party a 26-seat majority. The Republicans also gained nine seats in the Senate, swinging the upper house to a 52:48 majority.
But it wasn’t just the content of the Contract, it was the rhetoric accompanying it that was the real red meat. It was all about “traditional family values” (whatever those are); it was about replacing “career politicians” with “citizen legislators”; it was about requiring “personal responsibility” from all those black and Hispanic welfare cheats; it was about “middle class” tax cuts in capital gains rates (actually for those making $200,000 or more); it was about “common sense” legal reforms (mostly reforms that helped businesses at the expense of consumers). Certainly Gingrich and his friends at the Heritage Foundation weren’t the first to use rhetoric in their political aims, but they did it so much better and with much less conscience than their contemporaries on the left.
It also helped to spawn the Fox News Channel and right wing talk radio, a phenomenon that accelerated after the September 11, 2001 attacks. It brought us Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter, and Rush Limbaugh. Roger Ailes’ Fox News Channel, which is essentially a branch of the Republican party, has thoroughly mastered the art of propaganda, beginning with their famous “fair and balanced” slogan. The essence of propaganda is, of course, to repeat something that is utterly without merit with full confidence. And to repeat the lie over and over again.
If there is a slight lean to port in the mainstream — or as Conservatives so love calling it, the “lamestream” media — then Fox News Channel’s list to starboard is so severe that it’s a miracle that the whole enterprise doesn’t just keel over. But you have to give Fox News Channel their due: while other media outlets have been striving for impartiality, their red meat approach to journalism has built them a loyal following, becoming the dominant cable news network in the United States, with more viewers than CNN and MSNBC combined. In the years since it’s 1996 inception, Fox News Channel has perfected its particular brand of incendiary journalism, replete with its annual “War on Christmas” hysterics.
As an example of how Fox New operates, by the time 2012 campaign rolled around, its pundits were fond of throwing around the word “socialism” and applying it to the Obama administration. For example, when Paul Ryan was announced as the Vice-Presidential nominee, his former mentor at the University of Miami in Ohio, Professor Richard Hart, accused Obama of “promoting socialism.”
Professor Hart is an idiot. Or more likely, he’s pretending to be an idiot. Professor Hart, he of the University’s economics department, surely knows that as conceived by Marx, “socialism” was a transitional period in the dialectic between Capitalism and Communism. But more to the point, as practiced in the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries, “socialism” was characterized by planned economies and state ownership of the “means of production.” It was the failure of economic planning that brought two-hour lines to buy toilet paper in the former Soviet Union. If Obama were really a socialist, he would have promoted a single-payer health care system that essentially put private health insurers out of business, or at least “nationalized” them as part of the federal bureaucracy.
The truth is that Obama is no more a socialist than George W. Bush was a fascist. Yet, there were no mainstream Democrats calling Bush a fascist eight years ago, and you can imagine the howls of protest from the Republican party if they had. Informed Republicans know that Obama isn’t a socialist; they also know the emotional impact it has on the general public to call him one. When Professor Hart said that Obama’s policies are “socialist,” it was a red herring, red meat, the reintroduction of the red scare.
Eroding Confidence in Religion
If the gap between the rich and poor has been widening, then so has the gap between non-theists and the faithful. Especially the evangelical faithful. While attempting to “count” believers worldwide is a fallible endeavor, the numbers look something like the following:
|No Religion/Atheism||925 million||14.23%|
|Shenism, Taoism and Chinese “traditional” religions||390 million||6.00%|
|Tribal religions||232 million||3.57%|
|New thought religions||103 million||1.58%|
The United States is, as is well known. a remarkably religious country, although religious identification has, contrary to popular belief, actually been declining in the years since the end of World War II.
In 2011, a CBS News poll found that 77% of adults in the United States still believed in angels. And that figure includes the atheists and agnostics among us. If we count just Christians the number rises to 88%; if we count only evangelicals, the number jumps to 95%. According to a Gallup poll, since 1997 somewhere between 72% and 83% of American adults still believe in a literal heaven and hell. In the year 2010, the Gallup organization polled adult Americans once again to ascertain how many of them believed that the Earth is literally 6000 years old and that humans were created essentially in their current form. The answer was 46%.
Given that we now live in the year 2020, these statistics are remarkable. Given that the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old, and the Universe about 13.8 billion, these beliefs are extraordinary. But this is the country we live in, perhaps the most technologically advanced country in the world, with almost half of the population believing literally in the Biblical story of creation.
Luckily, it’s not just me who thinks that this kind of belief is nuts. In a 2018 article published in US News, entitled Religion Needs a Savior, a formerly Muslim young woman notes that “systematic suppression of critical thinking is what makes” young Muslims ripe to join groups like the Islamic State Group, or to become suicide bombers. That same article notes that in a recent Best Countries survey of more than 21,000 people from all regions of the world, the majority of respondents identified religion as the “primary source of most global conflict today.” The article then goes on to note that when societies splinter, they generally splinter along “tribal lines,” and that much of the time those tribes are based on religious conviction.
Systematic suppression of critical thinking. That may really be the essence of my objection to so much of what qualifies as religious thought these days.
Heaven, Hell and Other Myths
According to a 2005 Barbara Walters ABC News Special, nine out of ten Americans literally believe in heaven and hell. This is remarkable. Heaven and hell is a child’s concept; it is the ultimate example of what psychologists call “black and white” thinking. Under this doctrine, you can be a mass murderer but still get into Heaven if you just repent and accept God; or, you can be the Dali Lama and suffer eternal damnation regardless of what else you’ve done in your life, simply because you haven’t accepted Christ as your personal savior. Not to put too fine a point on this, but an all-powerful God could have generated as many offspring as he chose. To give up Jesus was no real sacrifice for God. Conversely, that Jesus had to suffer the agony of crucifixion and ask God why he has “forsaken” him should prove that Jesus was no God.
Back in 2012, when the tragic events happened at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, many people comforted themselves with the belief that all those innocent children who were mercilessly assassinated by another armed-to-the-teeth psychotic blowhole somehow found their way to heaven (even though several of them were Jewish). Unfortunately, my friends, that is no more likely than that the 9-11 hijackers who flew the planes were greeted in the afterlife by seventy-two virgins. While I have every sympathy with these comforting beliefs, the fact remains that they are equally improbable, which is to say, almost totally impossible. You’re more likely to win the Powerball lottery than find an idyllic after-life, and we already know how likely you are to win the Powerball lottery. Angels are equally as unlikely to exist as Heaven or Hell. It’s not that we may not have an experience of them; many people do. But by now it should be clear that our minds have an infinite capacity for self-deception. That has already been proven scientifically to those who are interested enough to inquire.
- Of course, one of the ironies with the US Congress is that while the institution has a whole polls very lowly, individual Congressmen and Congresswomen still get generally high marks from their constituents, and are re-elected quite consistently. It’s the people who are not their constituents who have a low opinion of them and of the institution as a whole.
- Count me among the Americans who does not have a “great deal” of confidence in the institution, although I probably have a better opinion of Congress than most Americans. Part of that may have to do with the fact that I was working as a staff attorney in the Massachusetts State Legislature (known as the “Great and General Court”) for many years, and have some understanding of and sympathy for how legislatures actually function.