In light of the upcoming Independence Day holiday here in the United States, former congressman Newt Gingrich paused to reflect on the attitudes of the American populace, and he is deeply concerned. Citing a recent poll indicating Americans’ trust in their benevolent overlords has fallen to dangerously low levels, Mr. Gingrich asks, “On America’s birthday, do we still believe in America?”
I guess it all depends on one’s definition of “America.” Judging from the Gingrich piece, I can only conclude that he thinks the words “America” and “government” are actually synonyms:
Only 30% had “a great deal” or “quite a lot of confidence” in the Supreme Court. Just 29% felt that way about the presidency. And an abysmal 7% had faith in the Congress.
Think about what this means. Our most trusted national institution, the unelected Supreme Court, has the confidence of almost (but not quite) one out of every three Americans. The presidency is slightly weaker and the Congress collapses to fewer than 1 in 10 Americans.
Gallup also did some comparative analysis using findings from its World Poll and the trends regarding Americans’ views on government are even more sobering. In the poll, 79% of the American people believe corruption is widespread in government. That is a jump of 20 points since 2006, when 59% of the country thought government was corrupt (a year when the country was dissatisfied enough that the ruling Republicans lost control of both the House and Senate).
The Gallup analysis demonstrates that Americans are more likely to believe their government is corrupt than people in Brazil, Hungary or Tajikistan, to cite just three examples.
In January of this year, Gallup found that more Americans picked bad government and corruption as our biggest problem than picked any other challenge, including the economy and unemployment. These are stunning numbers.
When four out of five Americans believe government is corrupt, something is profoundly wrong. It is a lot bigger than Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton or for that matter George W. Bush.
Under the weight of this negativity, there has been a dramatic decline in satisfaction with the freedom we have to choose how we live our own lives. The number of people saying they are dissatisfied has jumped from 9% in 2006 to 21% in 2013.
This 12-point jump in dissatisfaction tied the United States for No. 10 among countries suffering the most rapid decline in satisfaction. The other countries that have experienced drops of that scale are seriously troubled places, including Pakistan, Yemen, Cyprus, and Spain (where youth unemployment is approaching 60%).
To put this in context, the Gallup numbers show that in 2006 the United States was one of the top countries in the world when it came to satisfaction with freedom. By 2013 it had dropped out of the top 25% of all countries.
A country in which 4 out of 5 people believe their government is corrupt is a country teetering between a populist uprising and a collapse into cynicism, passivity, and fatalism.
Mr. Gingrich reads these statistics with alarm, but shows a remarkable lack of curiosity about the underlying causes of the low scores. Americans don’t trust the Supreme Court? Maybe they heard about the Kelo decision, or noticed the way the Court twisted itself into knots in order to avoid striking down the Affordable [sic] Care Act as unconstitutional. They don’t trust the presidency? Maybe that’s because the President spies on us and even claims the right to assassinate American citizens without due process. Congress’s numbers are down, too? Maybe it’s because the legislative branch has abandoned its constitutional duties while burdening multiple generations of taxpayers with a crushing national debt. And as Reason magazine’s J.D. Tuccille recently pointed out, if Americans feel less free this Independence Day it’s only because they are. On just about every quantifiable measure of freedom – economic, press, and Internet – the United States has plummeted in the rankings over recent years.
Throughout the CNN article, Mr. Gingrich commits the standard statist fallacy of conflating government with society, which leads him to construe Americans’ lack of faith in government as some sort of national calamity. Those of us who understand the distinction between the rulers and the ruled, however, can interpret the very same polling data as reassuring evidence that Americans are not nearly as ignorant and gullible as Newt Gingrich would like them to be.
The piece reminds me of an old joke about a dog food company. No matter what they did in terms of advertising, sales of their new dog food just didn’t materialize. Exasperated, the CEO of the company demanded an answer from the VP of Marketing, who explained that the packaging was great, the advertising was fantastic, and the distribution was flawless. The problem was those darn dogs…they just wouldn’t eat the dog food. Mr. Gingrich sounds like the befuddled CEO, closing his article with a flourish of statist pabulum in lieu of sound advice:
These results suggest we will either renew our commitment to the rule of law, the punishment of corruption and the insistence on honest self-government or we will cease to be America as the land of the free and the land of opportunity.
This Fourth of July weekend, we need to remember what our Founding Fathers did to create the liberty we enjoy and dedicate ourselves to a new burst of freedom and a new wave of political reform that cleans up the corruption and re-establishes the right of every American to dream and to work to fulfill that dream.
This is the purest nonsense, of course, directed as it is to CNN’s readership. Our commitment to the rule of law, our desire to see corruption punished, our insistence on honest self-government, and our dedication to freedom is not in question. The poll results Mr. Gingrich laments indicate precisely that the American people do value those things – but that the American government has failed utterly to provide them.