America at the Boiling Point
By Michael Kleen
September 6, 2011
There is a crisis of confidence in America, from the smallest municipality all the way to Washington DC. At bottom, this crisis means that trust between the American people and the institutions on which they rely has almost completely broken down. For too long, our elected officials, aided by a complacent media, have colluded with banks and special interest groups to line their pockets and pursue a social agenda totally alienated from mainstream America. The results have been disastrous not only for the welfare of this country, but for the public trust. Dissatisfaction is simmering in the Heartland, and if the situation continues to deteriorate, Republicans and Democrats will be stuck with two empty water hoses, arguing over who started the fire.
In nearly every measurable way, Americans are losing confidence in social, economic, and political institutions. While the price of gold has risen to record highs, confidence in the government, media, and the school system has reached record lows. According to a recent Gallup poll, Americans’ satisfaction with the way things are going in the United States has fallen to 11 percent, the lowest level since December 2008 and just four percentage points above the all-time low of 7 percent in October 2008. President Obama’s job approval rating has fallen to its lowest level (42 percent) since he was elected. At the same time, Congress’ job approval rating has fallen to the lowest level ever recorded by Gallup (13 percent).
In June, Gallup polled a random sample of 1,020 adults living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia about how much confidence they have in a variety of U.S. institutions. They found that confidence in most of those institutions was far below the historical average, with Congress, HMOs, big business, organized labor, and news sources coming in at the bottom. Of the 16 institutions listed by the poll, only four had over 40 percent of respondents express “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in them.
Interestingly, it is political independents and self-described moderates who are, on average, the most discontented. Gallup found that only 29 percent of independents had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in public schools, as opposed to 33 percent of Republicans and 43 percent of Democrats. Only 34 percent of moderates expressed those same sentiments. Similarly, only 23 percent of independents and 28-30 percent of moderates in any party expressed “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in print and television news, as opposed to 21-25 percent of Republicans and 36-39 percent of Democrats. Those describing themselves as liberals and Democrats had the highest confidence in both public schools and the news media, but even their confidence levels hover below 40 percent.
Although Gallup found that overall trust in the news media has risen by a few percentage points (within the margin of error) over the past year, it remains the lowest it has been in several decades. As news outlets race to score political points by exposing the wrongdoings of politicians in their opponent’s camp, they inadvertently contribute to the erosion of public confidence in both government and the media. With every new scandal, constituents see their elected officials as hopelessly corrupt regardless of the political affiliation of those officials. Because the target of media scrutiny almost always seems to depend on his or her political affiliation, the credibility of the media is damaged as well. Therefore, we find ourselves in a situation where we cannot trust either our elected officials or the people reporting on their activities. By sowing the seeds of distrust in government while exposing its own biases, the media serves to fuel the fires of this crisis.
All of this distrust is creating a volatile situation, and, on average, frustration and anger with the government has risen steadily over the past five years. According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, the share of Americans who describe themselves as angry with the federal government has nearly doubled since March, from 14 percent to 26 percent. Conservative Republicans and political Independents are the angriest groups, at 32 and 30 percent, respectively. However, anger among liberal Democrats has risen as well, to levels not seen since before President Obama was elected. Only 11 percent of respondents described themselves as “basically content” with the federal government, the lowest level since the survey began in 1997.
The midterm elections last November, in which Congress saw the largest seat change since 1948 and the largest for any midterm election since 1938, illustrated the result of such widespread voter dissatisfaction with the Democratic majority. The crisis of confidence, however, guarantees that voters will be no more forgiving of Republicans than they were of Democrats. If Republicans ride a tide of anger into the White House in 2012, but are unable to repair the damage done by previous administrations, this nation is headed for a political and social upheaval the likes of which has not been seen in over a century.