The Great Decline…
“Americans clearly lack confidence in the institutions that affect their daily lives: the schools responsible for educating the nation’s children; the houses of worship that are expected to provide spiritual guidance; the banks that are supposed to protect Americans’ earnings; the U.S. Congress elected to represent the nation’s interests; and the news media that claims it exists to keep them informed.”
If you want to set off a spirited discussion at a family dinner or spark a debate around the office water cooler you need not go to the trouble of mentioning a Trump presidency, just mention Wells Fargo, one of the nation’s biggest banks.
The big bank’s apparent wide spread embrace of various scams to create two million phony accounts in order to secretly squeeze bucks out of its unsuspecting customers is just the most recent example of the financial industry’s disconnect from the most basic notion of ethical behavior. It is a scandal that perfectly illustrates the great decline in public confidence in American institutions.
OAKLAND, CA – OCTOBER 11: A sign is posted in front of a Wells Fargo bank on October 11, 2013 in Oakland, California. Wells Fargo reported a 13 percent increase in third-quarter profits with a net income of $5.6 billion, or 99 cents a share compared to $4.9 billion, or 88 cents a share one year ago. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Wells Fargo has taken a public relations beating as a result of the fiasco, but the former CEO still walked away with a $130 million dollar golden parachute even as 5,300 bank employees lost their jobs. The bank’s stock price has recovered nicely. Members of Congress are making noise while demanding more information from Wells Fargo about its response to what might safely be called fraud, but there seems little chance that any senior person at the bank will suffer much. Wells Fargo, like many of the big banks who contributed to the economic meltdown in 2008, will probably skate by paying a fine – de minimis likely compared to bank profits – but no individual is likely to get nailed for the flagrant misconduct.
Oh, by the way, only 27 percent of Americans according to a June Gallup survey have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in banks.
Disgraced Cardinal Bernard Law
You can set off other kind of outrage by mentioning the Catholic Church’s child abuse scandals that went on for years while various senior leaders of the Church did little or nothing to stop or hold accountable those guilty. Even worse in a way was how some bishops covered the tracks of their own culpability. Catholics – I’m one – are particularly outraged because so little accountability has been doled out. Cardinal Bernard Law, the archbishop of Boston during the worst of the scandals, was publicly shamed but still trucked off to comfortable retirement in a cozy villa at the Vatican. Presumably the Cardinal’s judgment day will come in another more decisive form.
Only 41 percent of those surveyed by Gallup expressed confidence in churches or organized religion.
Pick any of a dozen or a hundred other scandals: the revolving door that spins the former congressman from lawmaker to lobbyist to multi-millionaire, or the EpiPen manufacturer accused of gouging those who need the lifesaving medicine, or the recent story that Sinclair Broadcasting – the largest owner of television stations in the country and therefor a massive owner of the public’s airwaves – gave favorable and disproportionate coverage to Donald Trump during the campaign.
I could go on, but I also suspect you can easily come up with your own list of outrages. It does all accumulate. The confidence numbers for health care institutions, for example, are south of 40 percent, the media confidence numbers are in the very low 20s and Congress, well, Congress is in used car salesman territory checking in at a robust nine percent on the public confidence scale.
The verdict is clearly in: America suffers a crisis of confidence in basic institutions and it has been going on and getting worse for some time. The Gallup survey six months ago reported that only the U.S. military and the police have public approval numbers above 50 percent. Other institutions, political and social, that one could easily argue have long been at the center of American life are held in such low esteem as to call into question the essential institutional framework of our democracy.
But, wait just a minute. Institutions by themselves did not create this crisis of confidence. Institutions don’t either have or lack credibility. Institutions depend on people and we’ve been failing our institutions through neglect, ignorance and hubris. We are experiencing a crisis of institutional confidence, at least in part, because we are accepting standards from those institutions that cannot possible instill confidence.
I think this reality may go some distance in explaining the next president of the United States. Donald J. Trump, the disrupter-in-chief, has merely accelerated the deterioration – or out and out destruction – of long established norms, which I would argue has contributed over a long period of time to this erosion of confidence in a whole host of American institutions.
There is a myth that American institutions, political or societal, are “sturdy” and “resilient” all by themselves. They are not. Survival of institutions, particularly in a political system like ours that features both defused power and built in rivalries, not to mention considerable opportunity for corruption, requires more than rules. It requires adherence to a broad collection of often-unwritten requirements – norms – that function to uphold tradition, while reflecting common sense and well-established time tested approaches.
It has been a norm for more than 40 years, for example, for presidential candidates to voluntarily release their income tax returns. It’s not the law, but rather a function of how we once expected candidates to behave in a vital democracy. The norm was to reinforce transparency and discourage self dealing by folks in high public office. Until this year it was normal for all of us to see and evaluate for ourselves those revealing documents.
Public confidence: Nine percent
But the president-elect will sail into office next month having violated that norm and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee seems on the verge of considering a multi-millionaire oil executive to become secretary of state without forcing more than a cursory review of his finances and potential conflicts of interest. An institutional framework is thereby weakened and a long-time precedent set aside. It will be hard to get it back.
There is no absolute requirement that the United States Senate consider a president’s nominee to the United States Supreme Court. They should. That would be normal, but Senate Republicans have exploited for months now all the possible wiggle room in the Constitution in order to deny even a hearing on the nomination of federal Court of Appeals Judge Merrick Garland, a demonstrably qualified candidate.
They had the power to do it, so they did, while shamelessly arguing it was just business as usual. But don’t believe for a second that it is normal – or right. Stiffing a president – any president – on a Supreme Court nominee has now become the new normal.
American public schools, it is said over and over, are failing. But are they? There is wide discrepancy in performance from state-to-state or city-to-city, but the blanket indictment of “failing schools” often masks a fierce partisan battle over resources and governance. Meanwhile, not surprisingly, only 30 percent of American express “confidence” in public schools.
Republican legislators in North Carolina recently used a post-election special session to strip the incoming Democratic governor of many powers traditionally exercised in that state, including the power to appoint members of the governing board of the state’s university system. This was after North Carolina lawmakers aggressively suppressed or minimized minority voter participation in various ways. North Carolina legislators had the power to run roughshod over voters and political opponents so they did it, but it is not normal. It violates a basic sense of fair play and abuses the system’s unwritten rules about responsible political behavior. The situation in North Carolina is so far out of control that the academic and nonpartisan Electoral Integrity Project classifies the state as no longer “democratic.” North Carolina’s scores for how it handles elections and registers voters compares, shockingly, to Iran and Venezuela. Meanwhile protesters objecting to the power grab were arrested.
In the flush of Barack Obama’s presidential victory in 2008 many congressional Republicans vowed to make him a one-term president and then proceeded to oppose virtually every move he made. That is not how the system is supposed to work. Of course there will always be bitter and passionate partisan debates about all kinds of things. Its fine to favor your candidate over the other guy’s candidate, but not OK to obstruct. We only have one president at a time and the norms of American politics require for partisans to work for solutions to big problems like, for example, a shocking lack of health insurance among millions of Americans. Politics involves resolving or mitigating the differences. Compromise has been the norm. The kind of blind obstruction Obama has typically faced is simply not normal.
Nor is it normal for a president to regularly resort, as Obama has, to “executive action” to carry out a policy agenda. His excuse for doing so – that Republicans failed to function normally – is understandable, but still not normal and over time it will only become more corrosive to our concept of confidence in political institutions.
It is not normal for a president-elect to engage in foreign policy while he is waiting to assume the job. It’s not normal, as California Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher has, to embrace as “terrific” the Russian hacking of American emails in order to permit a foreign power to meddle in a U.S. election in favor of its candidate.
There is absolutely no evidence of voter fraud in the country, widespread or otherwise, yet candidates and political leaders routinely call into question the validity of elections in order to score debating or partisan points. No wonder more and more people think the system is rigged.
Every politician without exception has a beef with the media. I’ve got my own beef – or a side of it. It is a story as old as the republic to dislike the scribing classes, but there has also long been an expectation that a free and vigorous press, even one occasionally wrong or unfair, is an absolutely essential check on corruption or improper exercise of power. When a politician rides to power in part by declaring reporters who expose his inconsistencies or question his logic “dishonest,” while never engaging in the substance of the reporting you get what we have – a decline in confidence in the media. As a result a bedrock institution of the American system is further diminished.
We have experienced a decline in respect for American institutions – and it’s about to get worse – in large part because we have allowed a deterioration in what I’ll call “standards of normal behavior.” Institutions fail to hold individuals personally accountable for outrageous or unethical behavior. Traditional political norms that offer no immediate political payoff are eagerly cast aside in favor of securing a short-term advantage. Opinions are shifted and shaped and passed off as facts in order to win a news cycle or a Twitter confrontation. It is not normal.
We tend to take for granted that American “institutions,” including all the institutions that buttress a free society, can weather any storm. We’ve muddled through for nearly 250 years, after all. But perhaps we’ve just been both lucky and good and continued muddling depends on both factors continuing to favor us.
Hoover Institution scholar Larry Diamond authored a persuasive and sober piece in The Atlantic back in October – before the election – in which he argued that we have rarely had reason to doubt American resilience – until now.
“Democracies fail,” Diamond wrote, “when people lose faith in them and elites abandon their norms for pure political advantage.”
Diamond recalled Sinclair Lewis’ classic novel – It Can’t Happen Here – published in 1935 just as Adolf Hitler had consolidated power in Germany and Huey Long promised to run for president. “For more than half a century, Americans have blithely assumed that democracy is so rooted in their norms and institutions that nothing like that could happen here,” Diamond said. “If Americans do not renew their commitment to democracy above all partisan differences, it can.”
The first step in stepping back from the edge is to insist – individually and collectively – that long-established traditions of accountability, transparency, fair play and commitment to country over partisanship are again treated with the respect they deserve and the future of the country demand.
We have entered a period where American institutions of every type will be challenged as much as any in modern time by a political class with less respect for norms, traditions and facts than any since perhaps 1860. The challenges come at precisely the moment when those institutions are weaker and less respected than they have ever been.
Not a happy thought for the New Year, but I think patriots will fight back against this reality. At least I hope so. It will be the defining struggle of the next four years and beyond. Each of us will decide how – or whether – to engage in the struggle. No institution will save us.