Polling firms have established a decades-long tradition of asking Americans about their fading trust in government and then recording the pathetically low scores. There’s a strongly partisan element to the results: Republicans trust government when their guy is in the White House, and Democrats love them some D.C. when they control the Oval office. But the downward trend has been steady for decades, with the latest Pew poll finding that “just 19% say they can trust the government always or most of the time.” And part of the tradition is the regular rending of garments by media pundits agonized over Americans’ lack of faith in our governing institutions.
It’s all good entertainment, but nobody has really been sure of where it’s going.
However, the latest Pew poll reveals that much of the public has gone far beyond distrust, now that “27% of registered voters say they think of government as an enemy.” That’s up from 19% in 1996, when we were going through what commentators at the time described as a surge in anti-government sentiment. We’re at the point now where more than a third of Republicans and Independents (but only 12% of Democrats) wouldn’t piss on the government to put it out if it caught on fire.
“Enemy” expresses a stronger feeling than “distrust,” by far. It’s evidence of a segment of the population that views the government as an alien thing–almost an occupying power in hostile hands. Simultaneously, the political camps have become hardened in their positions with regard to the role of government, the activities that should be permitted or banned, and consequently antagonistic toward one another over those differences. It’s not just a polite disagreement on election day, it’s more like an ideological holy war. “Liberals and conservatives disagree over where they want to live, the kind of people they want to live around and even whom they would welcome into their families,” Pew revealed last year.
How we got here is the topic of many articles, research reports, and books. My personal favorite is the Washington State University study that insists that political polarization is the result of TV news deregulation. If only government controlled more of the information we receive, we’d all just get along. Cool story, bro…
More plausibly, the Washington Post‘s Dan Balz wrote that “The bonds that once helped produce political consensus have gradually eroded, replaced by competing camps that live in parallel universes, have sharply divergent world views and express more distrust of opponents than they did decades ago.”
I’ll add that this is very likely the outcome of a government that has taken on an ever-growing role in people’s lives, and centralized policy-making in Washington, D.C. It’s not just the federal government disdained in the abstract–the federal employees who actually barge into people’s lives to enforce policy are also disliked. “More than one-third of survey respondents — 35 percent — voiced ‘little or no confidence’ in federal workers,” according to George Washington University’s Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration. Researchers linked that growing dislike to public missteps such as NSA spying and politicized IRS enforcement.
With the stakes in political decisions increasing, the battles over who gets to make those decisions become more intense. In a mobile and Internet-driven world, this motivates people to choose teams and seek support in the world around them and the communities they find in real life and online. Even on social media, such as Facebook, people tend to associate with like-minded people and share stories that reflect their points of view. Americans also are physically clustering in communities of politically and culturally similar people, as revealed in Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort, published in 2008. Presumably, they feel more able to live lives in the way that they prefer when they have relatively few neighbors who want to strictly regulate or even ban favorite pastimes, or otherwise govern in unwelcome ways.
But that understandable process of sorting and associating with the like-minded tends to reinforce views and harden differences. That’s probably inevitable in a world of high-stakes political contests, since most people don’t want to live their lives as political missionaries. It’s also led to a flirtation–not serious, as of yet–with the idea of breaking the country up into more cohesive units. Reuters found last year that a quarter of the U.S. population wants their states to secede from the union. It’s actually 34% of southwesterners. That’s not going to happen anytime soon, but it’s an interesting further sign that many people are done with the federal government, and with unwelcome rules imposed on them by “others” with very different ideas about the proper way to run a country.
Where does this take us?
I see no end in sight to vicious political battles, since I see no end in sight to efforts to centralize policy-making in D.C. and to insert government deeper into people’s lives. There’s no reason to expect feelings to simmer down when the consequences of political losses are so high. Triumphalist celebration of victories will alternate with despair over defeats. In consequence, I expect the perception of government as an enemy to continue to grow, and partisan bad feelings to increase as policy struggles are won and lost and one side or another suffers consequences as a result.
The real-world consequences will probably include declining tax compliance and a growing underground economy–to escape government intrusion, and as a result of a loss of legitimacy by the state. We’ll also likely see mass noncompliance with intrusive and controversial laws, such as we’ve already seen in New York over the “assault weapon” registration law. In some ways, this will mark the transformation of the United States into a more “European”-style country–a goal long sought by people who don’t realize that official policy isn’t necessarily reflected in popular conduct in countries where the government is held in low regard.
There’s evidence that polarization harms the economy and reduces prosperity, so an escalation may well make the battles even more bitter as the damage gets worse.
More speculatively, we may also see an uptick in low-level political unrest–not civil war, but more like Spain where the central government’s authority has limited sway in parts of the country, and where active sabotage of official efforts is not uncommon. That’s especially likely if clustering continues, so that people continue to concentrate in geographically distinct camps where they can live alongside friendly faces and even ignore despised laws. We’ve already seen this in the ranks of rural sheriffs vowing defiance of state and federal gun laws, as well as in the sanctuary city movement.
It’s likely to be a wild ride.