Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Alarming big picture

Yesterday, Gallup released a new poll that found that in the wake of the Hobby Lobby ruling, approval of the US Supreme Court had plummeted among Democrats and soared among Republicans. There’s actually nothing new about that, but the big picture is alarming.

Overall, the percentage of Americans who approve of the way the Supreme Court is handling its job is pretty even—47% approve and 46% disapprove. This hasn’t really changed since last September, when the ratings were 46% approved and 45% disapproved.

However, when we look at partisan responses, there’s a much different picture: Republican approval has soared from 30% last September to 51% now. Among Democrats, approval plummeted from 58% to 44% (Independents didn’t change much at all). That’s kind of the headline story here, but it’s a little misleading.

In fact, this sort of thing happens all the time. After the Supreme Court installed George W. Bush as president in 2000, Republicans’ approval of the Court soared from 60% to 80% and Democrats’ plummeted from 70% to 42%. This same thing happens whenever the Court rules on an ideologically divisive issue: Those who agree express more approval—sometimes a LOT more approval—and those who disagree express less approval—again, often a LOT.

The bigger concern is the long-term trend. Gallup released a poll the end of June that showed that confidence in all three branches of the US Government as institutions has been in pretty steady decline for more than two decades (this is different from approval ratings, though surely people’s feelings about the incumbents must play a role in how confident they feel about the institution).

There have been some blips in the confidence levels for the presidency—after 9/11 and after Obama was first elected—but overall, the trend for all three branches is headed downward. Of course confidence in the US Congress has been in the toilet for years and is in danger of dropping below the margin of error.

While confidence in the Supreme Court and even the presidency remain more than four times higher than that of Congress, neither one enjoys the confidence of even a third of Americans. That’s an untenable situation.

Democracy cannot survive when the vast majority of the people have no confidence in their system of government, and sooner or later, something has to give. Since Americans overwhelmingly vote to re-elect the same people over and over, the break may come in some other way.

Radicals claim that revolution is the logical end, but that’s nonsense. Apart from the fact that it would be almost impossible to have a revolution in the modern USA, it’s not something that the majority—or even a large plurality—are ever likely to consider a good option.

Instead, there are three plausible options. First, voters could come to their senses and stop voting in losers. That won’t fix the Supreme Court right away, but this step would eventually fix that, too.

Second, dissolution: The USA could break up into smaller nations. There’s no appetite for this among anything more than a tiny minority, so this is hardly likely, either.

Gallup itself hints at a third possibility: “At this point, Americans place much greater faith in the military and the police than in any of the three branches of government.” Could a military coup and police state replace democracy? Also unlikely. If there was anything that could spark an armed revolt, that would be it.

However, this is very much a moving picture. Just because a thing is unthinkable now, doesn’t mean it always will be—but that includes the possibility of Americans actually “voting the bastards out”, which right now I think is the most plausible outcome.

Gallup says that these abysmal approval ratings “threatens and complicates the US system of government.” No single ideologically divisive Supreme Court ruling will change that for better or worse, or cause the eventual readjustment. Instead, the overall trend of rates of public approval for the Supreme Court are related to the major problems facing the US system of governance overall, and that’s what’s so alarming about the big picture.

The image of the US Supreme Court building at the top of this post a Creative Commons licensed photo by Wikiwopbop, published by Wikimedia Commons.

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