Gallup tracks what it labels as “confidence in institutions,” and a recent poll (July 2010) shows public ratings of some seventeen (here). I suggest you take a moment to study the table that Gallup shows. In a complicated sort of way, the data show us how we view and judge collectives—reflecting multiple aspects of our relationships to them.
It’s fascinating that in a democracy the top-ranked institution is the military, the Man on Horseback, that most ancient symbol of force and therefore of authority. The military is the big collective shield. It’s also very distant from most people and never mentioned except with bows of awe and words of praise by our politicians. People evidently ignore the cost of this institution. In a time when taxes are labeled evil, very few rail at the billions spent on military might—indeed the taxes that support this sector are untouchable. Distance, uninvolvement, and basic security—and never mind what it costs.
Small business in second place surprised me just a little—but it makes sense. Small business is all around us—but being small it is the most personal of all collectives. We might as well be dealing with other individuals. Small business also lacks all power and does not awe us in the least. It is responsive and ubiquitous. Familiar, useful, personal.
Police has a high rank because it is the military—at the local level. The vast majority see the police but don’t feel its weight—and when it touches us, we’ve usually been speeding. When a child’s lost, it is the police we call—and when the squad car comes and brings back Malcolm (in our case), we overflow with gratitude.
Only 48 percent of the polled view religious institutions with high confidence—enough, however, to give this collective the fourth rank. The trend in this country is unbelief (as I’ve pointed out here), hence less than half is pretty good. In one sense religion is another protective institution—against the dread of the unknown. We participate in religious institutions entirely voluntarily—and they lack all power to compel. Those who engage in collective worship do so because they approve of what they do.
The fifth-ranking collective is the medical (with HMOs excepted). People rank five collectives higher than any political grouping! Interesting. Tells us something about the rank of politics in public perception (as over against the media’s perception). Were it not for the financial and bureaucratic aspects of this sector, I think it would end up much higher than it does. Its relatively low marks must be due, first, to the financial hassles it imposes and, second, to the mechanization that has come to surround it. Tests, tests, and tests. Ever more we’re dealing with machines and with technician, ever less with that most trusted of all professionals, the doctor. HMOs, sixteenth of seventeen, get their low rating because they are much more intrusive and seen to impose a kind of rationing of health care.
Gallup lists the Supreme Court above the Presidency here although both have 36 percent approval. As this other post by Gallup shows, however, in the period 1974-2009, the Court was always ranked higher than the executive branch. That, too, is an interesting indicator. In government we approve of an appointed level, and one limited to the interpretation of a single document, much more than the elected levels. Supreme Court justices have formal qualifications. The other branches are qualified only by mass opinion which shifts now to us and now to those other people we wish would simply stay at home.
This is getting long, so I will wrap this up by commenting on Big Business. Small business is on top, big business at the bottom. The products of big business don’t differ from products sold by the small. The difference in ranking arises, it seems, because big business is impersonal, unapproachable, and powerful. It is the proud tower in the town from which death looks gigantically down (ht Edgar Allan Poe). Its employees often behave just like we do. They raise their hands and look up into the air by way of saying—“It’s beyond me. It’s the system.” But it’s a human system. Somehow, therefore, we expect it to behave…more human. It is a sign of how badly frayed public consensus has become that in July of 2010 Congress has managed to be ranked even lower than big business.
Summation. Now it strikes me that the general public has no more direct contact with the Supreme Court, the Presidency, the Congress, or the judiciary system than it has with the military or the police. But its opinions of the other sectors are based on experience. For me this highlights the power of the media. What opinion echoes back in polls is only the public’s experience of news reports and pundits’ opinions—which is not the same as forming an opinion from, say, visits to doctors offices, clinics, and hospitals.
When institutions are distant, generally beneficial, and don’t intrude into daily life, opinions will be favorable. Low opinions will be based on intrusion and compulsion—mitigated by the benefit received. Thus the opinion of the medical system is middling. But for the overwhelmingly vast majority the federal government is not a tangible reality. As the Chinese saying has it, Heaven is high, and the emperor is far away. I double-underline this. The federal government is not felt—except on April 15. The majority’s opinion must therefore derive from some kind of reporting.