Will Facebook Bring Down the Government?
I am going to ask a rhetorical question. When was the last time you saw a positive political cartoon for Obama?
It is not just Obama's problem. How many positive cartoons did you see for George W. Bush after 2003?
For that matter, how many positive cartoons did you see for Bill Clinton? How many political cartoonists came to Clinton's defense during the Lewinsky scandal?
There is a pattern here. The pattern is this: with respect to the public media, criticism of the President is far more likely than support, article by article, cartoon by cartoon. The editorial pages of the mainstream newspapers may come to the defense of a President, but if you read the articles, what sells is negativity.
Politicians face this reality in the national media: "If it bleeds, it leads." Bad news usually gets priority over good news. The only systematic exception was the website, HappyNews.com. A friend of mine created that website years ago, but he never found a way to make any money with it. The last posting was on October 15, 2013. Happy news has ended.
Just ask Obama.
Beginning in 1922, there was a humor magazine in the Soviet Union with this title: Krokodil. It allowed limited criticism of lower echelons of the government, but only from the point of view of humor. Lenin understood that there is a dark side of Russian humor, and he knew that it was a threat to his regime. Stalin understood this equally well. The rulers understood that there had to be an outlet for this kind of dark humor. They controlled it. They placed limits on it. But they did not attempt to suppress it entirely. They knew better. Even in the Gulag, there was humor. Example:
How long are you in for?
What did you do?
Nonsense. The sentence for nothing is only ten years.
In the Soviet Union, underground literature continued to circulate, and as the technology of digital reproduction grew better, more of got circulated. (The fundamental law of economics is this: "When the price falls, more is demanded.") This was called samizdat. It helped undermine the Soviet Union. It took decades to do it, but finally the government's legitimacy disappeared.
Today, Facebook specifically and the Internet generally are means of ridiculing the government, but the government has no control over it. The cost of doing this is essentially zero. The marginal cost of posting a negative cartoon is vastly outweighed by the marginal returns of sticking it to the government. This is not going to end.
The Rasmussen polling firm released some startling figures.
Thirty-seven percent (37%) of Likely U.S. Voters now fear the federal government, according to a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey. Forty-seven percent (47%) do not, but another 17% are not sure.
Perhaps in part that's because 54% consider the federal government today a threat to individual liberty rather than a protector. Just 22% see the government as a protector of individual rights, and that's down from 30% last November. Slightly more (24%) are now undecided..
As recently as December 2012, voters were evenly divided on this question: 45% said the federal government was a protector of individual rights, while 46% described it as a threat to those rights.
I am rarely impressed by polls, because I know how the pollsters can structure the questions to affect the outcome. But when the same firm asks the same question, and the results are significantly different, I pay attention. Something fundamental may be changing.
As percentage changes, these are remarkable. We are seeing a fundamental re-thinking of the federal government by the American public. The question is this: why?
We could blame Obama, but public opinion on Obama has been fairly steady. He is not a popular President, but he is not a hated President. The polls indicate that something in the range of 45% to 50% of the American public thinks he is doing a good job. These results go up and down. There has been no major change since mid-2009.
If Obama is not the main reason for this decline of trust in the American government, then what is? There is hostility to ObamaCare. Perhaps this can account for the change. But the program has not really been proven to be a disaster yet. The implementation of its rules keeps getting deferred. It has not hit in full force on the typical American household. Nobody seems to know exactly what is going to happen with respect to availability of policies, the price of policies, and the number of people who will be covered in the Presidential election year of 2016.
If this decline of trust in the government, especially trust in Congress, is part of a long-term pattern, then within a decade, trust in the federal government is going to be almost nonexistent. The rate of decline in confidence is remarkable. Anything that declines as high as 3% the year is in big trouble. But anything that declines by five percentage points in a year is not simply in big trouble; it is bordering on the edge of collapse. "Only 19% now trust the federal government to do the right thing most or nearly all the time, down from 24% in June of last year."
It seems significant to me that there is no immediate crisis on the horizon. Things are bumping along tolerably. Yet there is an astounding decline of trust in the federal government.
Because we do not know what has caused this decline, we do not know what might reverse it. When 80% of the voters think that the federal government cannot be trusted most of the time, we are talking about a seismic shift with respect to public opinion. There is no way to restore faith in the federal government at this point. When only one fifth of the population trusts the government, legitimacy is draining away. Yet it is legitimacy, above all, which persuades people voluntarily to cooperate with the rules and regulations of the government. If the general public is convinced that the federal government is not trustworthy, then the willingness of the public to continue to obey the rules of the federal government is going to decline. It is voluntary cooperation, not the threat of force, which is the bedrock of all civil government. If all the government has is physical force and the threat of fines to compel obedience, the government cannot possibly survive much longer. It is the day-by-day voluntary obedience of the public, based on tradition, and based on a sense of moral legitimacy of the government, that convinces individuals to do with the government says.
Passive resistance will bring down any institution. This was the insight of Saul Alinsky a generation ago, and it was the insight of Mohandas Gandhi in the 1920's and 1930's. When people withdraw their support from an institution, because they believe that the institution is no longer trustworthy, that institution's days are numbered.
People will cooperate for a lot of reasons. They don't want trouble. They don't want to be singled out for prosecution by some federal agency. They don't know the limits of the law. They just want to go about their daily affairs, and they are willing to remain in habitual patterns of behavior in order to avoid trouble. But decision-makers in the federal government should not expect this cooperation to continue when the going gets tough. When external events are disrupting the lives of large numbers of people, their habits will change. If they see an advantage in breaking the rules, they are going to start breaking the rules. They will not be restrained by a sense of conscience, precisely because they no longer believe that the federal government is operating on the basis of morality.
This sharp decline in trust has not been triggered by a particular event. In other words, the federal government cannot reverse this decline by changing its position on any particular piece of objectionable legislation or enforcement. The decline appears to be the result of nothing in particular. The government now has to hope that this decline in trust will be reversed by nothing in particular. If it cannot be reversed, then the government's ability to use coercion to gain specific public responses is going to decline. Too many people will not cooperate.
We do not see any major change in policy in Congress. We do not see any particular branch of government encountering anything resembling organized resistance. But trust is rapidly disappearing. Public critics of the government do not appear to be the source of this decline, because there is no single issue that has triggered this decline. It is not clear what cause-and-effect is.
This is good news for the critics of the federal government, and it is bad news for Congress.
These poll results indicate that people are in a default mode of distrust, yet they are also in default mode of obedience. This discrepancy cannot continue indefinitely. Either obedience is going to be withdrawn, or else some degree of trust is going to be restored.
Erosion of obedience will follow the erosion of trust. This will make things even tougher on bureaucrats. They will not gain the implicit subsidy involved in all voluntary compliance.
If I were going to blame one thing for this decline in trust, it would be the effect of Facebook. Social media are inherently negative with respect to authority.
The ability of people to gain a large following by calling for support of any large organization, especially government, is limited. The critics, by their constant criticism, and by their constant posting of negative assessments, are much more likely to gain a following. Political cartoons are almost never positive. I think this is probably true of social media in general. While a particular charitable organization may have its supporters, and it may not have a lot of critics, this is not true of governments in general. In general, Americans are ready to point out the inconsistencies of bureaucrats, and they are ready to criticize the specific actions of specific government agencies. It is a lot easier for criticism of the government to spread on the Internet than it is for praise of government agencies to spread. The skeptics have the advantage. The critics have the advantage. The cartoonists have the advantage.
I think this cannot be reversed. We are not going to see a return to this: "Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party."
When there are national political elections, the two major political parties do their best to get the faithful to the polls. They also do their best to appeal to the Independents, and this appeal almost invariably undermines their attempt to get the hard-core faithful to the polls. Presidential election years occur only once every four years. Cheerleading for the party reaches a crescendo in the weeks before the Presidential election, but then shuts down for the next two years. In the meantime, Facebook continues.
Posting by posting, cartoon by cartoon, the federal government is exposed to ridicule. This is because, in the words of Augustine, ridicule is the proper response to things that are ridiculous. Ridicule is the default perspective of social media sites that deal with the federal government.
This was reversed in 2001, but that was before Facebook. There are few or no Facebook sites devoted to this principle: "Keep the troops in Afghanistan on a permanent basis."
The statists are going to lose the ideological war. They have already lost the social media war. It is simply a matter of time.
Our deliverance draweth nigh.