Who's Got the Power?


Last week, Gallup released a poll asking Americans whether various institutions of social authority, especially those that form the government, wield too much power, and the consensus was, virtually, "they all do." Conor Friedersdorf sees this as evidence of a coherent political worldview, one that he himself shares, and he even goes through each institution to explain whether they have too much power or not. Well, almost every one. He doesn't mention the military, which a mere 14 percent of respondents said had too much power. This is a bit inconvenient for arguments that suggest some creed of civic libertarianism flows through the veins of the American public, but it also reveals something interesting about the nature of power.

Isn't the military, by definition, an institution that wields great power? Well, yes. But it doesn't wield its great power within the confines of the United States. Yes, the tidy relationship between defense contractors and the state, congressional districts and their military bases, and the subtle pressure the brass exerts on the White House and Congress are quite real. But again, by design, the military is subservient to civilian leadership. And I don't see any serious threat to that arrangement. If the military exercised power within America's borders, as military forces do in some other countries, the public would not be so enamored of it. Instead, postwar Americans have been fed a steady diet of heroic triumphalism that puts the individual soldiers first and foremost, so naturally there's little hostility to the institution as a whole.

Friedersdorf's thoughts on "organized religion and churches," another institution esteemed by the public, get to the heart of the matter: "I think Scientology and other cults have too much power over their members. But generally I don't think religions or churches wield very much formal power. And that's the way I like it" (emphasis mine). Now, no religion has ever held formal power in America, and that's essentially by design. Religious wars that wrecked havoc on continental Europe for decades were the last thing the founders of this country wanted, so there was no establishment of a state religion, and the First Amendment spelled this out explicitly.

Power is something that exists, and the only question is how it is arranged. Here, I think it's telling that while a healthy 58 percent believe the federal government wields too much power, it's ranked fourth behind lobbyists, major corporations, and the banking and financial sectors. This isn't so much an expression of degree of power (too much, too little, and so forth) but of identifying who has it. And the public is right. But again, this is by design. Congress makes its own rules, and it has privileged access to professional lobbyists who are employed by deep-pocketed private interests. The question of whether there is "too much" power is irrelevant. It's a finite resource that can be redistributed as opposed to concentrated, and it would have to be the federal government that does rearranges it.