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Eroding Confidence
Democracy Disconnect

Still lost in America

The anti-immigration debate in the early 1990s was differently tinted from today’s. Back then undocumented immigrants were fewer. But legal immigrants were surging in and, it was said, refusing to integrate — to shed their culture and embrace America’s. Anger was focused on their “multiculturalism.”

The anger deflected from what, in retrospect, was an embryonic variant of the anti-immigration hostility we’re seeing today and the backlash it’s provoking among immigrants. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the great historian who died four months ago, diagnosed the hostility in “The Disuniting of America,” his 1992 book on multiculturalism: “When old-line Americans, for example, treat people of other nationalities and races as if they were indigestible elements to be shunned and barred, they must not be surprised if minorities gather bitterly unto themselves and damn everybody else.” It wasn’t foreigners, in other words, who were sowing disunity. Nor is it foreigners, then or now, who are lacking trust or confidence in those democratic institutions that “old line Americans” want immigrants to embrace.

Earlier this month the Gallup Organization released its latest survey of Americans’ confidence in their institutions. The Supreme Court gets a pitiful 34 percent, public schools 33, the presidency ekes out 25 percent, and Congress, 14 percent. Television news and newspapers rank barely a shade above Congress. Asked about their highest confidence in the nation’s institutions, 69 percent of Americans said the military was it — tops on a list of a dozen-odd institutions. Small business is next at 59 percent, followed by — what else — the police, at 54 percent, and churches or “organized religion” at 46 percent. The numbers are not too different from what they were 10 years ago, but news stories focused on one item: Congress’ all-time low rating. Conservatives gloated with we-told-you-so sophomorism, Democrats having won back Congress in November. But the gloaters miss the point.

Americans are in a lecturing mood about immigrants refusing to integrate. But it’s “old line Americans” who are disassociating from their own democratic institutions, whether it’s the three branches of government, the Fourth Estate, the criminal justice system (19 percent), or the educational system. Had respondents been asked about the nation’s college and university system, the anti-intellectual strain that seems as strong these days as it was in the 1950s and in the days of William Jennings Bryan would have probably ranked it lower than Congress.

The contrast with Americans’ love of uniforms and their addictive dependence on force is startling, even as the last few years have been flattering neither to the military nor to domestic police forces. Torture, brutality, massacres and routine humiliation of civilians have bloodied the military’s operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. As if taking their cue from the Pentagon’s disturbingly popular excesses, domestic police forces are growing more militaristic, more uncompromising and brutal in the name of control above all, even when children are involved. The New York Times’ Bob Herbert has been documenting the rise in police brutality and repression of children nationally, but Central Florida has its own examples, whether it’s the police killing of 8 th-grader Chris Penley at his Orlando middle school last year — for wielding a toy gun — or the tasering of a special education student in a Flagler County high school in January. Yakov Smirnoff’s “ what a country” punch-line comes to mind: We’re growing more Soviet every day.

Democracy’s customs carry on. Candidates campaign. Voters half-heartedly vote, half-heartedly buy newspapers, watch the news in diminishing numbers. They listen in on cable’s and talk-radio’s many shout shows. But that’s not democratic discourse or conversation. It’s the sound of one hand clapping. The “disuniting of America” Schlesinger wrote about in the 1990s here seems more pronounced, and more gravely so, because it’s from within. Democracy isn’t politics alone. It isn’t just the campaigns and the elections but what happens the other 364 days throughout the nation’s democratic institutions, and how connected people feel to those institutions in a republic that “embodies ideals that transcend ethnic, religious and political lines” (as Schlesinger wrote).

That the only institutions Americans feel truly connected to, or at least confident in, are primarily non-democratic, authoritarian, force-driven and designed in large part to kill, repress, punish or, in religions case, evoke submission, should make us wonder: Are we truly a free people? In words, certainly. In reality, we run around chanting about freedom but everywhere we beg for chains — for ourselves, and more ominously, for our neighbors.

This is an expanded version of a Daily Journal piece from June 22, whose comments are incorporated below.

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