When cometh the political volcano? When does an American politician emerge to lead his country’s citizens on an assault against an out-of-control government? When will the nation’s leaders in Washington begin to craft and tailor their policies and activities once again to public opinion in the land?
In other words, when will the American people rise up politically with a full-throated cry of “Give us back our democracy?” That, incidentally, is one of the most powerful recurrent themes of our history. It animated the politics of Andrew Jackson after 1825, when John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay entered into what appeared to be a “corrupt bargain”—House Speaker Clay throwing the presidential election to Adams in House balloting and subsequently getting from Adams the highly prized job of secretary of state, then the most prominent stepping stone to the presidency.
This theme also drove the politics of Progressivism at the turn of the last century, when many Americans felt that their country had become dominated by industrial and political oligarchs. It found echo in the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan when he assaulted the managerial class that dominated the federal bureaucracy in the 1980s. It was particularly powerful when House GOP leader Newt Gingrich led his party to the 1994 House takeover amid revelations of petty corruption in that chamber, born of longstanding entrenched power.
But seldom in our history has there been such a gap between the sensibilities of the American people and the willingness of government officials to ignore and trample those sensibilities. Let’s take just three prominent, though by no means exclusive, examples.
A recent Pew survey indicated that the American people absolutely do not want to get pulled into events unfolding in Ukraine. Fully 56 percent of respondents said it was more important not to get involved there than to take a firm stand against Russian actions. Only 29 percent said it was more important to take a firm stand. In other words, the American people are comfortable letting Ukrainians and Russians work out that complex situation on their own, since it doesn’t really affect vital U.S. interests.
And yet the crisis that emerged in Ukraine was, to a very significant degree, a product of U.S. meddling. Long before that poll was taken, U.S. officials—most notably Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European affairs, and U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt—were egging on the dissidents seeking to overthrow the regime of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych (who, by the way, was duly elected to his position). Even before that protest movement, which included gangs identified as neo-Nazi militias, turned bloody, Nuland was working behind the scenes to ensure that Yanukovych’s successor, once the incumbent was deposed, would be someone suitable to the State Department bureaucracy.
Her aim was to pull Ukraine away from the Russian sphere of influence, thus effectively kicking Vladimir Putin’s country out of Europe. Whether Nuland understood it or not, no Russian leader could retain his political legitimacy while taking such a powerful diplomatic assault lying down. When Putin’s inevitable reaction then raised the question, in the minds of Americans, whether their country should get involved, they said no overwhelmingly. But they didn’t know that the very question emerged from American maneuvering in a far-flung area where other countries have far more intense interests than the United States.
But did Nuland think at all about American public opinion when she was playing kingmaker in Ukraine and vowing that the United States should take a “fuck the EU” attitude on who were the legitimate players in the drama she helped foment? There’s no evidence of it. Rather, she was acting as a representative of the country’s managerial class, people who see themselves as above politics and impervious to national sentiments.
Next consider public opinion about the National Security Agency, the subject of potent revelations at the hands of the traitorous whistle-blower, Edward Snowden. A Washington Post poll indicated fully 66 percent of Americans are concerned “about the collection and use of [their] personal information” by the NSA. Similar results emerged from a Pew poll, and an AP survey indicated that 60 percent of respondents opposed NSA data collection about Americans’ phone and Internet usage.
President Obama, responding to such sentiments, announced some modest reforms designed to rein in the agency, but it remains an out-of-control entity bent on collecting and storing vast amounts of data once considered within the realm of privacy. Thus, the status quo prevails, irrespective of popular sentiment.
Here again we see a wide gap between public opinion and government activity, with little indication that the government activity will be curtailed to align itself with public opinion. Nor do the American people have much faith that their views will guide policy in any significant way.
Finally, consider a May 2013 Quinnipiac University poll at the height of the Internal Revenue Service scandal, in which high-ranking IRS officials were accused of thwarting political activity by opponents of the Obama administration. According to congressional investigative reports, these officials singled out for bureaucratic runarounds particular nonprofit organizations that had applied for tax-exempt status. The aim, in the view of many, was to sideline such groups during the 2012 elections.
The Quinnipiac poll showed that 76 percent of respondents wanted the matter turned over to an independent “special counsel” for a full and impartial investigation. After all, these allegations have a kind of Nixonian fragrance. We received a reminder of this just the other day with the obituaries for Randolph Thrower, the Republican lawyer who served as President Richard Nixon’s first IRS commissioner—until he was fired for raising questions about administration efforts to use the IRS to go after political adversaries. In contemplating what kind of man he wanted for Thrower’s replacement, Nixon declared, “I want to be sure he is a ruthless son of a bitch.”
As the Quinnipiac poll suggests, Americans don’t want ruthless sons of bitches running the IRS or running amok within that powerful agency. And they want answers regarding the allegations of IRS political abuse. But no such answers seem to be forthcoming because the government doesn’t seem to feel any responsibility to respond to such popular sentiments. Ohio’s Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, who has followed the case closely as a member of the House Oversight and Government Committee, writes that the president’s congressional supporters know that administration explanations of the matter are “nonsense,” but have opted to shroud the facts through “procedural antics and misleading rhetoric.”
Whether that is true or not, it can’t be denied that the people’s will on the matter—to somehow get to the bottom of it all—is being thwarted by the governmental establishment. This represents yet another example of the gap between popular sentiment and governmental behavior.
This can’t go on forever. Either the people will rise up, through the democratic tools bequeathed to them, and take power back from an out-of-control managerial class, or we shall enter a long and dark process of serious democratic erosion.
Robert W. Merry is political editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His most recent book is Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.
Image: Flickr/Bart Everson. CC BY 2.0.