The Growing Crisis of Confidence: A Sign of Things to Come in the US
By John Peterson
Slowly but surely, the consciousness of working Americans is being transformed. After decades of relative prosperity, peace and stability, the world of the American worker has been turned upside down. One shock after another—economic, political, and military—has forced millions of people to re-examine the world they live in, and their place in it. Each new shock has further shaken the superficial appearance of peace and tranquility with which Americans have been lulled into indifference and apathy for decades.
In an election year—one of the only times Americans are traditionally more politically aware—this sense of awareness is even more heightened. If we believe the election polls, the country is evenly divided between those who support Bush, and those who support Kerry. This is a reflection of the very real and accelerating polarization taking place in the U.S., but it hardly gives us the full picture.
The reality is that these polls only account for registered or “likely” voters. Fully half of the eligible electorate does not participate in the political process, meaning that the next president will likely be elected by just one quarter or so of the eligible voters. Millions of others will not be allowed to vote due to their age, past criminal offenses, or immigration status, driving the percentage of votes needed to rule the world’s most powerful country down even further. Compare these rates of participation with the 90 percent turnout in Venezuela for the August 15 recall referendum—the result of a political process in which the masses feel they have real power to effect the result.
The depth of the distrust felt by millions of Americans was revealed in a poll conducted this past week by Reuters DecisionQuest. According to the poll, fully 61 percent of Americans have lost faith in their leaders and institutions over the past four years. Based on the results, scores ranging from “A plus” (the best) to “F” (the worst) were handed out. As reported by Reuters: “A significant proportion of people feel disenfranchised,” said DecisionQuest Chief Executive Philip Anthony. “It seems that there is an epidemic level of loss of trust here. A constellation of issues is causing people to lose confidence in the state of the country.”
At the top of the list contributing to this feeling was the war on Iraq, followed by the 2000 presidential election fiasco, the numerous financial scandals, and terrorism. We explained in the past that although open dissent plummeted after the war in Iraq started, disapproval for the war would be sure to grow in leaps and bounds as the occupation inevitably went awry, having a decisive effect on the consciousness of millions. Just over one year into the occupation, Americans are overwhelmingly opposed to the war and occupation, but do not yet want to admit what is painfully obvious to all but the most shortsighted civilian knuckleheads in the Pentagon: that the occupation has been a colossal waste of lives, resources, money, and “prestige.”
Corporate scandals such as Enron, WorldCom, and the Martha Stewart melodrama led to business executives—the barons of U.S. capitalism—receiving the lowest ranking of all, with 63 percent reporting a drop in confidence in them. The rich in general—business executives, lawyers, and entertainment celebrities—received the lowest trustworthiness score of “C minus.” It is interesting to note that along with family members, firefighters—the working class heroes of the WTC attacks—received the highest grades for trustworthiness.
Both presidential candidates received a score of “C”—a clear sign that Americans are aware that they are ruled by mediocrity at the top. Not surprisingly, Bush’s “C” average was the result of extremely polarized views between “Fs” and “A pluses”, while the ever-mediocre Kerry was just seen as plain average all around. Hardly the inspiring leadership millions of Americans are looking for in these uncertain and tumultuous times! Although there was a clear polarization along party lines, with more Democrats reporting a drop in trust, a significant number of Republicans—39 percent—also reported a drop in trust. This is further evidence of the eroding confidence in the two-parties of big business.
The news media also suffered a well-deserved drop in confidence. According to Reuters: “Newspaper and television reporters received a ‘C’ grade for trustworthiness. TV reporters are trusted less now than four years ago by 43.8 percent of Americans, while 39.4 percent said their trust in print reporters had eroded.”
It is also no surprise that confidence dropped more significantly among those super-exploited by the capitalist system. The poll showed more women—66 percent—had lost confidence in leaders and institutions, than men, at 55 percent. Among blacks, 84 percent said their trust had declined, compared with 57 percent of whites. The numbers are surely comparable among other minority groups. This further underlines what we have explained all along: that the most oppressed layers in American society will play a decisive and leading role in the future revolutionary process.
Americans’ growing suspicion of authority is also manifested in a distrust of the judicial system, evidenced by growing numbers of people who say they would side with the “underdog.” For example, over 60 percent of respondents said they would find in favor of the Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib who were abused by the American military if they were tried in U.S. courts. Almost 67 percent said they would side with a worker suing his employer for racial discrimination.
These poll numbers go far beyond political or racial lines, and are an indication that American workers as a whole are increasingly disenchanted with the current state of affairs, and are rejecting the standards and norms imposed on them by the government and the corporate media. But far more important than any poll, is the very palpable change in American society over the past few years. You can feel it in the air—the changing mood is accelerating.
Leon Trotsky explained that the ruling class cannot maintain its power and privileges through force alone. It requires a complex machinery of laws, lies, traditions, deceptions, and social inertia in order to maintain its rule over the working class, which vastly outnumbers the handful of exploiters. When the masses start to lose confidence in the institutions of class rule, the power of the ruling class over society begins to break down, and the epoch of revolution opens up. The coming months and years will see many more sharp, sudden changes, and the accumulated effect on working class consciousness will be electric.
The questioning of capitalist globalization by a handful of activists and trade unionists at the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle has begun to spread to broader layers of American society. An open questioning of the capitalist system has begun. Millions of Americans are discussing politics, economics, and world events like never before. It is not uncommon to hear Americans from all walks of life—Democrats, Republicans, Independents, even the apolitical—to say the “R” word: Revolution. The idea that “something needs to change” is a common sentiment. This process will eventually acquire a political expression: rejection of the Democrats, and the strengthening and democratization of the unions after decades of setbacks and betrayals. But these feelings do not yet have a clear, organized expression. What we need is to give this disaffection a guide to action and a working class political alternative—the ideas of Marxism and a mass party of labor through which to fight for genuine political and economic control over our lives.
—Socialist Appeal (UK), October 1, 2004