From the usual suspects in the Tea Party to the newly populist billionaire Donald Trump, Americans have been registering their frustration with the federal government. But it isn't just government that has used up their patience. According to new polling data from the Gallup Organization, Americans are suffering a crisis of confidence with most big political, financial, business, labor, and government institutions (see chart below).
The Gallup survey asked a random sample of more than a thousand Americans whether they thought major institutions like banks, big corporations, the courts, and labor unions, among others had "too much power," "about the right amount," or "not enough power." Topping the list of the too powerful were lobbyists -- which about seven in 10 survey respondents viewed as having too much power. Banks and big corporations were next. And the federal government -- which gets most of the attention -- came in fourth, with nearly six in 10 of those surveyed saying it has too much power. Americans, it seems, are even more fed up with lobbyists, banks, and big companies than they are with their dysfunctional federal government. Next in line were unions which a smaller percentage, about a third of survey respondents, viewed as having too much power.
Not surprisingly, there was a clear partisan divide in sentiments regarding elite power according to the Gallup survey. Republicans were more inclined than Democrats to say that unions and the federal government are too powerful. Democrats were leeriest of banks and major corporations.
Americans of all stripes view the military positively -- with just 14 percent saying it had too much power. Local government and religious organizations are also seen in a comparatively positive light.
Commenting on the Gallup poll, Kevin Drum notes that "Americans are angry" and "apparently think that everyone has too much power" adding that the "poll doesn't tell us much aside from the fact that American political beliefs are fairly incoherent." But the poll data suggests that Americans' frustration and large with their core business, financial and governmental institutions is actually pretty coherent. This sentiment is so widespread, it suggests to me that America's elite institutions could be suffering from what German political philosopher Jürgen Habermas long ago dubbed a "legitimation crisis."
The issue may actually have a lot less to do with the coherence of Americans' political views (which suggest that Americans across-the-board see business, the banks and the federal government as having too much power) and more to do with the failure of political system and the political parties to reflect these views and moreover to take on these entrenched interests in any meaningful way. Instead of blaming the voters, a better explanation comes from the investment theory of politics advanced by political scientist, Thomas Ferguson which argues that true control of the political parties and the party system broadly rests with business, economic, and financial elites -- not voters.